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Macaws in Aviculture. By Tony Silva


For some years Arthur Alfred Prestwich was secretary of the British Avicultural Society, publisher of the prestigious Avicultural Magazine, which first appeared in print in 1894; the name of the society gave rise to the term aviculture, or the care and keeping of birds. In 1963 A.A. Prestwich published his “I Name This Parrot…”, the first book to discuss the origin of parrot names. In this book, Prestwich described the origin of the name macaw – a corruption of the word maço, a Portuguese term for mallet. The inference is that a mallet can crush an item when brought to impact, which would be analogous to the crushing power of a large macaw bite. Anyone who has kept Green-winged (Ara chloropterus) or Hyacinth Macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) will know only too well that nothing can stop their crushing strength – not even the strongest weld on a heavy gauge wire.

The common name ‘macaw’ is used to describe a group of often very gaudily coloured neo-tropical parrots that range from very large to quite small. The longest is the Hyacinth and the smallest the Hahn’s Macaw (Diopsittaca nobilis nobilis), which is the size of a green conure of the genus Psittacara (formerly Aratinga). The similarities of the latter with conures is so great that a partly feathered nestling Hispaniolan Conure (Psittacara chloroptera) could easily be confused for the same in a Hahn’s Macaw.

Originally there were three genera of macaws, but increasing knowledge has led to like groups and distinctive species being separated. The genera and species are as follows:

Hyacinth A. hyacinthinus
Lear’s A. leari
Glaucous A. glaucus

Spix’s C. spixii

Scarlet A. macao
Green-winged A. chloropterus
Great Green or Buffon’s A. ambiguous
Military A. militaris with three subspecies
Blue and Gold A. ararauna
Blue-throated A. glaucogularis
Red-fronted A. rubrogenys
Severe A. severus

Red-bellied O. manilata

Blue-headed P. couloni
Illiger’s P. maracana
Yellow-collared P. auricollis

Red-shouldered D. nobilis with two subspecies: the Hahn’s D.n. nobilis and the Noble D.n. cumanensis

All of the species hybridize and the hybrids have been given names, most of which are widely recognized in aviculture. For example, a Blue and Gold x Scarlet is known worldwide as a Catalina. The hybrids are fertile, except for intergeneric crosses involving Anodorhynchus and Ara. Even species with varying body sizes have been paired and produced young, including a Scarlet with a Severe in Howard Voren’s aviaries in Florida. The resulting hybrid was then paired to a Yellow-collared Macaw and produced young. The intention was to create a bird similar to the extinct Cuban Macaw Ara tricolor.

Hybrids are often given colourful names. Capri, Flame, Calico, Emerald and others have all been penned to describe hybrids. The names for hybrids were standardized by Jerome Scherr, former owner of Parrot Jungle in Miami and the first breeder of many hybrids, who described the names in the pages of the magazine of the American Federation of Aviculture. As more hybrids have been produced, others have added to the list.

Macaws are found from Mexico south to Argentina, including Trinidad; formerly there was at least one now extinct form in the West Indies, the aforementioned Cuban, which could possibly have also been found on nearby Hispaniola. Macaws are found in all types of habitats. I have seen them in ecosystems ranging from dry scrub to rainforest. They nest in tree cavities or cliff faces, though I have seen a pair of Hahn’s Macaws nesting in an arboreal termite mound – a behaviour typically associated with conures and Brotogeris parakeets.

The diet of macaws can range from the broad, utilizing whatever food resources are available, to the highly specialized; the Hyacinth, Lear’s, Glaucous and Red-bellied Macaws are specialists, feeding on either terrestrial or arboreal palm seeds. I am often asked why Hyacinth Macaws in the pantanal or floodplains of south-western Brazil are often associated with cattle. They are basically seeking the seeds of Acuri Palms Attalea phalerata that cattle cannot digest; the cattle consume the fibrous covering but cannot crush the hard seed. Once the seed passes through the digestive system of cattle, the macaws crack them open to eat the fatty meat.

The association of macaws with palm trees is so strong that the Red-bellied Macaw is invariably found in or very close to stands of Buriti Palms (Mauritia flexuosa) and the size of the all blue macaws populations are determined by the carrying capacity of nearby palm stands. The Blue-throated and Green-winged Macaws are two other species that I have only ever seen in areas where palm stands grow. In Central America, the Buffon’s Macaw follows the fruiting of trees whose seeds are rich in fat, including Lecythis and Dipteryx. The link of the macaws to specific types of trees is clearly for the fat content in the seeds, nuts or drupes.

Glaucous Macaw

Glaucous Macaw

The diet of the wild macaws needs to be taken into consideration in captivity. This is because the species that feed on high fat seeds (the all blue macaws, Green-winged, Buffon’s and Blue-throated) often will not nest unless their diet is supplemented with fat. In trials that I conducted using Blue-throated Macaws, pairs fed fatty nuts and pellets sprinkled with olive oil, nested more successfully and produced more fertile eggs than those fed a seed diet supplemented with other non-fatty foods, which included whole grain bread and fruits and vegetables. This means that an all pelleted diet is woefully deficient in the fatty requirement. Feeding pellets in addition to nuts, fruits, vegetables and other foods is a suitable alternative.

My macaws receive a diet of pellets sprinkled with extra virgin olive or coconut oil, as well as nuts or alternately a piece of wheat bread smothered in peanut or almond butter (as an added fat source), fruits, vegetables, greens, cooked whole grain pasta, soaked and boiled pulses (especially garbanzo beans) and sprouts. More than once weekly they all receive the seeds of ornamental palms. The absolute favourite is the seeds of an Australian species, the Foxtail Palm (Woodyetia bifurcata), which contain a large nut. Even the small species will work on the seeds for days to eat the fatty interior. The macaws will pick them over all other enrichment items.

Enrichment is important and should consist of palm seeds, green coconuts, pods of royal Poinciana and wild tamarind, branches and flowers, palm fronds and hibiscus flowers, amongst many items. All available items can be incorporated as long as they have not been sprayed with chemicals and are non-toxic.

Macaws typically nest readily, but many pairs produce clear eggs. In my opinion, the preponderance of infertile eggs in macaws is due to insufficient levels of fat and vitamin E in the diet. I have found that fertile pairs that have these items removed from the diet will begin producing clear eggs. The importance of fat and vitamin E is thus highlighted.

Breeding macaws was once deemed a challenge. Today all species are being bred worldwide and except for the Red-bellied all have been bred to multiple generations and could be regarded as established in aviculture. The most willing breeder is the Blue and Gold, followed by the Military and Scarlet. The Green-winged, Buffon’s and Blue-throated Macaws, along with the other species, follow in their willingness to nest. The Severe and Hahn’s are the easiest of the smaller species. Illiger’s Macaws can prove easy or difficult breeders, this depending more on the individual pair than on the aviary conditions under which they are housed. The Yellow-collared Macaw was once readily bred but was not established in many countries. Today a shortage of hens seems to militate against establishing the species.

When I entered aviculture 40 years ago and for the next 20 years, it was believed that macaws would not breed until they were 7-10 years old, but today it is understood that the smaller species can breed as early as two years of age and the larger species commencing as early as three years of age. At what age these birds commence nesting depends on housing, diet and whether the birds were allowed to pair off naturally; forced pairing seems to delay the commencement of breeding. As an example, in a group of Blue-throated Macaws that I once managed, birds allowed to pair naturally bred an average of 17 months earlier than individuals that were force paired.

The condition of the male seems to be another key element in breeding. This breeding season we separated four breeding pairs (3 Blue and Gold, 1 Mexican Military) that had a long, productive track record. Each of the birds in the pairs were given a choice of multiple unproven mates aged 3-5 years of age. Only one of the hens bred with a new male but three of the males induced their virgin wives to nest and produce fertile eggs. The trial was conducted to test a theory widely held in aviculture that a proven hen is much more valuable than a proven male. This trial, which will be replicated with other species next year, proved otherwise.

As a group, macaws are very adaptable aviary birds and will breed under such diverse conditions that it is impossible to generalize. I can recall Busch Gardens and the original Parrot Jungle breeding them in dog kennels, the former offering wash bins for a nest and the latter allowing the pairs to nest on the ground, behind a low board. I have seen pairs nest on the enclosure floor, in a hole excavated in the aviary enclosure and even in a tree trunk laying on its side in a yard, the pair being allowed to fly free. Cage size and nest type seems to be less important than diet when it comes to breeding macaws.

The above stated, my minimum cage recommendation is to house pairs of the large macaws in flights at least 3.6m long and the smaller species in cages 2.4m long. The large species should be provided with nests 90 x 35 x 45cm high placed horizontally. Only the Blue-throated Macaws should be given a vertical nest 45cm square and 36 90cm deep. The Blue-throated utilizes only vertical palm cavities for nesting in the wild and this preference translates into captivity. We utilize large nests because macaw chicks can easily overheat. The medium and smaller species are supplied with an array of nests. As an example, we have pairs of Severe and Red-fronted Macaws that utilize L-shaped nests 45cm long and high along the highest point. For the smaller species, the same L-shaped nests are utilized but these measure 45cm deep and 35cm high. All nests are provided with decomposing wood, as chewing seems to be an important nesting stimulant; the darkness of the nest, which the pair must occupy to chew the wood to slivers, induces ovarian gonadal development.

Clutch size in macaws ranges from two eggs in the Anodorhynchus species to 4 but possibly as many as 6 eggs in the other species. Only the female carries out incubation, though some males join their mates in the nest. The eggs hatch after 24-28 days, with the larger species having the longest incubation period. Nestlings have white down (salmon in the Scarlet) and prominent soft pads on the sides of the mandibles. On hatching the chicks have a swollen neck muscle, which has the appearance of being fluid filled. With passing days, this swelling will disappear.

Macaws generally prove to be excellent parents. Chicks that are started by the parents do much better long term than those hatched artificially. In five generations of Blue and Gold Macaws bred in my collection, chicks that were allowed to spend the first two weeks of their lives with their parents weaned an average of 27 days (range 19-41 days) earlier and bred an average of 7 months before chicks that were hand-reared from eggs hatched in an incubator. This clearly suggests that parent starting is important. Also, if one examines corticosterone levels in the blood of the pair after removing the eggs or young, it will become apparent that the parents display an equal level of stress in both situations. Removing the eggs over the young clearly has the same impact on the pair.

Once chicks are removed from the parents, they quickly adapt to hand-rearing. If the chicks are removed with their eyes open, they may growl and even flip themselves on their backs initially. Patience at this stage is necessary. When I first take young from the nest, I always approach slowly and leave a small light on in the hand-rearing room for the first few days. The chicks will quickly recognize a human as their new parent and calm down.

Hand-rearing formulas for young macaws should contain higher amounts of fat than that used for other parrot species. We boost the fat content in the formula by adding peanut butter to the formula. This ensures that the young have a weight that is similar to parent reared young in the wild. After the young become 8 weeks of age, we begin to add chopped sunflower kernels or chopped shelled almonds to the formula. This roughage serves as a segue to weaning. At about the same time we offer a bowl of chopped par-boiled carrot, beets and sweet potatoes. Once the babies avidly consume this colourful mix, we sprinkle pellets on top. The addition of sunflower kernels or chopped nuts to the formula and early introduction to food produces a less stressful road to weaning and deters the young from calling frantically for food at weaning.

Macaws are colourful, extremely intelligent and willing breeders. Their size, colour range and willingness to breed has made them favourite avicultural subjects almost since their introduction to Europe. If the opportunity arises, add them to your collection – you will never regret such a move.

Spix Macaws

Spix Macaws

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