Macaws: Macaws are parrots. There are about 17 species of Macaws of which about 12 are represented in Australia. In the wild the surviving Macaw species are restricted to Middle and South America. The Military Macaw is found as far north as Mexico and the country of Uruguay is the southern extremity of the other macaws.
Also refer to the "Feeding birds", "Housing birds", and the main Parrot and Cockatoo web pages for additional reading material.
Note: Macaws, when not handled correctly, can become extremely aggressive. Their beak is capable of inflicting severe injuries, especially to fingers or hands of young children.
Macaws and children do not mix. Never leave a child alone with a macaw. Sooner or later an accident will happen.
The temperament of a macaw may change as they grow up. Hormonal changes can significantly change the bird's temperament when puberty starts or becomes a "teenager". Some can become very territorial and show aggression if you enter their space.
They can bond to one person in a family, yet be very spiteful or aggressive to all other people.
Some of the larger macaws can live for 50 or more years, often outlasting the owner.
Most Macaws do not have a long history of captive breeding so they are less "domesticated" than most parrots and therefore macaws should be treated with more respect and tolerance than the average captive bred parrot.
Learn from an experienced breeder or avian veterinarian how to correctly handle, capture and transport these birds so minimal stress is caused to the bird and no injuries are inflicted onto any of the handlers. Keep a bandage or first aid kit handy just in case an accident occurs.
Macaws should not be allowed on a person's shoulder. A bite on the face or head could be extremely serious. The screech at close range to the human ear can cause irreversible hearing problems. A Bird on a shoulder can develop a "superior" attitude and become harder to control. A bird on the lower arm is more controllable and accidental bites or injuries at this height and potentially less damaging than a face or head injury. A bird on the lower arm is less likely to develop a "superior" attitude and be more controllable.
Macaws are probably the most universally recognised birds. Their bright multi-coloured plumage and long tails are very distinctive. Some macaws were kept as pets or captive birds about 1000 years ago and were used as a barter currency in trades by the local native inhabitants of Mexico and South America. About 500 years ago macaws were taken to Europe where they soon became a status symbol for the wealthy. Until recently these birds were rarely bred in captivity, relying on a regular supply of captured wild birds to replace deceased birds or to satisfy an ever growing demand for the pet bird trade. Serious breeding of macaws started in the United States of America during the 1970's. Captive breeding became a relevant issue only when the export of wild caught birds was deemed as illegal. Successful captive breeding can take some of the pressures off the remaining wild populations. One of the future pressures on the captive populations is one of genetic diversity. In the USA as well as Australia, many species of macaws started from a low population base. As the numbers increase, birds may be paired up with closely related birds. Future breeding for colour mutations (making for short term increase in monetary value) will degrade the genetic value of these birds as a future resource of pure stock. Colour mutations of rare or endangered birds are of little value as genetic lines for possible re-release back into the wild.
International agreements now restrict the movement of many species of birds within countries as well as internationally. i.e. CITES agreement.
Macaws have the widest differences in sizes of any bird. Macaws range in size from the Hyacinth Macaw which is about 900 - 1000 mm (36 - 40 inches) in length to the smallest macaw, the Red shouldered Macaw (Ara noblis, or Diopsittaca noblis), which is only about 300 mm (12 inches) long. An adult Hyacinth Macaw may weigh about 1500 grams and the lightweight Hahn's Macaw may weigh in at only 250 grams.
The smaller macaws are predominantly green whereas the larger macaws have multiple bright colours. The smaller "mini macaws' have one ability similar to humans. They have the ability to "blush". When they get excited or alarmed the blood flow to their facial skin increases causing the skin to redden. Red shouldered Macaw (Hahn's Macaw) is an example of a macaw that can do this.
Hand raised birds can become tame and are often kept as pets and may learn to talk, however they require a large space and can be noisy. Macaws can be destructive birds. The smaller macaws are easier to cater for but these smaller birds lack the colours of the larger macaws.
Some of the Macaws are on the CITES Appendix 1 list and are endangered in their natural range. Loss of habitat and trapping are the main pressures on their long term survival in the wild.
Macaws are basically monomorphic. Surgical sexing or DNA testing are the best options to accurately determining the sex of each bird.
Macaws are probably the largest and have the most powerful beaks of any birds in Australian captivity so the typical parrot carry box will be inadequate. Suitable large strong carry boxes must be available. One commercial option is to purchase a cat / dog pet carriers that are usually strong plastic with locking doors.
Special nets and catching equipment will be necessary to ensure injury free capture of these large strong birds. And, to prevent any injuries to the person catching the macaw. An angry aggressive macaw can do considerable damage to arms, fingers and hands!!
Extinctions in the wild: Macaws are vulnerable to extinctions by the rapid loss of their preferred habitat and food source. Trapping of birds for the bird trade is detrimental to the survival of these birds. Macaws were found in several of the West Indian Islands and Cuba.
Why are single birds so noisy? In the wild macaws are social gregarious birds. After a wild bird has reached sexual maturity and found a suitable mate, the two birds are rarely far from each other. They fly together, feed together, sleep together, and engage in mutual preening. In captivity many birds are kept as a pet or companion bird and have no contact with another bird of their own species. When they have no possibility of a bird mate, a macaw will form a strong bond with one person who looks after it. This human bond seems to be more common with cock birds than with hens. The human who cares for the bird is seen as a substitute mate. When the human leaves the bird alone the bird may start to scream for its "mate", the human. This instinctive need for the bird to have their mate with them at all times can make the Macaw a demanding task. Lots of branches to chew and the provision of bird play toys to the bird may help the bird amuse and entertain itself while the owner is away from their immediate contact.
Government Regulations & By-Laws: Refer to "Government Laws" web page.
Macaws are social gregarious birds and should be housed with a companion of their own species.
The larger macaws usually have one clutch per year. The smaller macaws may have 2 or 3 clutches per year. Most lay 2 - 4 eggs per clutch. Incubation is about 26 - 28 days. Parent reared birds fledge at about 3 - 4 months. Hand reared macaws may take longer to fledge. The hen starts incubation after the first egg is laid. The larger macaws lay at 3 day intervals and the smaller macaws laying at 2 or 3 day intervals. The cock bird does not take part in the incubation of the eggs but may spend time in the nest with the hen. The hen feeds the young in the nest. The cock only starts to feed the young in the nest after they reach the age of about 3 weeks.
If the hatching date is known, it is good practise to inspect the nest to ensure the newly hatched young is being fed and looked after. This is most applicable to pairs that are inexperienced or are with a new mate.
Make sure you have additional foods available to adequately cater for the needs of both the adult birds as well as the rapidly growing babies. Novice macaw breeders should obtain the necessary nutritional advice for breeding pairs from local experienced breeders and / or an avian veterinarian. Have the phone number of one or more avian veterinarians available in case a problem occurs with either one of the parent birds or a young bird. It would also be handy to have a suitable incubator and a hospital cage handy in case there is an accident. If the hen was to have an accident or die, the eggs would need to be incubated. If too many young hatch for the parent birds to adequately feed, the appropriate equipment and utensils must be clean, ready and in perfect working order. Warn some friends, family or suitable helpers to the possible need for their help prior to the birds starting nesting. Learn where your nearest local 24 hour supermarket and 24 hour K-mart or Woolworths Big-W type store is located so emergency items can be purchased at any time of the night. With expensive or rare birds in one's care, it is essential to have good supplies of back up "breakable" equipment and materials.
After the young have fledged and become fully independent it is a good idea to place those young bird/s in an aviary beside or adjacent to the parents aviary so they can continue their normal behavioural development. In the wild young birds may stay in close proximity to the parent birds till the start of the next breeding season learning the correct social skills and species specific behaviour. Many skills or behaviour can be learnt by visual observation.
Some breeders allow the birds to rear the whole clutch and are happy with one clutch per year.
Another practise is to remove eggs as they are laid and to incubate the eggs and hand raise the young. Removing the eggs as they are laid will usually stimulate the hen to lay more eggs. This is a natural occurrence in the wild if eggs are taken by predators. If the hen and cock birds breeding cycle is not synchronised, the removal of the first eggs and placing those eggs in an incubator minimizes the chances of the hen sitting on infertile eggs. Production of up to 12 young per year is possible by removing the egg as they are laid.
Some pairs need a bit of encouragement or stimulation to help the birds breeding cycles to be perfectly matched. One way to do this is to place a board over the nest entrance. This board has an entrance hole placed in it but the hole is too small to allow the birds to enter the nest. The birds will then chew the timber around the entry hole till it is to their liking and then start to build the nest and lay the egg clutch. Modifying the entry hole size is a normal activity in the wild as, unlike commercially produced nest boxes, natural hollows do not always come with the perfect entry hole size.
To obtain good breeding results it is essential to start with healthy robust birds that are able to fly well. A healthy bird usually has good posture (sits correctly) on the perch and looks alert and is aware of its environment. An Avian veterinarian check up is a good investment and if there are any doubts, there are many tests and laboratory pathology tests now available. One caution with health check ups is that there pathogens / diseases that have no effective tests so care, cleanliness, hygiene and observation must be maintained at all times. If a bird fails a veterinarian check up the bird must be placed in strict quarantine as per the guidelines of the avian veterinarian.
Macaws are now bred in suspended cages that give the birds a restricted ability to fly freely but if moved to a 3 - 4 metre long typical "parrot style" aviary, during the non breeding season, they will rapidly regain their muscle tone and regain their overall optimum fitness levels. As a general statement, the fitter the birds are at the start of the breeding season, the better the chance the parent birds will be able to raise a healthy clutch of young.
The larger Macaws can take up to 5 years to reach sexual maturity and may live for more than 50 years. The smaller species may take 3 to 4 years to reach sexual maturity. Just because the bird has reached sexual maturity does not mean the bird is suitable to start breeding. Even after a pair has laid eggs, a pair may take a year or two to develop the necessary skills to raise a successful clutch.
Pairs in their first or second year of rearing their young may require more privacy than those pairs that are more experienced. Too many or too intrusive inspections may unsettle inexperienced birds and result in poor results or loss of the clutch. Small video or "spy" cameras can now be purchased very cheaply and linked to a television or monitor can allow 24 hour vision of the interior of the nest box. Some of the better quality colour cameras have infrared capability along with sound. You can see the birds in low light and hear what is going on in the nest. Some systems use wireless video transmission. The camera is attached to the top lid of the box and the receiver can be in the house with no connecting wires.
Nest box: Breeding pairs need a large sturdy nest that will withstand their destructive nature. Large wood wine barrels are often used. The barrels are often made of strong oak and strengthened with metal bands. Part of the top of the barrel can be removed and replaced with a removable lid. Unlike most parrot nests that are hung on the aviary wall, these nests may have to be placed on a strong platform to avoid any unfortunate accidents. Nest boxes that are hung externally to the cage need special attention. A macaw can easily chew through a timber log or timber nest box and escape. An external strong wire mesh can be attached to the outer walls of the nest box so if the nest wall is compromised, the parents or young will be unable to escape the nest box.
The nest box entry hole for other parrots is normally circular. Nest box entry holes for macaws are often square.
The nest should have a layer of about 100 mm deep nest material. If the birds remove the material, just add more so the eggs are not laid on the nest base.
It is important to have a strong "chew proof" ladder (10 gauge wire mesh is suitable) on the inside of the nest box, below the entry hole to allow the birds to climb down to the floor of the nest instead of jumping. The internal ladder is essential in nest boxes / logs that are in a vertical or near vertical position. The ladder also allows the birds to easily and safely exit the nest. With nests placed in a horizontal or near horizontal position a ladder may not be required.
Tall hollow natural logs that are too heavy to hang from a wall or roof, have been placed with one end resting on the ground and the macaws have achieved normal breeding results.
In the wild macaws usually nest in tree hollows, often in the trunk of the tree. The thick hollow branch or tree trunk provides natural insulation from heat and cold and the decomposed timber material provides the ideal nest materials on which the eggs are laid. Natural tree nest sites also help maintain an optimal humidity level by being able to absorb excess moisture or release moisture if the air dries out. If a large log is not available, the use of thick timber to make the nest is the next best material. Relative to the cost of these birds, a large hardwood timber nest box is not expensive and is a good investment towards a happy pair of breeding macaws. Always have a spare nest (as close a design and dimensions as possible to the other nest) handy along with some spare hardwood timber panels available to repair a chewed out nest wall.
Nest boxes/logs should be placed high up in the aviary under cover. Many prefer the nest box opening to be in a darker / shaded part of the aviary that provides a degree of privacy. At least one perch should be at each end of the aviary and one perch should be close to the nest and be about the same height as the nest opening. The perch closest to the nest opening is the perch most often used during the breeding season. The cock bird will use the closest perch to the nest so he can protect the nest, the hen and their offspring. The same perch configuration applies to suspended cages.
In the wild a pair of birds may have a wide selection of potential nest sites. If either bird is not happy with the other bird's choice, the house hunting will continue till both are happy. If space allows, and you have some spare suitable nest boxes or logs, give the birds a choice of more than one nest. They may also prefer the alternate site with an identical nest box or log. Once a pair has accepted a nest box as "theirs", keep that nest box for their sole use. This practise will minimize the transfer of any unwanted pathogens or parasites between pairs or aviaries. Throw out or destroy damaged nest boxes or nest boxes from birds that become ill. It is difficult to sterilize a timber nest box from a bird that has become ill so just dispose of the nest and give them a new one.
Nest boxes made from plastic or metal can be successfully used but can cause problems with excessive heat or cold and do not have the ability to absorb any excess moisture. Metal and plastic surfaces are usually very smooth and do not allow the adults or young to get traction on the material. The smooth surfaces may cause difficulties for the birds entering or leaving the nest. If there is insufficient nest material in the nest, the young may not be able to get sufficient grip on the nest base and end up with leg of feet problems.
Nest inspections: Nest boxes / logs are best positioned so the nest inspection can be carried out from outside the aviary. To avoid upsetting the adult bird/s in the nest and causing possible damage to one or more eggs or the young birds, nest inspection is best done when the adult birds are out of the nest. If the owner enters an aviary that has a nest that has to be inspected from inside the aviary, the birds will usually retreat into the nest to protect the eggs or young. Two birds in the nest in an aggressive mood can result in significant damage to the eggs and/or young.
Nest boxes are often horizontal or near horizontal. The birds can walk into the nest and down a slight slope to get to the eggs. This eliminates or minimizes the risk of these large birds jumping down from the entry hole onto the eggs or young and damaging either the eggs or young. MORE INFO REQUIRED.........
Nest material: Many large species of cockatoos and macaws like to make their own nest material by chewing up short lengths of softwood. Short batten-like pieces of wood placed in the nest will be chewed into the size the birds prefer. Some keepers place short chunky pieces of wood or pine bark into the nest for the birds to chew to the preferred size. If pieces of timber or rough wood chips are placed in the nest, the breeding birds will need extra time to reduce the large pieces into a suitable size and consistency prior to the eggs being laid. The extra time taken to reduce the material to a suitable size may help the birds synchronize their breeding cycle and improve the percentage of fertile eggs.
Alternatively, coarse wood shavings, decomposed non toxic saw dust, and/or peat moss are commonly used.
Feeding / Diet
Macaws, parrots, finches and other types of birds like a regular routine and appreciate a predictable "breakfast" time and other feed times through out the day. The birds will benefit from a regular, predictable diet. Sudden changes in a bird's diet may cause digestive problems. Sudden changes in a diet can also cause digestion problems to any young that are in the nest or have recently fledged. The foods need to be varied to avoid boredom and to allow for seasonal availability. Phase in new foods.
All the feeds do not have to be in the same place (in the food bowl) everyday. Fruits, nuts, berries etc can be placed in different places within the aviary so the birds have to spend some time and exercise to find them. Finding a "hidden" food item is a mental and physical activity that birds do naturally in the wild. Just check that items such as perishable fruits, berries or vegetables have been found and eaten. Removing uneaten perishable foods on a daily basis. Whole fruits or whole vegetables can be offered to the birds as well as the usual diced, bite sized items. Large parrot type birds can have fun munching into items such as a whole apple or a whole carrot. After all, that is the way they find most of their fruits and vegetable matter in the wild.
Feed time should meet the physical, psychological and emotional needs of the birds.
fruits, vegetables, and flowering plants should be varied
from day to day to give the birds a wide as possible variation in
daily food intake.
Do we give our birds credit for having an emotional reaction to feed time ?? Does a ripe juicy grape or ripe strawberry give the bird an emotional response and cause its "mouth to water" ??
Human diets now state we should regularly eat fruits and vegetables from different colour groups, so could the same principle apply to birds diets? The theory being the different colour groups may offer subtle differences in the mineral, vitamin and nutritional contents of the different foods.
Foods can be a source of exercise and entertainment as well as nutrition. Corn-on-the-cob can provide hours of "fun" chewing on the corn kernels and then the cob. Commercial pellet feeds can come in various shapes, colours and flavours.
In the wild a macaw diet can include Palm nuts. The larger macaws can relatively easily crack open the Mauritia species nuts and eat the contents. Other items in the macaw diet include a variety of fruits, berries, leaf and flower buds, figs and a variety of seeds. In the wild some species of macaws visit the clay banks to consume the mineral rich soil. The clays are thought to neutralize some toxic compounds in their diet. The clays may also supply some minerals and trace elements necessary for a balanced diet.
A balanced aviary diet should consist of a variety of fruits, vegetables, green leafy vegetables and greenstuffs with a range of nuts plus a quality standard seed mix. The seed mix to include sunflower seed and other seeds as listed below. Sunflower seed can make up about 40 % of the seed diet. Macaws will adapt to commercial pellets as part of a balanced diet. Other food items are listed below.
Fruits: Apple, banana, grapes, orange, pear, plums. (Some types of avocado can be toxic to birds)
Vegetables: Carrot, celery, corn, corn on the cob, cucumber, peas and beans, spinach, silverbeet leaves and the stalk. (Onions can be toxic to birds)
Berries: Most berries people eat will be eaten by macaws and parrots. Examples are strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries.
Nuts: Almonds, Brazil, hazel nuts, peanuts, pine-nuts, walnuts, pine cones. Nuts with a hard shell may have to have the shell cracked or removed to allow the birds access to the kernel.
Seeds: Canary seed, corn, hulled rice, millets, oats, pumpkin seeds, sunflower, safflower, wheat. Some of the larger macaws do not bother with eating the smaller seeds such as the canary and millet seeds, preferring the larger sunflower and safflower seeds.
Branches: (Safe non-toxic) Branches with nuts, flowers, berries, fruits, seed pods, leaf and flower buds attached. There are hundreds of eucalypt and native species around Australia that are used by parrot breeders that should be suitable for macaws. Seek local professional advice to ascertain which plants and trees are safe and suitable. Seek local professional advice to ascertain the correct identity of all plants placed in an aviary. If in doubt, leave it out.
Greenfoods: Various seeding grasses. Many birds will eat "weeds" such as Chickweed, dandelion. The flowers, seeds, leaves and sometimes the roots may be eaten. Green leafy vegetables such as endive, silverbeet are usually available year-round and eagerly consumed.
Sprouted or soaked seeds: Optional extra if time and hygiene criteria are met.
Insects: In the wild many macaws
and parrots consume insects as part of their food intake. Insects are a
good source of easily digested protein.
Commercial Pellet diet: Commercial pellets are becoming better quality and more nutritious and may form part of a balanced diet.
Calcium: Quality commercial liquid and powder calcium supplements are available to add to the diet when required. Advice from an Avian veterinarian should be obtained prior to adding calcium and / or mineral and vitamin supplements to a good diet as these products can be toxic if given in too large a dose.
Mineral and Vitamins: Quality commercial liquid and powder mineral and vitamin supplements are available to add to the diet when required. Advice from an Avian veterinarian should be obtained prior to adding calcium and / or mineral and vitamin supplements to a good diet as these products can be toxic if given in too large a dose.
Supplements: Bread, biscuits. Pasta.
Dry commercial dog foods. Overseas breeders often feed macaws porridge.
Food and water utensils: Heavy duty stainless steel is the preferred material for these utensils. Some large birds such as cockatoos and macaws often like to play with the feed bowls and tip the contents on to the floor. There are a range of commercially available feed utensils that are mounted in the door or a wall that allow the feeds and water to be topped up with out entering the aviary or cage. Many of these commercial units have a few "tricks" incorporated into the design to prevent birds from tipping the contents and using the utensil/s as toys.
Modern automatic waterers (or drinkers) are cheap and reliable. Many are bird tamper proof and will refill the water on a pre-programmed schedule. Regular water changes are good on hot summer days.
Macaws seldom fly in a confined area. In confined areas they they prefer to walk or climb. To allow these large birds access to a large aviary will allow them to fly freely and display their colours and give them the exercise they need to stay fit and healthy.
Adult Macaws should only be housed as one pair per large aviary or suspended cage. If other macaws or parrots are housed adjacent to the macaws, double wiring between the aviaries is essential to minimize the risk of injuries by the neighbouring bird/s.
As per the typical parrot requirements, at least one perch should be at each end of the aviary and one perch should be close to the nest and be about the same height as the nest opening. The perch closest to the nest opening is the perch most used during the breeding season. The same perch configuration applies to suspended cages. Timber perches (natural branches if available) are the preferred material and allow the birds to exercise their powerful beaks. Check with local breeders or accredited plant nurseries to ascertain which plant species are safe to be used in an aviary. Most untreated timbers sold by building supply retailers can be used as perches for large chewing birds. Have spare timber perches or branches available at all times to replace damaged ones. Artificial, virtually indestructible, perches are commercially available but these perches often cause problems due to the smoothness of the surface or if the perch has an abrasive surface that may damage the birds feet. Natural branches, or timber perches are a small expense compared to the value of these birds. A regular perch cleaning routine should be maintained.
An aviary should be 4 or more metres long and about 2 metres wide. If possible the aviary roof should be higher than a typical parrot aviary and can be about 2.5 metres high (about 8 - 8.5 feet). The larger the macaw, the larger the aviary needs to be. A macaw the size of a Blue and Gold macaw does well in a 10 metre long aviary.
Suspended cages are often used to house and breed Macaws. A suspended cage should be no less than 2.5 metres long and be at least 1.5 metres wide. Due to the requirements of these large birds for a large suspended cage, special requirements / provisions may have to be incorporated into the cage design to allow for safe capture of a bird within the suspended cage. An additional door may have to be included in the cage.
The strength of the wire mesh is critical as macaws have powerful beaks and will soon find any weak points. 10 gauge galvanized wire mesh is often recommended as the safe strength to avoid the possibility of birds breaking the mesh. 10 gauge wire is also a deterrent to people or predators trying to get into a cage or aviary.
The spacings in heavy gauge mesh are usually large enough to allow rodents, snakes, small birds and other vermin to enter the enclosure so appropriate pest prevention measures may have to be incorporated into the structures design.
As per finch and parrot aviaries, the wire can be painted with a safe non-toxic dark coloured paint. This will minimize the risk of zinc toxicity and increase the visibility of the birds within the aviary.
"Macaws: A Complete Guide" by Rosemary Low. 1990 144 pages. published by Merehurst Ltd London. (A/A Vol 46 No. 3 Mar 1992 Page 70 - Book Review).
"A Guide To Macaws as pet and aviary birds" 2003. Publisher Australian Birdkeeper Publications. Author Rick Jordan. Cost about $30.
General References: Refer to references listed on " Book References " web page.