Macaw Natural History

The huge, stunningly-colored Blue and Gold (or Blue and Yellow) Macaw, Ara ararauna, is one of the most recognizable of all birds…size, color, intelligence (and voice!) make it impossible to ignore.  While it has long been bred in captivity, the natural history of this spectacular parrot is less-well known.  Please read on to learn about its life in the wild and the threats to its continued existence.

Range

The Blue and Gold has the largest natural range of any macaw.  It is found from Eastern Panama east across most of Northern South America and south through Bolivia to Paraguay and Eastern Brazil.  Despite this, it is declining or extinct in some areas…Trinidad’s macaws disappeared in the 1960’s, but a new population has been re-introduced.

Habitat

This massive bird favors wooded areas near water, and is most frequently associated with palm swamps and forested river edges.  Flocks roost together, and may fly great distances out into savannas and other habitats to feed each day.  The dry season is spent within forests in some areas.

Many populations are largely dependant upon the swamp-dwelling Aguaje Palm Tree (Mauritia flexuosa) for food and nesting sites.  This relationship is cause for severe population declines in some regions…please see “Conservation”, below, for details.

Social Behavior and Breeding

Blue and Gold Macaws form strong pair bonds and often mate for life.  Even within large flocks, pairs stay close together, with their wings nearly touching while in flight (I was able to observe this among wild Scarlet Macaws – pairs really are very obvious).

Breeding commences during the wet season – December to March – when food is most abundant.  Pairs utilize tree hollows, and often nest near other flock members.  They are extremely protective of their chicks…to the point that even long-term pets can become dangerously aggressive towards their owners.

Two or three eggs are produced at 2 day intervals, and hatch within 21-30 days.  The female incubates, but the male will enter the nest if a threat appears.  The young take a full 3 months to fledge, after which they are cared for by both parents for quite some time.

Conservation

Blue and Gold Macaws are threatened by habitat loss and, in some areas, hunting and collection for the pet trade.  They are listed on Appendix II of CITES, but due to the large range, the IUCN classifies this species as of Least Concern. 

However, studies have shown that the Blue and Gold Macaw has an extremely low breeding output, and that pairs do not breed each year. It is estimated that a breeding group of 100 adults produces, at most, 15-25 chicks annually.  How many of these survive to become breeders themselves is unknown, but certainly far less than 100%.

As mentioned, a dependence on Aguaje Palm swamps (please see photo) places many populations at risk.  The fruit of this tree is heavily utilized by people wherever it occurs.  In the 1980’s, for example, residents of Iquitos, Peru consumed over 15 tons per day during some seasons!  Unfortunately, the entire tree is usually cut down in order to harvest the fruit.  Furthermore, dead palms, the only source of nesting cavities in many habitats, stand for only 4-7 years before falling to the ground.  Nest site availability is therefore a serious concern.

Recent conservation efforts in Peru have focused on nest site creation (please see article below).  The tops of selected Aguaje Palms were cut, and tree hollows generally formed and were occupied by macaws within 5-17 months.  Each tree was calculated to have produced .7 chicks before falling.  A carefully planned program of palm cutting, taking into account the needs of local people, macaws and other wildlife, and the surrounding swamp habitat, is being considered as a long-tern conservation technique.

Macaws as Pets

Macaws are called “Flying Primates” by some, and the Blue and Gold is often considered to be the most curious, intelligent and affectionate of all.  Its ability to mimic speech is also very impressive.

However, macaw ownership should never be entered into lightly.  Sadly, the demands they place upon owners are often not considered by the inexperienced.  Despite their great qualities (and high price tag!), abandoned macaws of all kinds fill the holding cages of shelters and parrot rescue operations.

 

Outstanding Macaws

The majestic macaw

 

Without a doubt, the macaw is one of the most beautiful animals to inhabit our planet. From the striking blue of the hyacinth, to the vibrant red of the scarlet, to the rich green of the military, they bring to us nearly every color of the rainbow.
Who wouldn’t want to share their life with a creature so stunning it makes your eyes water? On one end of the macaw is a long and sweeping tail, and on the other a formidable beak that is gentle enough to feed chicks in the nest yet strong enough to crack a Brazil nut.

The hyacinth, who holds the title as the largest parrot of any species, can break a broom handle in half effortlessly. With a bite force of hundreds of pounds of pressure per square inch, the macaw is not a bird to trifle with.

It is often their powerful beaks that cause people to shy away from macaw ownership. And it’s a good thing, too, because macaws will sense, and take advantage of, the fear they strike in a timid human.

The macaw is famous for the “lunge”, a maneuver that looks like an attempted attack with a “near miss” outcome. In fact, it is the macaw’s way of testing the mettle of the humans around it – rest assured that if a macaw intended to bite, the result would not have been a “miss”!

When that human shrinks away in terror, not only does the bird find it amusing, but it also learns that this human can be manipulated by fear. Clever bird.

If you are afraid of that oversized beak, a macaw is certainly not for you! Even an experienced macaw owner will maintain a healthy respect for its capabilities.

How to keep your macaw from biting you

It is reasonable to assume that you brought your macaw home to be more than just a colorful ornament in your living room. We all want to share our lives with our birds. It is a crime to think of the macaw that languishes in its cage because it is unmanageable. Does your macaw’s aggression keep you from having meaningful interaction – or perhaps any interaction at all?

If the enormous beak is the first thing you see when you look at your bird, the solution will require that you make some changes to YOUR thinking…the beak is not a weapon, it’s a tool.

Macaws with Your Coffee

So there I was, feeling pretty good. I love early mornings, I’d had my first great night’s sleep in ages and I had a cup of local coffee steaming in my hands. It was 6am and the sun was just coming over the hill. The light was delicious. And as I stood there taking it all in a Scarlet Macaw flew into the tree in front of our kitchen window. As you can imagine feeling “pretty good” quickly became feeling “woohoo ye-ah!”

Rightly or wrongly I’m pretty dedicated to my morning cup of coffee, this morning’s being a zingy perfect-first-thing Costa Rican brew. This was too much though and I couldn’t resist grabbing my camera and running out. The tree’s local name translates to “tongue of the cow” Now, I haven’t snogged too many cows but I believe it gets that name because the leaves are pretty rough. It produces loads of tiny little fruits and at this time of year it draws loads of birds to our garden. It seems odd for the macaws with their huge beaks to be foraging on this stuff but given how many different birds show up I guess the fruit must be super yummy. Mmmm mmmmmm cow tongue fruit!

I’d just got outside when another two Scarlets joined the first and I tried to get a few pictures. Despite being released and pretty tame in other situations the macaws were fairly cautious about me. That’s a good thing. I was against the light and with a steep down hill on the other side of the tree. I had to make it work. The results are not perfect poses but I like them.

Top 9 Macaw Facts

Macaws are one of the most charismatic and colorful species you’ll find in the Amazon. Members of the larger parrot family, their size and vivid plumage, along with their rather loud behavior, make them hard to miss amongst the rainforest canopy. Here’s everything you need to know about this beautifully-bright tropical bird that can be found throughout the Amazon region.

9 Interesting Macaw Facts

1. Macaws have a beautiful appearance that’s also well adapted to their environment

These birds possess a brilliant plumage, and a coloring that is suited to the Amazon jungle with its bright fruits and flowers and vivid green canopies. Different species of macaws possess varying bright colour combinations, such as blue and gold or green and red, along with sporting beautiful long graceful tails. A macaw’s facial feather pattern is highly distinctive and thought to be as unique as a fingerprint. They have long toes and sharp claws which they use to latch onto branches and examine items, and their first and fourth toes point backward. They’ve also been observed using their powerful beak as a third leg!

 

 

2. Macaws are the largest type of parrot

There are around 376 species of parrot throughout the world, and macaws are the biggest of all of them. The largest species, such as the Hyacinth macaw, can span up to 3.5 feet in length, including a huge wingspan of around 4 to 5 feet. The largest macaws weigh between 2 and 4 pounds and they have especially light bones which aid their flight.

. Habitat of choice is the tropical rainforest

Macaws are native to South and Central America, found anywhere between Southern Mexico and Northern Argentina. They prefer rainforests, but can also be found in other types of forests as well as woodland and savannah-like habitats. Types of macaws that are particularly common to the Amazon include the blue and yellow macaws, the scarlet macaw and the red and green macaws, along with numerous others.

 

 

4. Macaws have a peculiar relationship with poison

Their diet mainly consists of fruits, seeds, leaves, flowers and nuts. Most species possess a large and extremely powerful beak which they use to open nut shells, including such foods as tough as coconuts. In the Amazon, macaws can be seen congregating at clay licks along river banks where they feed on the damp soil. There are various theories about why they do this. It may be a way for them to neutralize the assorted toxins in their fruit and seed-filled diet and to aid digestion. Others have highlighted that clay licks are a valuable source of minerals, particularly sodium which is hard for animals to obtain in the rainforest. Whilst macaws are apparently immune to the poisons found in many of their foods of choice (such as the seeds of Hura crepitans), they are thought to find cherries, avocados and chocolate poisonous!

5. Macaws typically mate for life

Once they reach breeding age at around 3 to 4 years old, macaws will pick a partner and stay with them for life. What’s more, pairs spend a great deal of their time together, not only for breeding, but also to share food, groom and in caring for their young. They can also be observed flying close to each other (almost touching) throughout the forest canopy.

 

 

6. Macaws are pretty loud

You will most likely hear a macaw before you see it. These birds are highly intelligent and gregarious creatures that congregate in flocks of anywhere between 30 and 100 individuals. Their loud calls, squawks and other distinctive vocalizations can be heard reverberating throughout the jungle, especially in the early morning. All this noise isn’t just for entertainment purposes. It’s used as a way to mark territory, communicate with the flock and identify partners.

 

 

7. Some macaws can mimic human speech

Whilst macaws can’t exactly talk, they are famous for their ability to copy human speech, along with other noises in their environment. In captivity, they can be trained to imitate and practice specific words until they perfect exact sounds and even accents. But why do macaws mimic people? In short, they are highly social and intelligent creatures, and are thought to have a particularly well-developed vocal learning centre in their brain. Wild macaws are naturally programmed to create and respond to very specific sounds made by their family and wider flock members. In fact, a parent will give each of their chicks its own “name” and all members will know how to reproduce these individualized calls.

8. Macaws are long-lived birds

Macaws live to be around 60 years in the wild on average, and in some cases this can extend for up to 80 years and even as long as 100 years. When kept as pets, macaws are often known for outliving their owners! In the wild, their long life span can be attributed to their relative lack of predators.

 

 

9. Almost all macaw species are either threatened, critically endangered or extinct

Scientists have identified a total of 22 species of macaws. Of these, five are extinct (including the glaucus macaw and Spix’s macaw), three are critically endangered (the hyacinth macaws, red-fronted macaws and blue-throated macaws), four are listed as endangered, whilst all the rest are considered to be under threat. This pessimistic state of affairs is largely a product of illegal trapping for the bird trade. The birds’ charisma and entertainment value has made them popular pets worldwide. As with many other Amazon species, deforestation and habitat degradation also pose a significant threat to population numbers.

 

Did you enjoy these top 9 macaw facts and fancy seeing them for yourself in the wild?