The Hyacinth Macaw


by Kashmir Csaky


Published in Parrots Magazine in November 2001 (Issue 46) Pages 26-31.



Kashmir Csaky is a quality breeder of Macaws since 1985. She writes for numerous publications and frequently lectures on breeding and behavioral problems

Through her own experiences Kashmir Csaky gives some details to consider when embarking on one of the most difficult breeding projects in the parrot world: the Hyacinth Macaw.

Hyacinth Macaws are the Panda bears of the parrot world. Their great beauty with a perpetual smile, sweet fun-loving nature and rarity make them one of the most desirable of all birds.

It is no wonder that aviculturists are making great efforts to breed these magnificent birds. However, breeding Hyacinths and raising their chicks to independence is not an easy task. Hyacinth Macaws are one of the most difficult of all psittacine birds to breed. The high failure rate to reproduce Hyacinths in the United States is obvious by the number of proven pairs that are for sale.

Although many of these pairs may not be proven as claimed, some certainly have produced fertile eggs and live chicks. The reason these proven birds are for sale is because the sellers have been through so many infertile eggs, dead in shell, difficult hatches and dead babies that they have given up and moved on to a species that is easier to breed.

According to the 1995 AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association) North American Studbook, the 30-day neonate death rate was 20 per cent, and by 35 days it was 26.7 per cent. Unlike many species Hyacinth Macaw chicks remain difficult to raise until the chicks are completely food independent, which occurs at about seven or eight months old for most individuals.

Buying Hyacinths for breeding


Buying breeding birds wisely is the first step for successful results. Hyacinths are very expensive birds so I am surprised that many people are so cavalier when they purchase them. Large amounts of money are sent to strangers to buy a bird that has often not even been seen. The new Hyacinth might be a nice healthy bird or the bird might not be what was expected at all. When birds are purchased this way, it is a gamble. If the bird was shipped long distances it may be impossible to receive compensation for a sick bird or dead bird. I cannot imagine anyone making any other kind of expensive purchase with such a carefree attitude.

Buying Pairs


It is virtually impossible to establish that a pair of birds is proven, if such claims are made. Yet, asking for references and following them up can provide a great deal of information. Always ask to speak to the seller's veterinarian. If the seller has nothing to hide he will permit his veterinarian to speak freely to anyone who is interested in purchasing his birds.

Some helpful information can be acquired if it is possible to see the birds in the aviary before agreeing to purchase them.

Positive answers to the following questions are an indication that the seller values the birds:

* Are the flights roomy enough to allow the bird to fly?

* Do the birds appear to be well-fed?

* Is the aviary clean?

The responses to these questions will help establish the general health of the birds and determine if they are compatible:

* Do the birds tire easily?

* Are they in good feather?

* Do they behave like a pair of bonded birds?

* Do they stay close together?

* Do they defend their nest box?

* Are the bare facial patch and the periophthalmic skin (area around the eyes) a deep yellow?

Note: Healthy Hyacinths have deep yellow skin in these areas. Hyacinths have photosensitive skin, so any skin exposed to light will eventually turn yellow. Birds that are kept indoors may have lighter skin. Yet, it should never look pale and washed out.

It is not necessary to see the birds before they are purchased. However, before making full payment to the seller the birds should be examined by a qualified avian veterinarian. The birds should be tested for polyoma and psittacosis. I also suggest full blood chemistries, a CBC and cultures as well as a thorough visual exam. The results of the tests must be made available to the buyer and to the buyer's veterinarian. The seller may refuse to pay for the tests in which case the wise buyer would either pay for the tests or decide against buying the birds.

There should be a written contract clearly outlining the conditions of the sale. The contract can include a provision that allows the buyer to return the birds for a full refund if the birds prove to be of the same sex. Should the purchaser waive pre-sale the medical examination then the contract should specify a period of time to have the birds examined. If the birds are not healthy, the seller should pay for medical expenses.

Some people may be selling young birds that grow up together. They hope that by having birds that grow up together that the two birds will develop a strong bond and quickly produce babies. This type of thinking can backfire. Sometimes when chicks grow up together they believe that they are siblings and will not want to mate with each other.

Buying single birds


The same level of care must be exercised when buying a single bird as when buying a pair. It is better to acquire single birds that have been in the company of other Hyacinth Macaws if they are captive bred. It will be important that the birds realize that they are not humans or some other species of birds. Many pet Hyacinths can become good breeding birds provided they understand that they are Hyacinth Macaws.

At what age can Hyacinth Macaws breed?


Birds should be their full physical size and emotionally mature before they are bred. Hyacinth Macaws are nearly full size by the time they are two and half years old. However, if their weight is regularly monitored then it becomes apparent that the females grow till they are about four years old and the males till they are six.

Female Hyacinths may be willing to breed when they are as young as three years old. Yet, these young birds are seldom emotionally mature and they will not be good mothers. It is possible for a three-year-old male to reproduce. However, it has been determined by surgical sexing that some males are still sexually immature when they are seven years old.

Little is known about how long Macaws can reproduce. According to Psittacine Aviculture by Schubot, Clubb and Clubb, the Macaws at Parrot Jungle (USA) were at their peak in production during their twenties. This may still be true with the young birds we keep today, however with the knowledge that we now have about diet and care I believe that peak production could stretch over a longer period of time.

SETTING UP BIRDS FOR BREEDING

Pairing Hyacinth Macaws


Hyacinths are not as difficult to pair successfully as some of the other species. Overall they are amicable towards other birds, although some Hyacinths may be choosier about their mates than others. A method that Jean Pattison uses with her African species should work well with any psittacine bird. The females are all flocked together in a large flight. Smaller flights containing single male birds are placed against the large flight. Each female has a different colored ink applied to her body, so that she will be easy to identify from a distance.

The birds are carefully watched to see if any female prefers to spend her time with a particular male and whether this interest is mutual. The females are flocked together rather than the males to reduce aggression. Although this is a wonderful method, it is not always feasible with rare or expensive birds such as Hyacinth Macaws. Aviculturists may find it difficult to obtain enough birds to utilize this technique.

When any new birds are brought into an aviary they should be quarantined for three months and retested for potential health risks before they are set up for breeding or exposed to other birds. The stress of a major change in the environment may bring out latent health problems. Many female Hyacinths will refuse to eat when transferred from a happy environment to a new home, even if they are with their mates. It is imperative that the birds are closely watched during this time to ensure that they are eating.

Flights


Suspended flights should be a minimum of 8ft long by 5ft wide and 5ft high (2.4m by l.5m by l.5m). For walk-in flight the height is increased to 8ft (2.4 m). The flight must provide the birds with a clear view of the entire area since Hyacinth Macaws like to see any thing approaching them. It is amusing to see several flights of Hyacinth Macaws when all the pairs are inside their nest boxes peacefully looking out over the aviary.

The birds should feel that predators cannot sneak up on them from the rear. So, a barrier should be placed near the back of the flight around the nest box area. I like to have two feeding stations, one at the front of the flight where the food is offered and one near the rear of the flight for water. This encourages exercise. However, once the hen is sitting eggs, all food and water is served at the rear location, closest to the nest.

Nest boxes


Hyacinths prefer a horizontal nest box than a vertical (grandfather clock) style nest box. I use sheet metal nest boxes that are 18 inches by 18 inches by 36 inches (45 cm x 45 cm x 90 cm), and have a thick piece of wood mounted on the front of the box for a more natural appearance. The Hyacinths' nest boxes are mounted with the entrance on an 18 inch by 18 inch side (45 cm x 45 cm). The entrance of the nest box is 10 inches (25 cm) by 8 inches (20 cm). The inspection door dimensions are 12 inches (30 cm) by 7 inches (17.5 cm).

I have learned that the orientation of the nest box is very important to most breeding Hyacinths. These birds like to be able to see out of the nest box and observe anything within sight. So the entrance must be large and the box positioned so that it provides the birds with maximum visibility. The male should be able to make himself comfortable at the entrance while the female can see out of the box when she incubates eggs at the rear of the nest. Although this size has proved very successful, I have been considering giving my birds larger nest boxes. This has been since I have learned that Hyacinths in northern Brazil breed in very roomy caves found on the side of cliffs.

I prefer metal nest boxes that cannot easily be destroyed. Replacing nest boxes is very stressful for both the birds and the aviculturist. If nest boxes are repeatedly replaced the birds may never develop the confidence to reproduce. The metal boxes are also easy to clean. Hyacinth chicks soil the nest much worse than the Ara species and the nests must be cleaned frequently.

At the beginning of each breeding season or when we first offer a nest box to a pair of birds, the opening in the wood covering the entrance is only large enough for one bird to fit through comfortably. The birds must chew at the wood to expand the opening. This strengthens the bond between the birds and encourages them to cycle together. Some aviculturists suggest using a tiny starter hole in the wood. My experience has been that birds may whittle out an opening that they can barely squeeze through. They will enter the nest and not be able to leave. At this point they panic and may remain suspicious of their nest for a very long time.

The distance between the bottom of the nest box and the lower edge of the entrance should not be too great, about four inches (10 cm). When Hyacinths first begin nesting both birds will get cozy near the nest box entrance and stay there watching the world go by. Once the hen lays, the male will take up that spot alone and lie in wait for any possible intruders. So, again the orientation of the nest box is important. Visibility of the surroundings is one factor that allows the pair to be calm enough to breed and remain calm while incubating eggs and raising chicks.

Perch arrangement


Good solid perches should be positioned at both ends of the flight and directly in front of the nest box. The nest box perch gives the birds easy access to the nest. These perches should be hard wood making them difficult to destroy, so that frequent replacement is not necessary.

Other perches of soft wood can be included for the birds to chew as well as some lumber. However, be very careful with the placement of these perches. They must not block the center of the flight. The birds should be able to fly from one end to the other without stopping unless the flights are very large. The soft wood perches should also be placed in areas that are easy to access, so that they can be replaced before they fall. Macaws have been crippled and killed when their mates chewed through branches that fell on them.

The main perches should be branches with dips and raises in them. If the branches are straight they should be placed so that one end is elevated. The male will stand on a high spot while the pair copulates. The birds seem to prefer this position so it might affect the fertility of the eggs.

DIET

Nuts


The diet of a Hyacinth Macaw is unlike the diet of most other parrots. This is where aviculturists often go wrong with them. It has been well publicized that Hyacinths need more fat in their diet and this can be offered to the birds in many forms. Macadamia nuts are about the best food for this purpose. Here in the United States we seldom have difficulty obtaining macadamia nuts. However, many of my friends in Europe seem to have some trouble finding them.

Macadamia nut oil is normally sold in gourmet food stores and is an acceptable substitute, if it is cold pressed. The oil can be poured over fresh food or soaked into bread and then offered to the birds.

Brazil nuts are also a favorite. However, they are frequently filled with fungus and smell rank, so I feed them in small quantities and carefully inspect each nut after cutting it open with a macadamia nut cracker. Only then will I give them to any of my birds.

Walnuts have omega 3 fatty acids and are a very nutritious nut. Unfortunately, as with the Brazil nuts, I find many that are rancid. So, they are also given in limited numbers and inspected in the same way as the Brazil nuts. Walnuts also contain volatile oils that aggravate pancreatitis. I am aware of one Hyacinth that developed this and this was a bird that ate a minimum of 10 walnuts a day. For this reason some aviculturists will not feed their birds any walnuts.

Filberts are high in calcium, which is a mineral that Hyacinths need in higher quantities than most other parrots.

Almonds are even higher in calcium than filberts, but they contain oxalic acid, which binds calcium and thus decreases its absorption. Pistachios are high in vitamin A compared to other nuts. I give these to my birds as treats several times a day.

Coconuts are another beneficial high fat food. Coconuts are a seasonal food, although they may be available all year. When shopping for coconuts out of season I find that many of them are spoiled. An alternative is canned coconut milk, which can be poured over or mixed into fruits and vegetables to encourage finicky eaters to consume a healthier diet. Birds that have not had coconut milk before may be suspicious when they see this creamy white liquid covering their food, so I recommend offering small amounts until the birds taste it and then it normally becomes a favorite food. Coconut milk can be frozen after the can is opened, which is important since it will spoil quickly. Ground nuts can also be sprinkled on fresh foods to encourage good eating habits.

It was once believed that in the wild, Hyacinths ate only one or two different types of nuts. Although their diet is limited, they have now been observed eating at least seven different types of food. Joanne Abramson had two of their favorite nuts analyzed. Both the bocaiuva and acuri palm nuts contained over 50 per cent total fat and less that 12 per cent protein. The complete analysis can be found in her book The Large Macaws.

Not long ago, Hyacinths were normally fed diets that were too low in fat and that were appropriate for an Amazon. Now I see too many Hyacinths that are nut junkies. They are fed a diet that consists of only Brazil and macadamia nuts. Hens on an all nut diet will begin to lay soft-shelled eggs and can become egg bound. So, it is imperative to continue to feed foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals like sweet potatoes, leafy greens and pellets.

Protein and D3 toxicity


What is referred to as vitamin D3 is actually not a vitamin at all but a steroid. It is fat-soluble and is stored in muscles, fat and internal organs. D3 is necessary for proper absorption of calcium and phosphorus. It is vital in egg production and growth, especially bone growth. However, Hyacinths are prone to vitamin D3 toxicity. One of the first symptoms is polyuria. High uric acid levels can be an indication of D3 toxicity. In advanced cases subcutaneous deposits of urates and calcium can be seen in the feet, legs and trunk of the body.

When pairs produce either clear eggs, dead in shell, weak chicks that do not thrive or stunted chicks, they may be suffering from D3 toxicity. Hyacinth pairs are often thought to be infertile because they are producing clear eggs. Yet, they may be producing fertile eggs that experience early embryonic deaths due to vertical transmission (from the hen to the egg) of D3. Depending on how much D3 is present in the hen, it is also possible for the eggs or chicks to die at various stages of development. If chicks survive to adulthood they will be stunted.

Problems with D3 toxicity normally occur when birds are fed breeder pellets year round. Breeder pellets were created to boost the nutritional content of the diet of breeding birds while they are producing eggs and feeding fast growing babies. The mega-doses of vitamins can be harmful and should not be offered when birds are not producing. Some breeders also sprinkle vitamins on food or in water. This is an almost certain way to cause a vitamin overdose, especially when vitamins are added to a diet that includes pellets.

There is evidence that suggests protein poisoning is linked to the deaths of many Hyacinth Macaws. The level of protein in a Hyacinth's diet should be monitored. Foods high in protein, especially animal protein such as meat and cheese should be avoided. Based on the analysis of the bocaiuva and acuri palm nuts, I avoid feeding foods that are over 18 per cent protein to adult Hyacinths.

My personal experience with high protein in a diet has been with baby Hyacinths. These birds were extremely overactive and exhibited some strange behaviors. They also had black feather, many stress bars and the texture of the feathers was very stiff. Although, the problems with the feathers may have been caused by any of a number of inadequacies with the commercial hand feeding formula I tried on that occasion.

Sexual behavior


Single female Hyacinths kept as pets may exhibit sexual behavior as young as three - behavior her owner may find embarrassing, since it frequently happens in the presence of company. However, most females are not ready to breed until they are five years old. Males are slower to mature. When young Hyacinths are paired, the female is normally the aggressor.

I often hear from people that their Hyacinths have been copulating regularly for years, yet they have not produced any eggs. These birds copulate frequently whenever anyone approaches their flight. This means that the birds are bonded to each other - which is good. However, it is not sexual behavior as interpreted by the aviculturist. Often the birds are not even making contact and are faking copulation. This is merely a territorial display. Hyacinths that are very comfortable in their environment and with their caretakers do not exhibit this type of territorial behavior. However, if stressed or in the presence of stranger this behavior will re-emerge.

For copulation to be an indication of future production it must occur when no one is in the pair's territory. Hyacinths vocalize very loudly when they copulate, making it easy to know when the birds are actually breeding. Vocalization during copulation also changes, becoming higher pitched as they near completion. Copulation must also occur frequently (three or more times a day) and it must become protracted to signal the pair's desire to reproduce.

As breeding pairs become interested in reproduction they become more vocal and playful. They will begin to spend more time in the nest box chewing up nesting material and arranging it to suit them. Many hens will start consuming large amounts of broccoli. They seem to have a particular fondness for broccoli leaves at this time. Broccoli leaves are higher in nutrients than the stalk and florets.

Infertility


D3 toxicity is likely the primary reason for clear eggs in Hyacinth Macaws. Another major reason for clear eggs, dead in shell and weak chicks is inbreeding. An aviculturist I know had all his Hyacinths DNA mapped to determine if any of his birds were related to each other. He discovered that many of his poor producing pairs consisted of related birds. These birds were separated and paired with unrelated birds. The fertility rate increased and egg and chick mortality dropped dramatically.

Hyacinths that are sold as captive bred pairs are often related. Brothers and sisters will generally get along well and they bring an unscrupulous person much more money when sold as a proven pair. In one case a pair of siblings Hyacinths was sold to a gentleman as a proven pair. The gentleman's veterinarian scanned the birds and discovered they were micro-chipped. From the chip numbers he was able to contact the breeder, who informed him that the birds were not only brother and sister; they were only about a year old. In just a matter of a few months these birds had been sold three times. If DNA mapping services are available then one drop of blood from each bird can determine if they are related. Unfortunately, no one in the United States is currently offering DNA mapping services.

If birds are too young or too old they cannot reproduce. It is difficult to judge the age of a Hyacinth, however, the nostrils may provide a clue. When Hyacinths are under 15 months old they have large visible nostrils. Some juveniles will take longer to feather out well, so these birds may be months older.

Older birds have more feathering in this area and their nostrils are nearly invisible. It is possible for adult Hyacinths to have visible nostrils, this can happen when they wear the feathers away by pressing their face against the bars of their enclosures. These birds will develop calluses around the nostrils and the nostrils will not have the nice smooth oval shape seen in a juvenile. Nostrils may also be visible in adults that have been sneezing excessively, in which case the feathers in the area would be matted.

Old birds are hard to identify. Yet, many birds will turn lighter in color as they reach their senior years. Some birds will turn light while others do not, just as some people turn grey at a very young age and others may never develop grey hair. Most species that have a change in color will begin turning yellow. Old Hyacinths will develop some white feathers, yet it is not abnormal for Hyacinths to have some white down at any age. So, the lighter color can only be used as a basis for an informed guess.

In closing


Hyacinths are difficult birds to breed and that is only the beginning of the trials that the aviculturist will encounter. Incubating the eggs and raising the chicks is a stressful, heart wrenching and a formidable challenge. Yet, I can think of nothing more rewarding than successfully raising a Hyacinth chick that is a fine example of the species.

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