Breeding large macaws

by Rosemary LOW. Published in the Parrot Society Magazine in December 1999 (Volume XXXIII) Pages 406-11.

Recently there has been a surge of interest in the large macaws. Much of this interest has been in the sphere of pet-keeping. Unfortunately, a lot of people, who purchase these birds as companions do not understand how difficult it can be to ensure that macaws have a good quality of life in the confined conditions of a house. Furthermore, many macaws are wing-clipped soon after they are weaned, thus are denied their need to fly. These super-intelligent birds have very different needs to the smaller species, which make up the majority of the birds kept for breeding and for pets. I would like to encourage people to keep these wonderful birds in large aviaries, where they can lead a more active and stimulating life.

In Europe there seems to be an increasing appreciation of the importance of quality of life for the larger parrots kept in aviaries. Macaws - with the exception of Hyacinthines are truly birds of the canopy. They need height in an aviary situation. Unfortunately, they rarely get it. At Loro Parque, on exhibit, there used to be macaw aviaries which were 4.8m (16ft) high. What a difference in the behaviour of the macaws in these aviaries to those in suspended aviaries! They were more confident and relaxed. Because of the length and the height, it was a joy to watch them in flight. True, it was necessary to climb a ladder to inspect the nest-boxes - but that was a small price to pay for the welfare of the macaws. It was in one of these aviaries that the first European breeding of the Blue-throated Macaw occurred.

From the breeder's viewpoint there are important practical reasons why macaws should be able to fly. This has been proved by an increasing number of breeders who allow their macaws and other large parrots the relative freedom of a large aviary out of the breeding season. By large, I mean at least 30m (100ft) long. One aviary at a bird park in England is 45m (150ft) long and contains young Buffon's and Military Macaws, among a varied assortment of parrots. The impact this enclosure has had on many people is very encouraging. Far example, when Miguel Gomez-Garza, former curator of the ARA Foundation in Monterrey, Mexico, saw it, he was very impressed. He went back to Monterrey and had one built just like it for Military Macaws.

The benefits of these large aviaries include increased fitness and, equally important, the opportunity for macaws to choose their own partners where several birds of the same species are flown together. I should make it clear that I refer only to the Ara species. While a group of Hyacinthine Macaws can be kept together, they should never be kept with Aras. The power of their mandibles can and has resulted in deaths.

It should be emphasised that a major reason for breeding failure with the larger parrots is incompatibility. This is not usually a problem with the small macaws. But the high price of the large species means that it is more difficult to assemble a group whose individuals can be tried with different partners or allowed to chose their own mates.

While it is true that in Europe and the USA there are many pairs of large macaws breeding in small cages, I believe this is possible only because the particular male and female are compatible. In a confined space, incompatible birds can be under a lot of stress. Injuries or scratches to the bare skin on the face may be an indication that the birds have been fighting. To keep two large birds which are not happy together in a small aviary is not only insensitive but may well lead to the death of one - not necessarily directly, but through stress which leads to disease taking a hold.

When kept in spacious accommodation macaws will give so much pleasure to everyone who sees them. An ideal macaw aviary, in my opinion, is one, which is large enough for the birds to fly when they wish. This means a minimum length of 40ft (12m). Macaws may spend a lot of time walking or climbing but this is no reason to deny them the opportunity to fly. A macaw in flight, even in an aviary, is a magnificent sight. Personally, I would rather have one aviary, 100ft (30m) long, in which I could watch macaws in flight, than any number of smaller ones. Quality of life is so important - especially for birds with a wing-span of 3ft (1m).

I have already mentioned the other important aviary dimension - that of height. Macaws kept in high aviaries usually perch as near to the roof as possible. While few private owners can provide aviaries which are 4.8m (16ft) high, I believe that zoos should strive to do so. The true majesty of these large birds can only be appreciated under these circumstances. While it might be argued that most large macaws are captive-bred, they are far from being domesticated. Many are only one or two generations from the birds, which were flying in the South American forests. Yet we expect them to feel as comfortable in our homes and aviaries as dogs and cats which have been domesticated over hundreds of generations.

A macaw aviary should be more than a space to confine a breeding pair. It should be an area where one of the most vital requirements of captive macaws, the opportunity to gnaw, can be carried out. This means providing fresh-cut branches on a weekly basis. The aviary framework is best made of metal pipe for breeding pairs. In very large aviaries used to house young birds or pairs out of the breeding season, wooden framework can be used. In a large area macaws are less destructive, provided that they have a regular supply of branches to gnaw at. This is very important for all macaws because they need to be kept occupied. There is no better way than destroying branches. They derive great enjoyment and the small pieces of bark, which are often swallowed, are almost certainly beneficial. Hard wood and/or large ropes must be used for perching. Ropes hung vertically will also provide a lot of amusement.

Large macaws can be kept in planted aviaries. The plants are seldom destroyed unless the aviary is too small. I firmly believe that the presence of plants, either inside or close to the outside of the aviary, has a beneficial effect on parrots and other birds. Keeping birds outdoors has disadvantages, especially from the aspect of security. Nevertheless, quality of life is so greatly enhanced by exposure to weather (but with protection from extremes) and seasons, the sky above and observation of the local bird life, that these benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Parrots are extremely observant and enjoy watching what is going on around them. The inside of a building is an environment totally lacking in stimuli for a macaw unless much effort is put into correcting what is otherwise a very boring environment.

Diet

Food can play an important part in relieving boredom. I believe that large parrots should be fed twice a day - and three times when there are young in the nest. Large macaws in my care in the breeding centre at Palmitos Park always had nuts twice a day - until I was admonished for spending too much money on nuts. It is a fact, however, that the Hyacinthines have not bred since I left - and did not breed before. High fat foods are essential if the large macaws are to breed. The most successful collections are those which feed nuts in good quantities. In one, the curator told me that Hyacinthines were not bred until macadamia nuts were provided. I am not saying that this type of nut is necessary. It is not. But a diet, which approximates the high fat content of the palm nuts on which most macaws feed is essential.

A well-known breeder in Australia bred from his macaws soon after they came out of quarantine. During the next few years none of the several pairs of macaws nested again. When I visited him he asked me what he was doing wrong. A quick glance in the food dishes told me. The diet was too low in fat. He was even feeding millet because some of the macaws were plucking themselves and he feared that sunflower was to blame. I suggested that he should feed sunflower ad lib - and in a few months he had a fortune in macaw chicks.

The large macaws appreciate variety in their diet. They appear able to distinguish subtle differences in flavour and many have obvious preferences for certain foods. However, unlike certain parrots, they will sample a very wide range of foods. Their provision certainly helps to enrich their lives. Nuts such as walnuts, Brazils, pecans and macadamia are usually favoured above all other foods. Almonds, hazelnuts and pine nuts are also eaten and Hyacinthine Macaws can be offered coconut on a regular basis. I have long had reservations about feeding peanuts, because of the danger from aflotoxins. If peanuts are fed, I would suggest boiling them first. This also makes them more palatable.

I suspect that most large macaws do not receive enough nuts, partly because they are expensive.. This is another factor to consider before the decision is made to keep macaws. To keep them well is not cheap. Macaws need nuts not only for the high fat content, which they crave and which appears to be necessary for their well-being, but for the occupation which opening them provides. This is why they should always be offered whole. Many macaws will crush the shells after eating the nuts and seem to really enjoy this activity.

If the daily quantity of nuts offered to a pair of macaws is limited, they may seem so frantic to get their share that they will perfect a technique of holding at least two walnut-sized nuts at once to prevent other birds from taking them. This is how much they like nuts. Feeding nuts twice a day, rather than giving them all in the morning, for example, helps to relieve the monotony of their day. In the late summer and autumn, branches laden with hawthorn berries provide good nutrition as well as occupation.

To feed macaws only on pellets, as I have seen in the USA is, in my opinion, a form of cruelty. These intelligent birds need the occupation and stimulation provided by a range of foods, which provide contrasting taste, textures, colours and beak exercise. Because they have huge beaks does not mean that they cannot enjoy very small items of food. I have watched a Hyacinthine Macaw delicately remove and eat all the tiny seeds from the outside of a strawberry - then discard the pulp. Macaws generally prefer fruits to vegetables. Their favourites are orange, pomegranates, grapes, guavas and loquats. All the other usual kinds can be offered. Cooked chicken on the bone (with sharp bones removed) and other cooked meat is usually relished. I do not propose to cover macaw diet in detail, but have mentioned it only from the aspect of improving their quality of life.

Parent-rearing

Few captive birds have such a great need to be kept occupied as macaws. In my opinion there is no better way to do this than to allow them to rear their own young. One nest, or even allowing them to rear just one chick, will occupy them for at least seven months of the year. In the changed financial avicultural climate of today, compared with say ten years ago, mass production of many species is unwise. It brings down prices and makes young more difficult to sell. There should surely be less emphasis on hand-rearing certain species and more emphasis on producing parent-reared young for future breeding stock. This would certainly have benefits for the larger macaws. The continued removal of eggs for artificial incubation or the removal of chicks at an early age must have detrimental psychological effects on breeding pairs. Watching large macaws rear their young to independence has, in past years, given me enormous pleasure. The most important consideration is that the rearing diet is not calcium-deficient. Adding a calcium (and Vitamin D3) supplement to the rearing food is essential. Young should be left with their parents for at least six months and can usually remain for one year. If the parents are reasonably tame, as they are in most small private collections, the young will also be steady.

If removed at six months, they do have pet potential. However, the buyer has been so conditioned to the purchase of hand-reared birds, that a parent-reared bird would probably be very difficult to sell for this purpose. This is a pity. Parent-reared birds have a much better sense of self-identity; they are more independent and less clinging and less demanding.

Nest sites

Unlike some parrots, macaws usually readily accept the nest site offered. This may be because in the wild the large species cannot easily find nest sites and they need to be adaptable. In the Pantanal region of Brazil Hyacinthine Macaws now accept man-made nest sites because of the shortage of natural nests. Cliffs are the natural nesting sites of Lear's Macaws and, in some areas, Green-wings. Some macaws prefer horizontal nest-boxes. In a warm climate it gives the growing young more room to move about; they can be very cramped in an upright box. If outside nest-boxes are used, they should be encased in strong welded mesh and the floor should be of double thickness of wood. Both these precautions will help to prevent accidents should the birds prove to be very destructive to the woodwork. Nest inspection from outside the aviary, preferable from the safety of a service passage, is essential. Macaws can be extremely protective and aggressive, increasingly so as the young mature.

It is not unusual for large macaws to nest at floor level if given the opportunity. One breeder in South Africa, Willem Grobler, leaves nothing to chance. He offers his macaws a choice of three sites - a conventional nest-box, a log and a brick-built nest at ground level. Different pairs chose different sites. he also adapted metal garbage cans by adding a narrow entrance. Also in South Africa, Gill Duvenage was one of the most experienced macaw breeders. She used large metal barrels mounted as high as possible. They could be inspected from a service passage at the back of each range of aviaries, using a portable ladder. A Perspex inspection window in each inspection door allowed her to see the position of the occupants before she opened the door.

Failure to nest

I have already mentioned what I consider to be the three most important factors in breeding macaws - these are wing exercise, compatibility and a suitable diet. Unlike some parrots, macaws usually nest quite readily when these requirements are met. If they don't what should you do? First of all, do not assume that you have a pair. Make quite certain - by surgical or DNA-sexing. if you have a confirmed adult pair and they are compatible, and not attempting to breed, there may be something stressful in their environment, or at least one bird is sick or in some way unsuitable for breeding.

I recall the case of a pair of Hyacinthine Macaws in my care at Palmitos Park. They seemed compatible, but the female would not enter the nest-box. She indicated that she was interested in nesting on the ground. She was therefore given a nest-box at ground level. She entered and stayed inside - but no eggs were laid. We therefore had her surgically sexed again and found that there were few egg follicles on the ovaries. In a female which offers a good prospect for breeding, many eggs can be seen as small white spots on the ovary. As we had other females, which had never had an opportunity to breed, we immediately changed the female. Three months later the new female laid her first clutch, which was infertile. However, within six months we had our first chick from this pair.

The small macaws are prolific breeders and most will readily accept the mate with which they are provided. In my experience, this is also true of Hyacinthine Macaws. But large Ara macaws can be not only difficult to pair up, but dangerous in the aggression, which they display towards each other. It is not normally possible to keep newly formed pairs under constant observation - and this is where observation monitors are invaluable. They are among the most useful modern developments in aviculture. They also provide hours of enjoyment and information, which would be impossible to obtain in any other manner. I should point out that these monitors can also be used for security purposes, especially at night, when any unusual sounds would alert one to the presence of intruders.

Despite what you may believe, many parrots do not behave normally when they are aware of being observed. This is particularly the case with those which are tame or have previously been kept as pets. In the presence of people some tame macaws will lash out at their macaw companion because they are competing for human attention. The observation monitor may reveal that in other circumstances they agree well together. On the other hand, the camera and monitor may show that two birds are not at all compatible and even that one is dominating and stressing the other. If you see unopened pin feathers on the head of members of a pair of macaws, it is highly unlikely that the pair is compatible. Pairs, which have a close bond, spend hours in mutual preening.

There is no point in persevering with apparently incompatible adult pairs for more than a year or so, new mates should be found. Before taking that often difficult and expensive step, there are a couple of changes, which can be made. Either separate male and female for a few weeks, or move them to a different environment - preferable a very large aviary. In the breeding centre at Palmitos Park one pair of Military Macaws had not been successful in breeding. The female always laid eggs off the perch. The pair was therefore sent to the park where they spent several months flying in a large aviary. On being returned to the breeding centre, the female laid in the nest six weeks later. Never again did she lay from the perch.

Even when all the favourable factors appear to apply, there are often problems, especially with hatchability. Hatching is most problematical with the Hyacinthine Macaw. On occasions it is necessary to remove macaw eggs for artificial incubation. If this is the case, use the best quality machine that you can afford. In Europe this is the Grumbach.

It is recommended that eggs, which must be removed, should be left with the female for the first third of the incubation period. Hatching problems are more likely to occur with eggs taken as soon as they are laid. Most macaw eggs have a small yolk to albumen ratio. This means that the blood membrane growth is improved if eggs are turned more frequently than the standard once per hour. Quite a lot of macaw eggs pip upside down - and this usually indicates that turning has not occurred frequently enough.

Almost all incubator-hatched chicks are destined to be hand-reared. Most of these can be useful for future breeding purposes provided that they are kept with their own kind as soon as they are independent - if not before. Single chicks present a problem. They may become so imprinted on the feeder that soon after they become independent they start to pluck themselves because they are not receiving the attention they crave. It is better to rear a single macaw with a chick of a totally different species - even a cockatoo - than to rear it alone. A large macaw, which is to be used for breeding, should not be hand-reared unless another large macaw is reared with it. The small macaws have more independent personalities. In my experience they are less affectionate towards their feeder and are unlikely to become imprinted if reared with another small macaw.

There is one piece of advice, which I should offer to anyone who has a young macaw. It is that these birds need large quantities of food during the few months after independence. They need more food than adults. I believe that this has led to some macaws inadvertently being underfed. Their food should never be rationed. If a young macaw has been purchased with the intent of ultimately buying another for breeding purposes, my suggestion would be to obtain the second bird when both are under one year old. Pairing up young macaws is generally easier than introducing adults. In addition, in a pet situation there is also the jealousy element to consider.

We are privileged to be able to keep such incredibly beautiful and intelligent creatures as macaws. The least we can do is to keep them in a way, which allows them to be macaws - and that means allowing them to fly.

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( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)

Horace (65-8 BC)