(Website note: I am grateful to the Avicultural Society for the opportunity to publish this pioneering account of the first breeding of the Hyacinthine Macaw in the U.K)
Six years ago we acquired a pair of Hyacinthine Macaws and as we were unfamiliar with these beautiful birds, we sought information whereever possible. We discovered from reference books that they inhabit the forests, swamps and palm groves of the interior of southern Brazil and the westernmost parts of Bolivia; also that a great deal of their habitat is now being lost, owing to the opening up of Brazil, and that numbers of the birds are used by the natives for food.
Their diet consists of fruit, seeds and nuts of various kinds. They are mostly seen in pairs and, if disturbed, will circle round, screeching, and then settle in the tops of tall trees. The staff at Kew Gardens told us that the trees have a very quick leaf fall, and are almost immediately re-established.
These macaws are the largest of all parrots, their length overall being 35 inches (89 cm); tbe tail of the immature bird is a little shorter.
All this was interesting but did not make us much the wiser at keeping Hyacinthine Macaws in captivity in the English climate and with the limited variety of food available here.
When our birds arrived, they were seen feeding each other and gave every indication of being a true pair. The male bird had a long white tail feather and several white flecks on his shoulders so it was easy to distinguish him from the hen. We put them in our largest aviary, which was not at all suitable as it was made of wood but it did have a flight 10 ft (3 m) high and nearly 40 ft (12 m) long. Their "house" measured about 8 ft (2.5 m) x 12 ft (3.65 m) at the apex, with a large, sturdy box 2 ft (61 cm) square, with a tin base, placed as high as possible on one wall. The birds obviously liked the height but it proved disastrous from our point of view, when trying either to inspect or photograph. A barrel was provided on the ground, together with two others in the flight outside, placed at various heights. All these barrels were ignored.
Several natural branches of various thickness were fixed inside for them to roost on and, again, were placed as high as possible. Their house was well lit and heating was also available, used mainly at night. Their house opened on to a covered "verandah" where they had their food and drink, and where they could see all that was going on. From there they had their long flight to a small Perspex-covered shelter at the far end, where they could get out of the wind, which they cannot tolerate. Several branches of fresh willow, ash or fruit-wood were placed in the aviary, along one side only to allow the birds’ flight to be uninterrupted.
When they first came to us, their diet consisted solely of coconut, Brazil nuts and an occasional apple. Nothing else was taken, and sunflower seed was totally rejected so their diet was the first problem we had to overcome. We put another pair of macaws in an adjacent aviary, and the sight of these birds obviously enjoying banana and various foods eventually persuaded the Hyacinthines to add other fruits and vegetables to their diet.
After two years, in late March, the female became interested in her box and laid two eggs. The incubation period is 28 days but at the end of this time the eggs vanished, presumably infertile. After another two months she laid two more eggs, but regrettably the chicks were dead in shell. The following year the hen died in May, quite suddenly and without any signs of previous illness. The post mortem examination disclosed that she had no eggs inside her, that she had emphysema and a fatty heart. Perhaps her previous unsatisfactory diet had some bearing on this.
The male bird appeared distraught at her death, so we put a young Blue and Yellow Macaw into the aviary to keep him company. She taught him to eat sunflower seed, albeit reluctantly. During this time we searched for another bird, without any success. The male bird went into moult and lost his white feathers.
After three months of indefatigable search, we eventually found another bird. It was not surgically sexed so we had to take a chance. Its feathers were dull and the yellow skin around the lower mandible was a pale cream colour, which, compared to the colour of our male, which was dark orange, looked almost anaemic and on arrival she ate only Brazil nuts and white sunflower seed.
We put the two together in September 1982 and after three months we noticed that her diet had changed and they were both eating a good variety of food, which consisted mainly of coconuts, Brazil nuts and sweetcorn (fresh or defrosted frozen), augmented by bananas, grapes, apples, peas, broad beans and carrots, in season, and a few peanuts and walnuts. These last were not much favoured. Gradually the sunflower seed was abandoned. We no longer worried about their diet as their feathers were shining and the yellow skin on the new bird was becoming darker by the week.
The first indication that they might be courting came when we opened the trap for the male to fly at liberty to which he had been accustomed before his first female died though since then we had kept him shut in. To our astonishment he would not go out! He became very excited and flew backwards and forwards into his house, refusing to go near the trap.
Shortly after this we saw, and heard them mating and on 26th March 1983 to our great relief, she laid two eggs. Three days before the 28-day incubation period ended the male opened up the roof of his flight and both birds were found playing about the garden. As it was her first time at liberty, with eggs in the box, it was a nasty moment. However, by leaving them quietly to their own devices, they put themselves back in with no trouble at all but they lost interest in the eggs which disappeared, presumably infertile. It was then the 25th April.
However, in May 1983 the female was back in the box again, sitting tight. The first egg must have been laid between 14th and l6th May. We increased the heat at this point, and with the aid of an old boiler and a piece of pipe, we were able to get a thin plume of steam into the house, thereby increasing the level of humidity. We would do this once or twice a day for an hour or two. It was interesting to see that from this moment, whenever we approached the aviary, the parents would assume a defensive position with backs together and tails crossed, accompanied by loud cries. They would stay like this until we moved away.
It was on l5th June that we heard the unmistakable sound of macaw chick noises coming from the box. It was an unforgettable moment, for although we have bred so many Blue and Yellow Macaws, somehow this was very different. The next day we were able to see the chick, which was tiny and appeared to be black skinned. There was also a second egg, which had been abandoned. On l9th June we looked in again and saw that the chick was now definitely pink and already much larger. The parents now started to search for grit early in the morning and we put a pile of lime-stones in their flight, which they would pick up and grind in their beaks. We have never seen them eat commercial grit. On l7th June yet another egg appeared but by the following night it had vanished. The chick then made steady progress, dark quills being visible by 7th July.
The parents’ diet at this time consisted of the usual coconuts and sweetcorn but they now enjoyed broad beans, which were in season, and the first early peas. However, they could not be persuaded to eat any kind of soft rearing foot, which was eaten in quantity by the Blue and Yellow Macaws. A lot of cuttlefish "bone" was taken and daily vitamins were given in the drinking water.
At six weeks the yellow skin around the black beak and eyes could be seen and the chick started to look like a real Hyacinthine. The tail was about 5in (12.5 cm) long and, apart from a few bare patches on its back, the chick appeared to be fully feathered and had become very aware of its surroundings. The parents now started to consume large quantities of cob and hazel nuts, even when they were still green and unripe.
After another five weeks of steady progress, on 7th September the chick came out of the box and was found on the floor of the house. The parents would not go to it but sat on the side of the box calling to it. We waited, agonising over what best to do, but as it made no attempt to move, we eventually picked it up and put it back inside the box. After another day or two, it came out on to the verandah without further mishap.
However, our satisfaction over its progress was short lived. It appeared listless and rather nervous of climbing about; we thought this might be due to its fall at the start. It did not make any serious attempt to eat and would pick up a piece of sweetcorn and let it drop again, without taking anything from it. We began to worry when it failed to go back in to roost with its parents at night, in spite of their desperate efforts to get it to do so. The male was obviously aware that something was amiss, and tried to make the chick eat.
He stayed pathetically over the food tin, bobbing his head and making encouraging little noises but the chick did not respond and on the day we had decided that it would have to be taken away, it was found once more on the floor. Although we had not been too happy about its general behaviour, it had nevertheless appeared to be in good physical shape up to the moment that it failed to go in to roost at night. It had undoubtedly caught a chill and quick action was called for. We took it into our house, boosted the room temperature to 80-85ºF and laid the chick on a hot water bottle.
Our veterinary surgeon visited and gave it a tube feed of Complan and Farex, and a B12 injection. The next day it was still obviously very ill but it was fed every two hours and we felt that it was holding its own. Someone then suggested that we should wrap it in foil under the infra-red lamp. This we did and the result was extraordinary in that, that very same evening, it was up and sitting on the edge of its box! Feeding was still very difficult as the syringes, which we had seemed inadequate for a bird with such a large beak.
However, when some friends who were experienced in these matters brought us a much larger plastic syringe, which was, in fact, for basting roast meat, feeding became very much easier and the chick started to make a rapid recovery. However, if the temperature in the room dropped below 75ºF, the chick deteriorated again, so a close watch had to be kept. The weight of the chick had dropped to around 2 lbs at this time, but after five days of regular feeding, it was once more on its feet and taking an interest in life.
We removed it from the small room, gradually lowering the heat, and installed it in a sunroom, where it could see other birds. After a short time it was able to hold food for itself, and was able to cope with peanuts and half-shelled Brazil nuts, banana, apple and it would try to scrape coconut. For about 10 days we continued to give it three daily feeds of soft food, but all milk-based food such as Milupa had to be stopped as the chick started to scour.
By adding a teaspoon of live yoghurt to some apple puree and Farex, this condition was cured in five days. At the end of three weeks, the chick started to refuse soft food altogether and now (October 1983) it spends most of the day wrestling with half shelled nuts, small pieces of sweetcorn, apple and soaked raisins. It has become very affectionate. The male parent has spotted him through the glass and has been down to investigate, regurgitating as hard as he can. The female is still not at all interested. We think that they would still accept the chick, as long as it can feed itself, but now unfortunately the weather is too cold to put it outside, even though it now weighs over 4 lbs.
In spite of their size, Hyacinthine Macaws do not seem to be very robust, and for this reason we have never contemplated surgical sexing, nor have we ever wanted, or indeed needed (until now!) to hand-rear as we felt that if it could be a natural process, then so much the better for both mother and chick. Our Blue and Yellow Macaws have reared a brood of three this season perfectly adequately.
Hyacinthines seem to be very loveable and extremely intelligent birds but, with their enormously strong beaks, special attention should be paid to their housing, as we have learned to our cost, a stone and metal construction being the most satisfactory. They also need a never-ending supply of branches to strip and chew, and they consume a prodigious amount of food, especially during the breeding season. They are also capable of making an appalling noise if they are disturbed by strangers, or suffering from boredom or frustration. Some form of heating to maintain the overnight temperature at around 70oF, together with some means of increasing the level of humidity, proved successful in this instance, and the nest-box was one-third filled with dampened bark and peat to make an atmosphere of humid warmth for the eggs.
Breeding the little Hyacinthine has been a wonderful and worthwhile experience, but we have one regret - the male bird seems to have lost his white feathers. It is now well over a year and there is still no sign of them! DELACOUR, J. (1960). The Birds at Cleres. (Hyacinthine Macaws laid but did not hatch) p. 221.
SMALL, Ralph C. (1975). Nesting and hand-raising of the Hyacinthine Macaw (Brookfield, Illinois, USA). P. 90-93.
As described above, the Hyacinthine Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus has been bred by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Grunebaum and this is believed to be the first success in this country. Anyone knowing of a previous breeding in Great Britain or Northern Ireland, or any other reason that would disqualify the claim, is asked to inform the Hon. Secretary.
Shortly before going to press, an article was received from Mr. Gerd Volkemer, also on breeding the Hyacinthine Macaw. As so little has been published on this subject, and as Mr. Volkemer’s account included some additional details, a precis of his article is given below. We would like to extend our congratulations to Mr. and Mrs. Grunebaum and to Mr. Volkemer for breeding such a difficult species which we hope will now become a regular event, and that their experience will enable captive breeding stocks to be established eventually.
Wednesday 4th October 2023
Good news from Brazil about the Hyacinthine macaws in the Pantanal
I have just received the October 2023 issue of the Parrot Society UK magazine. It contained a short article by Rosemary Low about the Hyacinthine macaws in the Pantanal. Neiva Guedes, President of the Instituto Arara Azul, had reported to her "The ... Read More »
" Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret "
( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)
Horace (65-8 BC)