Experiences in the keeping and breeding of Hyacinthine Macaws

by Norbert HEBEL. Published in the April 2002 issue of Gefiederte Welt (Pages 114-119).

Introduction by Dietmar Schmidt, Editor of Gefiederte Welt

Norbert Hebel has kept Hyacinthine Macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus Lath.,1790) for more than 10 years. He gave a presentation for the very first time on his experiences in the keeping and breeding of this largest of the blue macaws at the recent symposium held to celebrate 125 years of Gefiederte Welt and the 90th birthday of Dr. Steinbacher, its publisher for decades. This formed the basis of the following article, although we are unfortunately not able to show the fascinating video footage of the activities in the nestbox. also presented at the symposium.

The article text

Introduction

As a parrot enthusiast and breeder the Hyacinthine Macaw had always been a bird of my dreams. This dream seemed however unattainable as prices rose sharply for this macaw at the end of the 1980s. The availability was also not very great as the authorities (in Germany) regarded the trade in older wild-caught macaws as illegal.

Then by chance in early 1990 an aviculturist with Hyacinthine Macaws requested my assistance. He had to give up his two macaws because of family reasons, but had problems in acquiring CITES papers for his birds, which were wild-caught and imported in 1976, from the authorities. This problem was eventually solved with the support of the highest conservation office in the Federal state concerned.. Thus I came into the possession of a pair, which had already produced eggs.

Initial accommodation

The two macaws were housed at first in my garage, measuring 7 metres (231/2 ft) x 3.5 metres (113/4 ft), with a glass door and a window. The window was wired on the inside so that it could be opened from outside and the birds were able to enjoy fresh air and sunlight. The garage was sectioned off inside to provide a service corridor for feeding purposes. The nestbox was also positioned there just above the heating.

Unfortunately the female became ill after two years. All the experts diagnosed stress induced dermatitis, also known (in Germany) as "under-wing syndrome". Many treatments were tried out, but met with no success.

I acquired another female in November 1994 from an animal trainer, who had displayed it as a sort of stage prop in the background at his show.

Compatability

The newcomer was placed in a large cage next to the wire of the aviary after a six-week quarantine period. After two days I noted that the male was remaining close to the female and both were engaging in synchronised movements. Three days later I was convinced I could put the two birds together.

The meeting was very cordial with the head nodding usual with all macaws. The two had bill contact on the first day and by the second day were inseparable. They were so well harmonised that I decided to introduce a nest-box after four weeks had elapsed.

Accommodation now

As one should never be satisfied with the accommodation for macaws, I have moved house three times because of my hobby and finally set up a new aviary complex on an industrial estate.

(Website editor: Moving house in Germany several times is very unusual. People normally stay put for very long periods in rented property. It is also common for serious aviculturists to acquire or rent property on industrial estates. This avoids problems with neighbours over noise and there are often more flexible planning regulations than in residential areas.)

I now have ten Hyacinthine Macaws. Each pair has an internal area measuring 2.5 x 2 x 2.5 metres (81/2 ft long x 6 ft wide x 81/2 ft high). The external flight measures 6 x 2.5 x 2.6 metres (20 x 81/2 x 9 ft). A service corridor runs adjacent to the internal areas, which is heated to 12º C (54º F) in winter and also provides access to the nest-boxes. There is also an indoor flight measuring 6 x 3 x 3.2 metres (20 x 10 x 11 feet) for the young macaws as well as an outside flight of 6 x 6 x 2.6 metres (20 x 20 x 9 ft).

Diet

1. Seed

The Hyacinthine Macaws receive parrot mix without nuts with added husked sunflower seed. This is, however, only eaten if nothing else is available. Their main food is nuts. Shelled nuts are stored separately in slightly aired containers. Larger quantities are vacuum packed. The store-room for the nuts and seed is kept at under 40% relative humidity with a dehumidifier.

The following nut varieties are given:- cashews, almonds, hazel, macadamia, peanuts and brazils as well as occasional small pieces of coconut. Hazelnuts, cracked almonds, roasted peanuts and walnuts are offered in shell. The walnuts are halved for quality control purposes.

Unshelled palm-nuts from the Bocaiuva palm (Lat. Acrocomia aculeata, Pittman 1994), which are imported into Germany from Paraguay have a fat content of about 52%, are very fibrous and with a taste similar to coconut. This nut can, however, only be opened with a bench-vice - even the strongest nut-crackers fail. Older macaws (wild-caught) know at once how to open them. If they do not succeed with their bill alone, they tear off a piece of wood and clamp this between the upper mandible and the nut as a means of opening the nut. (Hohenstein 1987). The splinter of wood is used to grip the nut, thus stabilising it for easier cracking. Younger macaws have to learn this behaviour, but after a while they also use pieces of wood as a tool.

Each macaw receives daily 15 to 20 different nuts. This quantity is doubled during the breeding season.

Nuts are offered in the shell as well as unshelled for the following reason. The macaws hone their lower mandibles on the shells. The birds hold the shell in the bill after opening and consuming the kernel to sharpen up their lower mandible for a while. This results in the typical behaviour of the Hyacinthine Macaw of "hoarding". While eating the nut, it holds the next one ready with the foot on which it is perching.

Brazil nuts should not be given in the shell as they can contain a very toxic mould and according to my findings can cause a very serious illness. Even halved brazil nuts, which appear to be wholesome, can have this mould. The nut cavity is located where the nut joins with the palm. Mould spores are released by opening the nut, which can be swallowed by the macaw. Some nuts even contain gases, which are also released by opening the nut.

2. Fruit, vegetables and berries

A mixture of fruit and vegetables such as apple, pear, carrot, red/green sweet peppers as well as banana and papaya cut small is provided in a separate feeding bowl. This provides the basic food each day. In addition the following are offered according to seasonal availability:-

Zucchini or courgettes, fennel, Brussels sprouts, chicory, pomegranate, peas in shell, lettuce, cherries, plums, mandarins, oranges, red currants, nectarines, apricots, grapes, mango and greengages. Their favourite fruit is papaya, followed by banana, grapes and pomegranate.

Rowan-berries, rose-hips, corn on the cob, cherries and pomegranate can be frozen as well and fed in winter after defrosting.

3. Sprouted seed

Sprouted seed is offered before and during the breeding season, but is not enjoyed much. I use a pigeon feed mixed with 50% striped sunflower, which is offered every other day. Eggfood and mineral supplements are mixed with it in rotation. It is moistened with wheat germ oil to ensure it sticks to the sprouted seed more effectively.

4. Supplements

As I place such importance on quality and provide a variable diet, I only use a small amount of supplements. These are added to the drinking water. Most important is a mineral supplement produced in Switzerland, which has the right proportions of calcium and phosphorus (2 to 1). This is important for ensuring that the calcium necessary for egg laying has been stored in the bones. This supplement is normally provided once a week at most and during the breeding season every two days.

Breeding

I use natural tree trunks with a nesting cavity, which are located outside the internal area in the service corridor. The entrance hole can be closed with a sliding door. There is also an inspection flap and an opening for an infra-red camera.

The breeding season for my macaws begins at the end of December. It's then the nesting cavity is opened, which is closed during the summer. The macaws exhibit the same behaviour at the beginning of the breeding season. They groom each other in the cloacal area and probably also remove some of the dense down, which can increase the chances of successful fertilisation. They also always become more aggressive. If approached too closely, they show their breeding fervour with false treading, during which they make very loud, abnormal sounds. Genuine couplings are not so noisy. Hyacinthine macaws copulate by sitting side by side on the perch, turning the body some 90º and pressing the cloacas together with the tail feathers virtually vertical.

The nest cavity is visited frequently during this period and is intensively chewed. The litter placed in there at the beginning is completely removed through the entrance hole. If the female comes only reluctantly out of the cavity or just looks out, then I know it is just a few days before egg-laying.

Normal breeding

Hyacinthine macaws usually lay two eggs 3 to 5 days apart. A very experienced pair, who has successfully bred for several years, will sometimes lay three eggs. This has also been verbally confirmed by Hans-Jürgen Künne.

The service corridor is heated during the breeding period to 22 or 24º C (71 or 75º F) and the relative humidity is reduced to 38 to 42% with a dehumidifier. I have achieved the best hatching rate with these conditions.

Incubation of the eggs is exclusively carried out by the female. The male, however, often sits in the nest cavity at the same time and grooms his partner as well as feeding her during the night.

If the female leaves the nest-box, the male may try to take over. He positions himself over the eggs, but does not sit on them. One leg is usually stretched out. If the female returns and the male does not make room for her voluntarily, she rolls the eggs over to her with her bill.

The incubation period is between 25 and 28 days. The young macaw penetrates the membrane 3 to 4 days before it hatches. This can be recognised by the enlargement of the air sac. The actual hatching process from the first piping to final hatch can last as long as 48 hours. The hatch weight varies between 18 and 26 grams.

I have observed the female actively assisting the hatching process by carefully removing the egg shell with her bill. In the course of the first few days this is chewed up and eaten, which suggests this is the way the young bird also receives calcium. Newly hatched young can stand within a few minutes, but it can also take up to an hour.

Furthermore I have also observed that the first feeding of the hatchling sometimes take place within an hour of hatching. It can, however, also take up to 18 hours before the first feed.

All feeding follows the same pattern until the sixth week. The female regurgitates once or twice, then takes the young bird by the tip of his upper mandible, presses against it with the underside of her own bill, regurgitates once more and the mash pours over the tongue out of the crop over the head of the young bird. The mash, which falls on the floor, is taken up by the female with her tongue after licking the young bird clean. This happens at night in complete darkness.

The young bird stays throughout mostly on its feet. At first some 90% of the regurgitated food misses the bill of the young bird, but as it grows the feeding technique improves. The bill of the young bird, of course, gets larger as well.

The female feeds the young macaw nearly every time as soon as it begs. This can be every ten minutes to begin with. At night I was able to ascertain that the female lay exhausted in the cavity and the young macaw was completely covered, which was not the case during the day. Then begging calls were ignored and the intervals between feeds extended to about half an hour. Despite this feeding could be said to be continuous.

The mash in the first three days was finer and creamier, later whole pieces as large as sunflower seed kernels were fed. It was possible with such a small bird to see the larger pieces sliding down the gullet.

After about ten days the young bird was just nursed under one wing during the day.

The male or the female also occasionally stepped on the young macaw without harming it. They also treated it quite roughly as well - sometimes to the extent that the youngster was thrown about.

From the third day the male tries to feed the young macaw, but initially not very successfully. At every opportunity - when the female leaves the nestbox - the male positions himself over the youngster without actually nursing it. From the second week the male feeds more frequently and by the 3rd to 4th week regularly. The crop of the nestling was always stuffed full.

Artificial incubation

Sometimes artificial incubation is unavoidable, for example, when the humidity in the breeding area could not be lowered enough. However, I endeavoured to leave the eggs with the parents at least for the first few weeks.

The temperature in the incubator should be set at 37.2 º C and the humidity should not exceed 38%. Only calibrated thermometers or top quality hygrometers should be used. The eggs are turned eight times each day. I use a Grumbach incubator S84 with automatic turning. The eight turnings have different timings. They should be rotated alternately once for 10 minutes, then once for 15 minutes. From the 7th day the eggs should cooled for ten to fifteen minutes each day and aired by opening the door of the incubator and pulling out the roller unit so that the eggs are positioned in front of the incubator.

After approximately 24 days, at the latest when the air sac sinks, the egg should be transferred to another incubator. It is no longer turned, the temperature is lowered to 36.8º C and the humidity increased to 50 to 55%.

The hatching process is exactly the same as for natural incubation.

Hand-rearing

I knew that it is difficult to rear Hyacinthine Macaws from the egg, but in 1995 I was compelled to hand-rear a young bird. I used hand-rearing formular produced by Kaytee with 12% fat, which I had already used for rearing some Blue and Yellow Macaws. The first feed was, however, parrot-specific lactobacillus. It now started to digest everything properly and the weight gain was very satisfactory. After about 100 days the top weight of 1,402 g was reached. Unfortunately the bill had grown crooked because of the hand-rearing, which was probably due to incorrect diet (Clubb 1998).

In 1996 I once again had to hand-rear a hatchling as the parents neglected to feed the second youngster. The gap between hatching - about 5 days - was probably too great. I used hand-rearing formula from Pretty Bird with 15% fat. Gloria Allen described this feed as especially suitable for Hyacinthine Macaws in her presentation at the Parrot Congress on Tenerife in 1994.

The mash was digested without problem from the first to the last day, but papaya was added from the fourth week.. Unfortunately the bill again began to grow crooked from the fifth week. As one can only speculate about the fat content a Hyacinthine Macaw requires in the growth period, I added crushed macadamia nuts (73.7% fat) to the mash. Within 4 weeks the bill had corrected itself considerably and by the end of the hand-rearing period was no longer noticeable. This could be observed on several occasions with hand-reared young from the eighth week and be corrected (also with Ara ambigua).

The young hatched first was left with the parents up to the 55th day and then taken away for hand-rearing. The two young differed markedly. The parent-reared young had a more flesh coloured skin because of the constant licking by the mother. The hand-reared young was more grey.

After about eight weeks typical behaviour of Hyacinthine Macaws could be observed. As soon as the young was startled it threw itself on its back and stretched out its feet with its claws to protect itself from attack from above. In the wild the very sharp claws are its weapons against predators.

Both young were weighed and a growth comparison made. The differences between hand and parent-reared can be seen from the growth curve. At the time the parent-reared young was removed the weight difference was 130 g. The greatest difference was noted at 45 days and was 150 g. However the hand-reared young caught up by the 66th day and then both weighed 1,440 g.

In 1999 I had to resort to hand-rearing again. But as the feed from Pretty Bird with 15% fat content was no longer available and the year before I along with other breeders had had considerable problems with this hand-rearing feed I decided to use the hand-rearing formula of Roudybush. Formula 3 with 8% fat was used. After 10 days papaya was mixed in and after 18 days macadamia nuts. The young was fed when the crop was not quite empty, but this never caused a problem.

The hand-reared Hyacinthine Macaws are independent between 5 and 6 months. The favourite fruit was as with the adults papaya, banana as well as grapes. Otherwise only nuts were eaten. It is important in hand-rearing to provide a fibre-rich and fatty diet as well as absolute hygiene conditions.

Yellow colouring

It was noticeable time and again how the yellow skin colour differed in intensity. Many believe the intensity of the colour is related to the vitality of the bird as is believed in the case of the Palm Cockatoo. Others, however, believe it is in part gender-related or has to do with the readiness of the female to breed. I would say that the yellow around the eye is always more intense than the cheek colouring. Otherwise the cheek colouring and the yellow stripe to the side of the tongue vary from bird to bird and is also different according to the time of year.

My personal observations throughout years of keeping Hyacinthine Macaws have shown me that this skin colouring differs according to the way the birds are kept. The yellow colouring of the macaws kept in the garage or in the house was paler than those of the macaws kept in the open. I therefore believe that sunlight plays a major part in determining the intensity of the yellow.

The chemical structure of many pigments is still unknown. In parrots little is known about yellow and red skin colouring. The yellow cheek and eye surround is caused by a fat pigment (lipochrome) which probably belongs to the carotinoid group. As opposed to melanin there is no self synthesis and must therefore be derived from the diet. It is chemically restructured and stored as fat in the skin.

The intensity of the yellow colouring is hormonal and diet dependent. The colour changes in accordance with the diet and is paler if there is lack of carotene. These body parts are very pale in young macaws, but becomes more yellow with increasing age when given the correct diet. The significance of this colouring is not explained, but is probably to do with signalling.

Dangers and health problems

One needs to pay attention to the conditions under which the macaws are kept to avoid health problems. Thin wire used for aviary structure or for fastening perches should be avoided at all costs. The macaws will bite through wire up to 3 mm in thickness without effort. One macaw swallowed a piece of wire, which had to be removed surgically from its stomach. Another got a piece of wire wound around its toe. It bit its claw off in the attempt to release it. Yet another accident occurred when a macaw got its claws tangled in some hanging rope. It began to mutilate itself to get free. It bit three claws off so that the bone was exposed on two toes. Afterwards one toe had to be amputated.

Open rings should not be used with Hyacinthine Macaws. Even closed aluminium rings should be avoided, as there can be some risk arising. With one macaw just broken pieces were discovered in the sand floor of the aviary after one year. We almost lost another when after four years it bit through the much-chewed closed ring, which was anyway illegible after two years, and cut off the blood flow to its foot artery. The ring was removed just in time. All my macaws are therefore identified with a microchip inserted into each one.

Now to a disease, which as I have already mentioned, appears to be linked to brazil nuts. One of my macaws became ill with the so-called "under-wing syndrome". The diagnosis was stress dermatitis. This manifested itself through sore bitten areas where the under-wing joins the body. Unfortunately the macaw could not be cured. Eventually the open sores developed into a tumour and the macaw died when it was attempted to remove this surgically.

In the meantime I have come across seven cases, which have had similar results. It begins with brown patches under the wings or on the upper part of the thigh.

I have discovered that all the breeders concerned had fed their macaws many brazils in the shell. Two breeders, who had macaws where the disease was not so advanced, had stopped feeding the macaws with brazils. The symptoms disappeared after a short while. Both macaws have bred successfully since after a two-year period. In my opinion a bird detoxifies itself usually through the liver and kidneys. If there is too much toxin in the body then it is released through the skin. The cause is probably the mould absorbed when eating brazil nuts, which is released as aflatoxins.

Suggestions

My experiences and the conclusions, which I have expressed in this report, rest on 12 years of observations in private aviculture. They could perhaps give rise to scientific investigation. I should be pleased to provide any information.

I should like to call on all bird-keepers and breeders to contact me if they have had similar problems or would like to learn more about Hyacinthine Macaws than is contained in this report. It is planned to set up a Hyacinthine Macaw owners' club in Germany, which will meet once a year to exchange views and opinions.

(Comment by the website editor: I have agreed with Norbert Hebel that any experiences or opinions about the so-called "under-wing syndrome" by Hyacinthine Macaw keepers and breeders can be e-mailed to the website at bluemacaws@dial.pipex.com . My own experience is that if mouldy brazils escape quality control - usually one can tell from the weight as they are much lighter - they are always discarded unopened by the macaws. On the rare occasions that I find an unopened brazil on the aviary floor, I usually discover that on being opened it is bad. I have always believed the macaws know because of the lightness and/or because they can smell the mould through the shell).

One final suggestion: invest in an infra-red camera. Much knowledge would not have been obtained by me without this piece of equipment. In addition footage from the nest-box can be much more exciting than many a television programme.

Literary references
Abramson, J., Speer, B. L., Thomsen, J. B. (1995): The large macaws. Raintree Publication, Fort Bragg, Kalifornien.
Casares, M., Enders, F. (1998): Erfahrungen bei der Haltung und Zucht von Hyazintharas (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) im Loro Parque. Zeitschrift Zool. Garten N. F. 68.
Clubb, S. (1998): Hand-rearing parrots - problems, causes and solutions. Presentation at the 4th International parrot Congress, Tenerife.
Hohenstein, K. (1987): Werkzeuggebrauch bei Papageien. GW 111: 329-330.
Pittman, T. (1994): Über die Ernährung der Anodorhynchus-Arten in Freileben. Papageien 7: 54-56. 

On the topic

(Most of these articles have been translated by the website editor in the past and appear on the website as hyperlinked)

Künne H-J (1996) Wird dem Hyazinthara der Schnabel zu groß? GW 120: 336-337
Low.R (1991) Im Palmitos Park ziehen Hyazintharas Junge auf GW 115: 80-83
Müller-Bierl.M (1993) Der "Schwarze Ara" der Brasilianer GW115:168-169
Nedelnik. J(1992) Handaufzucht von zwei Hyazintharas. GW 117: 192-193
Silva.T (1991) Der Hyazinthara - Status und Fortpflanzung in Menschenobhut GW 115: 298-301
Volkemer. G (1985) Zucht des Hyazinthara GW 109: 7-9

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Quotes

 " 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)