Keeping and breeding of the Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii)

A report by Dr. Josef Hämmerli published in the Swiss birdkeepers' magazine Gefiederter Freund in May 1991 and translated by the website editor

Behaviour

In 1978 I acquired – quite unexpectedly - a pair of Spix’s macaws. In the early years the two little blue macaws were very shy and yet aggressive at the same time. They attacked me when I entered the aviary by flying at me and viciously biting me with their beaks. Such episodes still occur today. Before the attacks they would erect their head feathers and narrow their pupils. My breeding pair was not tame as variously described in the literature. However, their offspring are quite confiding and some even hand-tame. The often mentioned playfulness towards their keeper has its limits, but amongst their own kind it is unsurpassed. They have a special liking for hanging by one foot from the roof grid and swinging playfully for minutes at a time.

If one of these discriminating birds should feel severely threatened it lies momentarily rigid on its back and remains in this position without defending itself until it feels the danger has passed. I know of no other parrot species which reacts in this way. Perhaps one could regard this behaviour as intelligence or a high level of mental discrimination. The memory of these creatures is frankly incredible. Their dexterity would doubtless also prove the undoing of some parrot lovers, as they can open complex lock fittings. Some five years ago the male managed twice to prise open a securing pin which was fitted as an additional security fitting to a bolt and escape. The escapee remained for half a day on a tall oak tree close to the aviary and I stood guard during this time with a loaded hunting gun to protect him from attacks from raptors such as hawks and sparrow-hawks. However, as the female was sitting on eggs, he returned at dusk to the outer aviary. Since this instructive experience I have used a special cylinder lock to secure the doors of the Spix aviary.

Diet

The feeding of these birds was determined by their preferences as follows. Mainly as a morning greeting I give them a small piece of lean, coarse-grained beef, which I supplement from time to time with a drop of a multi-vitamin supplement and/or calcium-vitamin D3. Later in the day I provide different types of fruit or berries. They particularly like the fruit of the dog rose (Rosa canina) – rose hips. All other food is disdained if it is offered and they even lose their aggression towards the keeper when feeding on them. They should not be offered too much during the breeding season. I lost a clutch once years ago because of it. The more the small blue macaw feeds on the rose-hips the more left-over sticks on and around the beak. Outside the breeding season the birds take time to clean their beaks, but during it after feeding on these delicacies the female rushes to get back on the eggs. If it turns the eggs with the sticky beak, they gradually get covered and the embryos die as a result of restricted exchange of gases. The fruit of the rowan or mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) is likewise a favourite food. It can, like the rose-hips, be stored deep frozen without loss of vitamins. If other fruit is offered the Cyanopsittae are only interested in the seeds and disdain the flesh. Milky maize can also be deep-frozen and will be gladly eaten seasonally as a change. I use it also as a vehicle for  medication, particularly worming remedies in so far the very robust Spix’s macaws need it at all.

As well as maize they much enjoy teasel seeds (Dipsacus silvestris). They also like feeding on sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus) and pine nuts (Pinus cembra). I was very careful with both because of the high fat content. With both wild and cultivated plants the little blue macaws particularly like the dandelion. They pull the half-ripened seed apart before feeding on them for hours. The same applies to the fall or autumn dandelion (Leontodon autumnalis).   

Keeping

The little blue macaw needs a lot of warmth. They show their discomfort in their behaviour when the temperature falls below 20C. They fluff themselves up and lose their liveliness. A small interior area will be enough if the outer flight is large enough, i.e, at least 4 metres long and 2 metres wide. It is absolutely vital that the inner space and the outer flight are shielded from neighbouring flights. These incredibly curious creatures will be easily distracted from breeding if they can observe activity in the vicinity and they make very distinctive appropriate sounds. My wife and I could guess what was going on in the Spix’s aviary just on the basis of such sounds. The smallest crack in the wall will suffice for these parrots to spy on the neighbouring aviary for hours and give their opinion on any activities with a whole register of calls. This also applies to audible neighbours as they react very quickly to acoustic signals from other parrots and in particular from their own species.

This strong sensitivity to optical and acoustic stimuli is part of the pronounced territorial instinct of these birds. I have mentioned already the attacks when entering their aviary. However the territory extends far beyond their own aviary. They observe the entire area from the outside flight and give off alarm sounds or threatening calls if a real or perceived danger arises. They recognize me from a distance far beyond 100 metres and make greeting calls. However if I approach the aviary from this distance with a person unknown to them they sound the well-known warning cries – a penetrating metallic-sounding Trtr - Trtr.

The playfulness of these little macaws should not be overlooked in the fittings of the aviary. They love to do gymnastics in fresh branches and to show off acrobatic flying between the branches. These fresh branches can be used to satisfy their enormous chewing needs. Outside the breeding season the Spix’s macaws also bathe once or more often every day. The feeding bowls should be firmly fixed or have a very wide base as these little macaws can successfully remove an earthenware dish weighing more than four pounds from the feeding tray. They get a lot of pleasure from the sound of the heavy vessel falling noisily to the ground. Whatever is not riveted or nailed down will be dragged away and thrown down by these little show-offs. I have already talked about the type of door lock, but the little blue macaw can not only open complex locking mechanisms. If I do not really tighten the screw fastening the out-flow pipe of the water feature, it will unscrew it within minutes. The contact persons play an important role in the keeping of these birds. They occupy a given place according to their activity, behaviour and gender in the social structure of the Spix family. In order not to disturb the very finely defined social order occupied by our family members – my wife, three daughters and myself – each keeps to his or her role. I follow a certain procedure when visiting the aviary every day. I keep to certain times. I avoid great differences in my apparel. A visit in my white medical gown does not go down well with the “ little blues“ as we like to call them.   

Breeding                   

As I already mentioned the first breeding of a Cyanopsitta spixii succeeded on my premises in 1984. But around two years earlier the female had already laid two soft-shelled eggs. I then fed her with vitamin D enriched calcium powder, which in my professional capacity as a medical doctor I prescribe for pregnant women or babies and infants as a remedy to avoid developing rickets. Some four months later the next clutch was laid. It consisted again of two eggs. The first of these was hard-shelled, but deformed in that it did not have the usual egg shape. The second egg was again soft-shelled, a “wind egg“ as we call it. I continued to feed the calcium/vitamin D mixture daily. In 1983 the Spix female laid only one clutch whereby first one egg was laid, but not the second because of egg-binding. As usual I placed it under an infra-red lamp where it remained for two days without the egg being laid. The female did not eat or drink anything more and its condition worsened rapidly. I had to take action and carefully introduced an enema into the cloaca as I could feel the egg in the pelvis area. It had to be located in the area between the oviduct and the cloaca. But I could not move the egg by this measure. After waiting for a few hours I squeezed the egg carefully and the bird then recovered really quickly. The egg content and pieces of shell were only passed days later.

During the following years and the last time four weeks ago this female suffered every year from egg-binding despite sufficient warmth between 20 to 25 C, ideal humidity and the best nutrition. During recent years I have located the egg with an X-ray and then proceeded as above. I live with the great fear and concern that perhaps on a later occasion the egg-binding will not be able to be relieved any more.  

In 1984 the first undisturbed breeding succeeded. I was only able to look into the next-box when the chick was already feathered. It weighed 360 g, the tail feathers were mostly still in their quills and had a length of 12 cm, the primaries 7 cm.  The head and rump were covered in pale blue down. The sides of the upper bill were medium grey and the back snow-white. The lower bill was medium grey. The face was soft pale blue to white. The underside of the legs was almost pure white, in the middle of the abdomen a five millimetre wide naked stripe could be seen. The dark iris lent the chick the pretty child’s eyes

One month after leaving the nest-box the young Cyanopsitta was already trying to feed itself. It preferred fruit. It was, however, still being fed by the adults. About ten weeks after leaving the nest they stopped feeding it and did not react at all to its refusal to feed itself. Then it began to feed itself like the parents.

The plumage had in the meantime become fully developed. The facial area was increasingly darker, the remaining feathers more blue, the white upper bill stripe became somewhat narrower and the grey of the remaining bill parts greater.

The bodily appearance did not only change continuously, the behaviour also developed first to that of a young bird, then an adult. The young Spix’s macaw was increasingly playful. It picked up objects in its beak or feet, played with them, laid itself on its back, rolled over several times and made sounds of pleasure. Just like the adults it did not miss anything going on around it and could equal its parents in its flying skills.    

At exactly one year the white stripe disappeared from the upper bill and the white colouring from the underside of the feet and toes. But the pale colour of the facial area and remaining feathers were slightly different from the parents.

At the age of some six months I had to remove the young parrot from its parents as they did not tolerate its presence any more. If  it perched in a place not acceptable to them they gripped it with their beaks on its tail feathers and pulled it away.

At the beginning of 1985 the female again suffered egg-binding with the third egg. It survived after receiving the treatment used so often in the past, but after convalescence did not return to the two remaining eggs. I tried to save them by artificial incubation, but did not succeed. One egg was 30 x 40 cm and weighed 23 g, the other 31 x 45 mm and 24 g. They were fertilized. In the summer of the same year there was an undisturbed breeding and one chick hatched from a clutch of three eggs. I did not dare to carry out any nest inspection as the parents reacted very aggressively to any disturbance. After leaving the nest-box the young Spix developed satisfactorily, similar to the first one bred.  

Thus each time it was almost exactly half a year from the beginning of the egg-laying to the independence of the young bird. I installed a colour video surveillance system to observe better the activities of the breeding pair. In May 1986 the male began feeding his partner and I observed copulation regularly via the video equipment at the end of the month. The pair pressed their anal areas against each other while the remainder of the body made rhythmic, lightly turning movements. In this position with the anal and cloaca areas rubbing against each other and upward erected tail feathers the treading action lasted often from five to ten minutes. After having had their pleasure both birds shook their plumage thoroughly. Even during the egg-laying period they copulated daily. This ceased after the last egg was laid.

At the beginning of June 1986 the first egg was laid and then at intervals of two days the second and third. Thanks to the camera surveillance I could observe exactly when the female left the nest. I carried out a nest inspection in such a laying pause, but only had time to look in the hollow trunk for a few seconds as both macaws stormed the breeding hollow at once. During the following four days I gained the impression that the female would continue laying. On the fifth day it perched for hours on a branch in the inside area. I tempted both birds into the outer flight with rose hips, closed the connecting hatch and looked into the next-box. One egg was broken, two were intact, fertilized and warm. I left the situation as it was. The female did not return to the clutch any more. So I lost for a long period the courage to inspect the clutches.   

Three weeks later the female laid yet again. Unfortunately after laying the second egg she suffered egg-binding again. I was able to save her with the proven treatment again. Never in my thirty years in bird-keeping have I observed egg-binding so often with the same parrot. I still cannot explain it. According to my observations this difficulty mainly arises in the following situations: too low temperature, too dry air and thin-shelled or shell-less eggs. .  

In the meantime it was August 1986. There was nothing more going on in the flight of the dearest of my parrots until the beginning of October. Then the male began feeding the female again. There was a lot of courting and at the end of the month they were copulating. Because of the approaching cold season – the inside area was well heated, but the outer flight not – I brought the pair into a spacious aviary in the top floor of my house. On Christmas Day I found an egg measuring 42 x 30 mm and on 27th December 1986 another measuring 45 x 31 mm in the nest. On 29th December I observed via the video equipment the female looking out of the opening to the nest-box. It did not fly as usual to the male, but climbed slowly on to a branch. In attempting to fly to the partner it fell to the floor and remained more than a minute there. Then it climbed back on to a branch, wanted to fly to its partner again from there, but fell into the water bowl. Once again on a branch it remained there with raised feathers, made pressing down attempts with its pelvic diaphragm as if it wanted to defecate and made up-and-down movements with its tail. I knew then that it was unfortunately suffering again from egg-binding. On 30th December 1986 at 6 a.m I looked at the patient again. The situation was unchanged and I put it as so often in the past in a cage under the infra-red lamp, introduced an enema into the cloaca and tried to remove the egg. This did not succeed and I squeezed on it gently. On the afternoon of the same day the Spix female could be seen feeding. The change in behaviour in the case of illness or egg-binding is dramatic. When fully fit it is extremely difficult to handle. When egg-bound it will accept my assistance gratefully without defending itself. The attitude of this parrot is very situation-oriented.    

On 6th June 1987, Whit Sunday, the Spix’s macaw female laid the first egg measuring 45 x 33 m in the nest-box. On 8th June I found a broken egg. The inspection on 10th June revealed a second egg in the box, therefore the third of the clutch. For incomprehensible reasons no young hatched at the end of the incubation period and a week later the female left the nest. I removed both eggs and found within them fully developed young parrots.

On 11th August 1987 the Spix female laid the first egg of a clutch again. From earlier good and bad experiences I was finally able to fully document this successful breeding. As I knew that no breeder had succeeded yet in photographing the incubation and rearing period, I went to work with the greatest care. As a member of the breeders’ group for the rescue of the Spix’s macaw I am pleased to provide the appropriate pictures for this report. This is the chronology:   

11.8.87   Start of the laying period. First egg.

13.8.87   Second egg

15.8.87   Third egg

22.8.87   One egg lies crushed in the nest. The other two are fertilized and living

  6.9.87   A chick of at most two days is in the nest. He is covered in fine down

13.9.87   The young bird has doubled its hatching weight

20.9.87   The adults change their feeding habits and digest more calcium, fresh meat, milky maize and dry bread    

24.9.87   The female lengthens the time spent outside the nest-box from 1-2 minutes to 5-10 minutes. Then it is driven into the nest-box by the male  

29.9.87   The nest material, which is now very dry, causes conjunctivitis in the chick. Eye ointment application results in an improvement. The down is thicker and bluish. There is a bare stripe to the abdomen. The upper bill which was white is becoming dark at the edges  

  4.10.87  Tail and end of the wings have quills

13.10.87  The female leaves the nest now every day for two to three hours

18.10.87  Today, Sunday, the young Spix was weighed - 352 g. The tail feathers are 10 cm in length and the primaries 7 cm in the chick’s sixth week. Its outer and further development is in line with the earlier description

25.10.87  During the day the young blue macaw is brooded only for a hour or so at a time, but, however, fully during the night. The parents begin again with their sexual ritual outside the breeding phase

27.10.87  Today, Tuesday morning, the young bird left the nest-box

16.12.87  He is feeding independently some of the time

30.12.87  The adult birds stop feeding the young one. He goes hungry for more than a day.  

Despite the risk all too well known to me of regularly disturbing the breeding activity of the Spix’s macaws, at the beginning of 1990 I dared to undertake another colour video surveillance with corresponding nest-box inspections. On 18th March 1990 at around 5 p.m the first egg was laid, measuring 40 x 34 mm and weighing 23 g. On Sunday, 25th March egg-binding appeared to occur. The X-ray results confirmed my suspicion. The situation became life-threatening and I started at once the known treatment. A day later I could return the Spix female to her partner. The follow-up clutch resulted in successful breeding and I should like to relate here the course of events:

24.4.90   First egg

27.4.90   Second egg

29.4.90   Third egg. During the nest-box inspection on Saturday, 5th May 1990 I established there was a clutch of four eggs.

15.5.90   Three fertilised and correctly developed eggs are in the nest-box. One is infertile. 

29.5.90   A chick of around 4 days is in the nest-box. As in earlier years the other eggs were not incubated any further and the course of events did not differ from earlier observations and descriptions.  

Altogether until today I have bred five Spix’s macaws.

THE FOLLOWING SUMMARISES MY FINDINGS

-          that the clutch of Cyanopsitta spixii with young individuals consists of two and with older birds up to four eggs.

-          the time between laying is two days and this two-day laying rhythm only alters by an hour

-          the eggs are laid in the morning around 9 a.m or in the afternoon around 5 p.m

-          the largest egg size is 40-45 mm and the smallest 30-35 mm, egg weight 21-23 g

-          the incubation period is 26 days

-          the young bird spends two months in the nest-box before emerging

-          the young are fed completely by the parents for three months after leaving the nest-box

-          the young Spix macaws differ considerably from the adults until they are one year old and then until they are two years old still have quite fine differences  

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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)