Blue and Gold Macaws by Tony Silva
Over many months and two separate trips, I watched as a pair of Bue and Gold Macaws Ara ararauna nested in a dead standing Buriti Palm Mauritia flexuosa. The palm grew in a flooded field approximately 71 kilometers north of Manaus in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. The stump, after it had been selected, attracted the interest of another pair and fights immediately broke out. These fights were often vicious and resulted more than once in areal combats in which two macaws fly very high, grasped at each other and then tumbled to the ground, before flying to a nearby tree. One of the intruders saw its leg broken in the ordeal and this stopped the fracas. The hen of the victorious pair eventually laid three eggs. Two chicks hatched and then something very peculiar happened. A third macaw appeared. It would perch nearby and when the male was not near the nest would visit; the incubating bird never once showed aggression towards it but the male apparently wanted it to remain distant. More than once he chased this third bird away from the nest, though not far and never with the same level of ire as the original intruding pair. Once I even saw this third bird enter the cavity when both members of the pair were absent. It remained inside 17 minutes before flying to an adjacent tree. This third bird almost invariably roosted near the nesting tree while the male flew some distance to roost with a group of other macaws.
After the incidence with the third macaw, I wondered what had happened inside. The stump had developed a vertical crack that grew by day. It was thus deemed not safe enough to climb. The pair continued to visit the cavity and this suggested that the young were still inside. Eventually two young began to appear at the top of the palm. One disappeared after three days; traces of feathers were found near the cavity, suggesting it had been predated. The other youngster fledged. It was at that point that the third bird began to approach and was tolerated by the male. It was clearly a young belonging to the pair that had fledged probably the previous year. Its eyes were not dark and thus this proved that it was not a young from a possible previous nesting attempt the same year. The four birds foraged near the nest as a group for over a week and were still in the area when I finally left. I suspect they eventually joined a flock.
Macaws are fascinating birds to study and always reveal surprises that are unexpected. Never would I have believed that a chick ostensibly from a previous nest would remain with the parents and then rejoin the family as a flock.
Blue and Gold Macaws are stunning. The contrast of colors creates a bird that is very beautiful. It may be the most common and easiest to breed of the large macaws, but these facts should not undermine that they are imposing. As pets they can develop strong, demanding personalities, but it is possible to train them to be fully manageable. It must, however, be understood that all young macaws go through a learning stage: everything within their reach will be left with beak marks, they are often hyperactive, have short attention spans and they often persist in achieving whatever it is that they want. This juvenile stage can last up to three years. Most then settle down to a more sedentary life. They are still active but the excess energy of their youth often dissipates. As they advance in age, many become set in their ways. The training they receive as youngsters will then dictate the individual´s behavior.
Macaws in the wild spend considerable time interacting with each other and their environment. I have watched newly fledged youngsters pluck leaves and fruit to drop them, watching as they fall, or tugging and pulling a twig one had chewed from a branch. I have seen them pluck a Buriti Palm fruit and fly to a nearby tree, where they played with the morsel before tearing at the yellowish flesh. I have seen them break twigs to scratch themselves. And I have seen them explore cavities and play with insects. The day is devoted to feeding and interacting with the environment, with a rest when the sun is hottest. On overcast days, the play period is often longer, with short periods of rest.
In captivity, the birds experience greater periods of repose. They do not have a forest to keep them occupied and long distance flight is limited by clipped wings in many pets or by the length of the aviary.
My opinion is that many captive macaws pluck because they are bored. Toys can keep them occupied, but they need supplementation with enrichment. Fresh branches, pinecones, acorns, palm seeds and so much more can and should be provided. We offer our macaws fresh branches, pods, whole green coconuts, palm fronds and seeds and even rotted branches. Whole fruit, banana leaves and branches are often placed on top of their enclosures, so they must expend a lot of energy pulling pieces through the 13 x 75 mm (1/2 x 3 in) mesh opening. If I give them a guava, for example, they can eat it in 20 minutes but a guava placed on top of the aviary may take 3 hours of effort to be eaten. Flowers from hibiscus, Melaleuca and more are also offered. Living in subtropical Florida has its advantages, but even northern Europe or the frozen parts of the US has few limitations. Pussy willow branches can be cut and placed in water until they begin to grow, when they should be offered, and rosehips can be frozen and placed inside newspaper rolled into a ball, which can be placed on top or inside the cage. Pinecones can have dried fruit or nuts inserted between the sections. With some imagination, one can keep the bird happy and enjoy them far more as they utilize their intelligence to figure out solutions. The intention is to provide variety.
Many items from the hardware store can also be used. Pieces of pine cutoffs can be cut, drilled and threaded with a chain. The sections can be colored by soaking them in water containing a food die. Nearly spent rolls of paper towels can be wedged between the bars. Empty vitamin bottles that are transparent can have a nut or seed placed inside. The bird will then work to extract it, or toss it around. The items available are limitless and with some imagination can aid in keeping the birds busy.
Commercially available toys are also good. I err against items with rope, as the fibers can wrap around a toe, or the rope can grow bacteria as they get soiled. I have a macaw that lost a toe when its previous owner failed to realize that a fiber had wrapped tightly around a digit. By the time the problem was realized, necrosis had set in and the veterinarian had to remove the tip of the toe.
With both enrichment and toys, do not provide and leave them inside the cage for months. Rotate them to keep the interest in them high. Offer perches that have the bark, so that they can chew it. PVC may make your life easier, but it is terribly unnatural and thwarts a simple behavior: chewing the branch they are perched on. In the wild, many macaws denude a particular tree and chew the tips of branches while they perch. The perches should have different widths to permit the foot to rest on various surfaces.
One option that is becoming much more popular is free flying. The birds learn quickly to return on command and enjoy the bouts of exercise. I have had free flying Scarlet and Blue and Gold Macaws. The training took several years because of my long periods of absence from home. I started by allowing the birds to master flying for a year in a long aviary. After that period, their wings were clipped and they were then allowed to play in trees in the yard. The periods spent damaging the landscape ranged from an hour to almost the entire day when I was doing yard work. Over a period of one year they perched in trees in the yard, the local park and neighbor´s houses. I wanted them to become familiar with the area. As their flight feathers grew, these were selectively cut to allow the birds limited flight; they could jump and flutter but not fly. Once the birds were very familiar with the neighborhood and would come down without much coaxing, I started the flying exercise. Using strong fishing line tied to their leg band, I would coax them to fly to me for a treat. The distance grew with the passing months. Once they would come to me without much hesitation, they were allowed to climb a pole in the yard; the trees did not work as the fishing line would become entangled. After three years of training, the macaws were let out in the morning and would return in the late afternoon or early evening, would be coaxed down and placed in their cages. This was basically the same training process used by Parrot Jungle when it was located in Miami.
When the life of a macaw is enrich, the birds are much happier and become mentally happier. As pets they are much calmer and tractable. I also enrich the lives of my breeders. I want them mentally challenged and this makes them much healthier and happier.
Of the eight species of large macaws—the Hyacinth, Scarlet, Green-winged, Military, Buffon´s or Great Green, Blue and Gold, Blue-throated and Red-fronted—the Blue and Gold Macaw is the most willing breeder. Many pairs produce infertile eggs and this I believe has several explanations. One is diet. Macaws feed heavily on palm seeds, many of which have high fat contents. This need, aviculturists in many parts of the world believe, can be supplemented with nothing more than a varied seed diet. I constantly receive messages from individuals who feed seeds and an occasional piece of fruit. They immediately tell me that they sprinkle the fruit with vitamins. This is a limited diet by any standard. Feed a human being, cheese and vitamins and see how long it takes before dietary related deficiencies arise. Variety is important. Fruits, vegetables, boiled or sprouting pulses, germinating seeds and more should all be incorporated into the diet.
We feed our macaws pellets, seeds, nuts, fruit, vegetables, cooked whole wheat pasta, boiled and sprouting pulses, germinating seeds and much more. Palm seeds form an important part of their diet. The diet is often varied from day to day. They may receive bananas or guava or papaya one day; a mix of cooked whole grain pasta mixed with peas, corn, par boiled carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and grains the next; and palm seeds the subsequent day. We do sprinkle calcium and vitamins on the pasta when the birds are nesting, but avoid tonics as they can contain substances toxic to birds.
Another important factor in breeding macaws is natural pairing. It is easy to acquire a male and female and force-pair them, but these birds, if given the chance to select their mates, often willingly do so. Decades ago, I visited Bern Levine´s Pet Farm in Miami. They had wild Blue and Gold Macaws on sale for US$250.00 each in groups of six or more. I acquired a group, sexed them and then placed them in breeding cages in pairs. Two of the three pairs showed no interest in breeding. The minute they were grouped, each switched partners. The birds then started to breed. I have four generations of young from those pairs.
Location of the enclosure is also important. Some pairs dislike where they are placed. When we started remodeling the aviaries, many pairs were moved. One pair in particular had been very prolific. They were eventually situated in an area where I felt they would be happy. They were not. The pair only casually looked at their nest. They were moved again. They favored this spot and commenced breeding. The nest, diet and care was the same. The location was the only factor possible that deterred breeding.
We in aviculture expect the birds to behave as we would like them to, often failing to take into account that they are intelligent and often have strong likes and dislikes. As I have said before, the birds talk with their behavior. We just have to listen. The fact that this particular pair, which had nested so successfully in the past, stopped breeding and showed only very casual interest in the nest told me that something was wrong. They did not like where they were housed. Moving them brought about success.
Another Blue and Gold was reared with a Scarlet Ara macao. The two were strongly bonded and I suspected they were a pair, mating and defending an area in their flight cage; I was allowing them to mature before they could be paired with their own kind. Sexing proved that both were males. The birds were split and offered mates. It took the offering of 6 different partners before the Blue and Gold accepted a mate. She was the opposite of his personality; a very meek bird that I had bought simply to get it into a better home. He always squabbled with every individual, except this one. They proved inseparable. The eventually were placed in their own aviary and as of the time of writing are incubating their first clutch of eggs.
Blue and Golds produce clutches that average 3-4 but can contain as many as 6 eggs. They hatch after 26-28 days. The young are covered with white down and have the typical swollen neck muscle of macaws. It appears fluid or jelly filled. Even thought I have said this many times, I still get messages on how to drain the ´fluid´. Please leave this swollen area alone. It is natural and will be absorbed after a few days.
Young macaws grow quickly. They can be weaned by 12-15 weeks. Key to weaning seems the introduction to feed once they begin to feather out and seeing another bird that is eating. We always have young retained for breeding in the nursery that are weaned. These are used as teachers and make the weaning process easier.
Blue and Golds mature fairly early. I know of hens that have laid eggs at 2 years of age but have never had a male prove fertile before 3 years of age. Pairs can be divided into two categories. Some will nest throughout the year while others will definitely display seasonal breeding. In my opinion, birds in aviculture from Bolivia tend to be more seasonal than their counterparts from Guyana and Suriname, though there are always exceptions.
Housing should take into account body size and the strong beak. The mesh should be of a gauge that the birds cannot destroy. Nests should be placed horizontally to allow the chicks to spread out in warm weather; macaws are large birds that can overheat if crowded into a small nest.
We remove the nests from out macaws to deter breeding. They are allowed to fledge one clutch or are allowed to produce two clutches of babies if these are removed for hand-rearing. The nests are attached on hooks and can easily be removed. We add chunks of rotted wood to the nests, as the chewing is a natural behavior. The darkness of the nest also seems to induce gonadal development. The birds discard what nesting material they do not need. At that point we add a block of hardwood to the nest to allow an incubating hen to chew to keep her occupied.
Of all the macaws we keep, the Blue and Golds still mesmerize me. They are stunningly beautiful. Almost 45 years after I saw my first Blue and Gold as a child, I am still in love with their beauty. Pets can become fabulous, long lived companions. As aviary birds they are not challenging to breed. Overall this is a desirable species.