Mini Spotlight: Macaw

Macaws, which come in many varieties, are some of the most brightly colored and beautiful birds on earth. They are also intelligent, sociable, curious, playful and resourceful. Unfortunately, this makes them very popular as pets, and the pet trade now endangers their populations in the wild.

But how easily do you think they can camouflage themselves to hide from their main predators, snakes and raptors? Very well, it turns out! Macaws live in rainforests, and they tend to spend their days looking for food and eating it, very efficiently. Their preferred diet is fruit, and in the rainforest tree canopy, many of those fruits are just as brightly colored as the macaws who love to consume them.    

Many of the fruits are toxic to humans, by the way, and also, very difficult to bite into, but the macaw is perfectly adapted to this task. They have extremely strong beaks, which not only can penetrate the toughest skin on a piece of fruit, but can also behave like a sort of extra foot at the birds move around high in the tree branches. In addition, the macaw’s tongue, which is dry and scaly, actually has a bone inside which also helps them crush even the toughest pits and seeds inside the fruit they love.

Of course, fruit isn’t all they eat – because, as we all know, eating too much fruit can be hard on the stomach, and besides, we all crave variety in our diets sometimes. So they will also consume snails, insects, and nuts. The Blue and Yellow Macaw (like Rainbow, who lives in the Reid Park Zoo) has been observed eating up to 20 different species of plants! But back to all that fruit. Macaws have a unique dietary habit which is not fully understood by scientists – they frequently eat damp clay or mud. It’s thought this mud is a sort of Pepto Bismol for their digestive systems, and may also guard against some of the known toxins they consume.

Macaws mate for life, and though they may live in larger groups (generally 10 – 30), a mating pair always stays close to one another, even while flying within the flock to find food. They share food with their mates, and also groom one another. These are some long relationships, because macaws in the wild and in human care can live up to 60 years! Females generally lay 2-3 eggs once a year, and the hatchlings are quite helpless, totally dependent on both parents to protect them and provide food. In the world of macaw chicks, the squeaking wheel (or screeching baby macaw) is the one who gets the majority of the food, and may end up being the only one in the nest to live to maturity. They learn to fly at about three months.

Some species of macaw (there are 17 known) are now endangered and some, like the Blue and Yellow Macaw we can see in the Reid Park Zoo, are considered “extirpated” from certain native habitats like Trinidad. But reintroduction efforts have been modestly successful, and small breeding populations exist in Puerto Rico and in Florida. What has caused the reduction of numbers of these iconic birds in the wild? Well, as with almost every species on earth, habitat loss and climate change are putting the macaws at greater risk. But the pet trade is a bigger culprit.

The Macaw’s beauty and intelligence is greatly admired by humans, who are willing to pay thousands of dollars for one chick. These amazing birds are able to problem solve, learn to talk (and have even been observed practicing human speech), and of course their dramatic plumage and gregarious personalities make them extremely desirable as pets.   But there are several downsides. They need a great deal of room, and their long median lifespan makes owning one a lifetime commitment. They joyfully screech and squawk at an amazing volume, which might be fine in the rainforest, but might be overwhelming inside a house.  

Many organizations such as the Macaw Recovery Network are now working to protect the macaw. Some try to pay locals to stop poaching the animals, and surprisingly, ecotourism may prove to be an effective strategy to protect the macaws. Conservationists are starting to build lodges to attract visitors to see large flocks in the wild. The most wonderful aspect of this is that these lodges can employ locals who formerly made a living trapping the macaws; they are now earning a living as expert tour guides. It’s truly a win-win!  

Rainbow, the Blue and Yellow Macaw at the Reid Park Zoo, hopes that you will support Macaw conservation by stopping by to admire his striking feathers and have a little squawk. He’d also like you to know that one of his favorite distant cousins, the Ring-necked parakeet, will be coming soon to the Reid Park Zoo expansion!

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  1. I loved reading about macaws. Their adaptation for eating clay or mud as a kind of Pepto Bismol is very clever! I’m excited to have new colorful birds with the Pathway to Asia. Thanks again for the info.

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