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Macaws and Cockatoos
by Rosemary Low
We are all familiar with cockatoos and macaws as the largest and most charismatic of the parrots. But if we look at these two groups of parrots without the bias of an avicultural viewpoint, they stand out among the whole of the bird kingdom for their extraordinary intelligence and capacity for affection. When I look at a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo or a Blue and Yellow Macaw, I am very aware of a superior intellect. Just look at those eyes!
Is there a way that we can measure intelligence in birds? This is difficult—but a good indication is given by the size and weight of the brains of various species. The intracerebral part of the brain is, in humans, and probably also in birds, the part where reasoning, learning and emotional responses take place. Of the species studied by scientists the weight index is highest in the Blue and Yellow Macaw—a value of 28, the highest level among birds. In comparison, it is 2.9 in the chicken and reaches 8.3 in some raptors. The values for other macaws are probably similar or slightly less and I would expect that those of cockatoos are about the same.
These super-intelligent birds have very different needs from the smaller parrots which make up the majority of the parrots which are kept for breeding and for pets. Simply giving them larger aviaries in proportion to their size is not enough. We need to think along quite different lines. These large parrots need not only more space but immense consideration given to their psychological and emotional needs.
This applies not only to aviary birds but to the countless cockatoos and macaws which are kept as pets. In Europe and the USA there is, unfortunately, a big demand for the large macaws as house pets. I say unfortunately, because the quality of life is very poor for most macaws kept in the home, especially those which have been wing-clipped. There is an increasing appreciation of the importance of space for the larger parrots kept in aviaries—but the huge majority are still kept in aviaries which are much too small.
Unlike most cockatoos, which spend much time feeding on the ground, macaws—with the exception of the Hyacinthine—are true birds of the canopy. They need height in an aviary situation. Unfortunately, they rarely get it. At Loro Parque in the Canary Islands, there used to be macaw aviaries which were 4.8m (16ft) high. What a difference in the behaviour of the macaws kept in these aviaries to those in suspended cages! They were more confident and relaxed. Because of the length and height of their aviaries, it was a joy to watch them in flight. True, it was necessary to climb a ladder to inspect the nest-boxes—but that was a small price to pay for the welfare of the macaws and for the enjoyment of the public which could see the birds in flight. It was in one of these aviaries that the first European breeding of the Blue-throated Macaw occurred.
From the breeder's viewpoint there are important practical reasons why macaws should be able to fly. This has been proved by an increasing number of breeders who allow their macaws and other large parrots the relative freedom of a large aviary out of the breeding season. By large, I mean at least 30m (100ft) long. An aviary at Paradise Park in the UK is 45m (150ft) long. The impact this enclosure has had on many people is very encouraging. For example, when Miguel Gomez-Garza, former curator of the ARA Foundation in Monterrey, Mexico, saw it, he went back to Monterrey and had one just like it built for Military Macaws.
The benefits of these large aviaries include increased fitness and, equally important, the opportunity for macaws to choose their own partners where several birds of the same species are flown together. I should make it clear that I refer only to Ara species. While a group of Hyacinthine Macaws can be kept together, they should never be housed with Aras. The power of the mandibles of the larger macaws has resulted in deaths.
It should be emphasised that a major reason for breeding failure with the larger parrots is incompatibility. This is not usually a problem with the small macaws, such as Hahn's. But the higher price of the larger species means that it is more difficult to assemble a group. Where this is possible, individuals can be tried with different partners or allowed to chose their own mates.
While it is true that many pairs of large macaws are raised in small cages, I believe this is possible only because the particular male and female are compatible. In a confined space, incompatible birds can be under a lot of stress. Injuries or scratches to the bare skin on the face are usually an indication that the birds have been fighting. To keep two large parrots which are not happy in a small aviary is not only insensitive but might lead to the death of one—not necessarily directly but through stress. This leads to disease taking a hold.
An ideal macaw aviary is one which is large enough for flight. For the large species this means a minimum length of 40ft (12m). A macaw in flight, even in an aviary, is a magnificent sight. Personally, I would rather have one aviary 100ft (30m) long, in which I could watch macaws in flight, than any number of smaller ones. Quality of life is so important, especially for birds with a wingspan of 3ft (1m).
As already mentioned, height is very important. Macaws kept in high aviaries usually perch as near to the roof as possible. While few private owners can provide aviaries which are 16ft (4.8m) high, I believe that zoos should strive to do so. The true majesty of these large birds can be appreciated only under these circumstances. In zoos, one would not expect to find large canopy-dwelling birds, such as a Harpy Eagle, in an aviary only 8ft (2.4m) high yet this is often considered acceptable for macaws. While it might be argued that most large macaws are captive-bred, they are far from being domesticated. Many are only one or two generations away from the birds which were flying in the South American forests. Yet we expect them to feel as comfortable in our homes as dogs and cats which have been domesticated over hundreds of generations.
A macaw aviary should be more than a space to confine a breeding pair. It should be an area where one of the most vital needs of captive macaws, the opportunity to gnaw, can be carried out. For breeding pairs, the aviary framework must be made of an indestructible material, such as metal pipe. In very large aviaries used to house adults out of the breeding season, or young birds, wooden framework might be used. In a large area macaws are less destructive, provided that they have a regular supply of branches or wood to destroy. They derive great enjoyment from this and the small pieces of bark which are probably swallowed are almost certainly beneficial.
In my experience, Casuarina equisetifolia is superb in this respect. It has been introduced to many countries, thus residents of California, for example, are able to offer it to their parrots. It is quickly destroyed so harder wood and/or large ropes must be used for perching. Ropes hung vertically will also provide a lot of amusement.
Large macaws can be kept in planted aviaries. The plants are seldom destroyed unless the aviary is too small. I firmly believe that the presence of plants, either inside or close to the outside of the aviary, has a beneficial effect on parrots and on other birds. In Switzerland, there is a private collection mainly of macaws and Amazons, kept inside a traditional wooden Swiss chalet house. Lars Lepperhoff, who looks after the birds, is also interested in epiphytes. He has combined his interests to the benefit of the birds. Furthermore, so strongly does he believe in the therapeutic effects of sun and shade that he has painted the inside of the cages to simulate this.
Keeping birds outdoors does have disadvantages, especially from the aspect of security. But quality of life is so greatly enhanced by exposure to weather and seasons, the sky above and observation of the local bird life, that these benefits usually outweigh the disadvantages, where the climate allows outdoor aviaries. Parrots are extremely observant and enjoy watching what is going on around them. The inside of a building is an environment totally lacking in stimuli for macaws unless much effort is put into correcting what is otherwise a very boring environment.
The luckiest macaws I know are those in a collection of friends in England. Most of them fly at liberty nearly every day. I realise that this practice is not possible, or either dangerous or illegal, for most macaw keepers. Nevertheless, I would like to show you their birds in flight. Only one pair is let out at any one time. They keep within the bounds of the property, which is surrounded by woods and fields. When my friends walk in the fields with their dogs, the Blue and Yellow Macaws will follow them. They will even descend for nuts. I feel that these are truly happy macaws! They are seldom bored.
Food can play an important part in relieving boredom. I believe that parrots should be fed twice daily—and three times when there are young in the nest. Large macaws in my care in the breeding centre at Palmitos Park, Gran Canaria, had walnuts twice daily—until I was admonished for spending too much money on nuts! However, the Hyacinthine Macaws there have not had young since I left—and did not reproduce before I was there.
High fat foods are essential if the large macaws are to breed. The most successful collections are those which feed nuts in good quantities. In one, the curator told me that the Hyacinthines did not produce young until macadamia nuts were provided. This type of nut is not essential but nuts are very important, both for their high fat content and for the beak exercise and wear which opening nuts provides. Dietary items which approximate to the high fat content of palm nuts, on which most macaws feed, is essential for breeding success over the long term. Macaws and cockatoos are totally different in this respect. A diet which encourages the large macaws to breed would kill Galahs and some white cockatoos.
A well-known breeder in Australia bred from his macaws soon after they came out of quarantine, a few years back when importation was permitted on a few occasions. During the next few years none of the several pairs of macaws nested again. When I visited him he asked me what he was doing wrong. A quick glance in the food dishes told me. The diet was too low in fat. He was even feeding millet because some of the macaws were plucking themselves and he feared that sunflower seed was to blame. I suggested that he should feed sunflower seed ad lib—and a few months later he had a fortune in macaw chicks at a time when they cost A$10,000 each.
The large macaws appreciate variety in their diet. They are able to distinguish subtle differences in flavour and many have obvious preferences for certain foods. However, unlike some parrots, they will readily sample a wide range of foods. Their provision certainly helps to enrich their lives. Nuts such as walnuts, Brazils, pecans and macadamia are usually favoured above all other foods. Almonds, hazelnuts and pine nuts, and coconut for Hyacinthine Macaws, are also eaten. In my opinion, peanuts should not be offered, because of the danger from aflatoxins.
Many macaws will crush the shells after eating the nuts and seem to enjoy this activity. They may be so frantic to get their share that they will perfect a technique for holding at least two walnut-sized nuts at once to prevent other birds from taking them. Feeding nuts twice a day, rather than giving them all in the morning, helps to relieve the monotony of a macaw's day.
Feeding large macaws properly is expensive because they need so many nuts. This point should be considered before a macaw is acquired. Many large macaws appear to be under-nourished, with prominent breast bones. How often have you ever seen an overweight macaw of one of the large species? I have never seen one but I have seen dozens of overweight white cockatoos. Cockatoos eat small quantities compared with macaws; they are designed to exist on less nourishing foods, such as small seeds.
Cockatoos and macaws need the occupation and stimulation provided by a range of foods which offer contrasting tastes, textures, colours and beak exercise. To feed them mainly on pellets is a form of cruelty, in my opinion. Macaws generally prefer fruits to vegetables, with the exception of fresh corn. Their favourites are orange, pomegranate, grapes, guavas and loquats. All the more usual kinds can be offered as well. Cockatoos take a wide range of vegetables in addition, such as peas in the pod, green beans, celery, red and green bell peppers, carrot and various green leaves. They also enjoy frozen vegetables which have been thawed, such as peas and sweetcorn.
Unlike some parrots, macaws usually readily accept the nest site offered. This may be because in the wild the large species cannot easily find nest sites, thus they need to be adaptable. In the Pantanal region of Brazil, Hyacinthine Macaws now accept man-made nest sites because of the shortage of natural nests. Even in the rainforest suitable natural cavities are rare. This is true even in pristine forest where logging has not made any serious impact. In the Tambopata reserve in south-eastern Peru, nest-boxes have been made available to wild birds, to increase the reproduction rate, which was low. During the last breeding season (1999-2000), nine of the 12 boxes erected were used by Scarlet Macaws. Blue and Yellow Macaws need a different type of nest as they breed in open-topped palms so, recently, boxes of a different design have been provided for them.
Cliffs are the natural nesting sites of Lear's Macaws and, in some areas, of Green-winged Macaws. Thirty years ago Green-winged Macaws were nesting in the bank of a river in Paraguay, near the Iguazu Falls. This area is now the site of an enormous dam.
Some macaws prefer horizontal nest-boxes. In a warm climate it gives the growing young more room to move about; they can be very cramped in an upright box. If outside nest-boxes are used, they should be encased in strong welded mesh and the floor should be of a double thickness of wood. These precautions are necessary because macaws are so destructive to woodwork. Some large pieces of wood should be screwed (not nailed) inside, to help prolong the life of the nest-box.
Where palm logs are available, their excavation can help to stimulate nesting. The centre can be roughly hollowed out and the macaws will do the rest. Charles Munn has seen more than 100 nests of Blue and Yellow Macaws in three countries. Every one has been in a palm tree.
It is not unusual for large macaws to nest at floor level if given the opportunity. In South Africa, Willem Grobler offered his macaws a choice of three sites—a conventional nest-box, a log and a brick-built nest at ground level. Different pairs chose different sites. He also adapted metal garbage cans by making a narrow entrance. Also in South Africa, Gill DuVenage was one of the most experienced macaw breeders. She used large metal barrels mounted as high as possible. They could be inspected from a service passage at the back of each range of aviaries, using a portable ladder. A Perspex window in each inspection door allowed her to see the position of the occupants. Because macaws can be very aggressive when they are breeding, it is essential to be able to inspect the nest from a service passage, rather than by entering the aviary.
In my opinion, the three most important factors in breeding healthy macaws over the long term are wing exercise, compatibility and a suitable diet. Unlike some parrots, macaws usually nest readily when these requirements have been met. If they don't, what should you do? First do not assume that you have a true pair, even if they have been surgically sexed. Check by having them DNA-sexed. If you have a confirmed pair, adult and compatible but not attempting to breed, there might be something stressful in their environment, or at least one bird might be sick or in some way unsuitable for breeding.
I recall the case of a female Hyacinthine Macaw at Palmitos Park. She would not enter the nest-box but seemed to be interested in nesting at ground level. She was therefore given a nest-box there. She entered and stayed inside—but no eggs were laid. She was examined with a laparoscope and it was found that there were few egg follicles on the ovaries. In a female who offers a good prospect for breeding many eggs can be seen as small white spots on the ovary. We then changed the female (as there were more females than males) and three months later the new female laid her first clutch. The eggs were infertile but, within six months we had our first chick from this pair.
The small macaws are prolific breeders. Most will readily accept the mate with whom they are provided. In my experience, this is also true of Hyacinthine Macaws. But large Ara species and some cockatoos can be not only difficult to pair up, but dangerous in the aggression which they display towards each other. It is important to keep newly formed pairs under constant observation—and this is where cameras and monitors are invaluable. They are among the most useful modern developments in aviculture. They can also provide hours of enjoyment and information which would not be possible to obtain in any other manner. These monitors can also be used for security purposes, especially at night, when any unusual sounds might alert one to the presence of intruders.
Many parrots do not behave naturally when they are aware of being observed. This is particularly the case with those which are tame or have previously been kept as pets. In the presence of people some tame macaws will lash out at their macaw companion because they are competing for human attention. The observation monitor may reveal that in other circumstances they agree well together. On the other hand, it might be that the pair is not compatible. If you see unopened pin feathers on the head of members of a pair of macaws or cockatoos, it is not likely that the pair is compatible. Couples which have a close bond spend hours in mutual preening.
There is no point in persevering with apparently incompatible pairs beyond a certain point. Before taking the often difficult and expensive step of finding new partners, it is advisable to separate male and female for a few weeks or to move them to a different environment—preferably a large aviary. In the breeding centre at Palmitos Park one female Military Macaw always laid her eggs from the perch. After spending several months flying in a large aviary in the park, the pair was returned to the breeding centre. The female laid six weeks later—in the nest-box. Never again did she lay from the perch.
If it is necessary to remove eggs for artificial incubation, they should be left with the female for the first third of the incubation period. Eggs which are placed in an incubator during the first week have a reduced chance of hatching. Most macaw eggs have a small yolk to albumen ratio. Hatchability will usually be improved if eggs are turned more than the standard once per hour. Many macaw chicks pip upside down—and this usually indicates that turning has not been frequent enough.
Almost all incubator-hatched chicks are destined to be hand-reared. Most of these young macaws can be useful for breeding if they are kept with their own species as soon as they are independent, or before then. Single chicks might become imprinted on the feeder. It is better to rear a single chick with another parrot, even a totally unrelated species such as a cockatoo. The small macaws have more independent personalities and are less likely to become imprinted.
A young macaw which has been purchased with the intent of ultimately buying another for breeding purposes, should be introduced to its future partner when both are less than one year old. Introducing them as adults might be much more difficult.
Finally on the subject of macaws, I would like to make a plea. It is never to pair together two different species. If aviculturists produce hybrids, they do not deserve to keep macaws. But they do deserve the strongest criticism from the conservation community.
Much of what I have said about macaws applies to cockatoos But behaviourally the two groups are very different. Cockatoos are, in my opinion, the most distinctive group among the parrots, in appearance and in behaviour. Intelligence varies according to the species. At the super-intelligent level there is the Greater Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. It is, perhaps, too intelligent to be confined. At the other extreme is the Leadbeater's or Major Mitchell's Cockatoo—beautiful but not very clever. Given the choice I would take the Sulphur-crest if I could provide a large aviary and create a stimulating environment. Cockatoos love to dig in the ground, so welded mesh should be buried under the floor.
Because of the excitable temperament of the white cockatoos, it is important that they have large aviaries. Fatal attacks on females by males are all too common. Many attacks result in the female losing the upper mandible—or her life. Urgent action by a vet saved this female and her beak. In many cases the result is catastrophic because the male is sold and he goes on to kill again. But don't blame the male. Most of these attacks could be prevented. They occur because cockatoos are inadequately housed and because the keepers are not vigilant—especially after the moult or after rainy weather, when the male might want to breed but the female is not ready. To help prevent such attacks:
In my opinion, cockatoos are suitable only for the most experienced aviculturists who understand the importance of observation of pairs, and who know how to interpret the complexities of their behaviour.
One of the problems in breeding from some pairs of white cockatoos, especially wild caught birds, is that they are extremely sensitive to nest inspection. This can result in their breaking eggs or killing chicks. In many respects, the breeding behaviour and biology of Galahs is different from that of the Cacatua species. They are more tolerant, more prolific, and less sensitive. One hatched two years ago at Paradise Park in the UK is literally worth her weight in gold. During a once-daily show she collects pound coins in aid of the World Parrot Trust. In my opinion, Galahs are better suited to be companion birds than are the white cockatoos.
I recently had a telephone conversation with a lady who had just bought a copy of my book The Loving Care of Pet Parrots. She told me that she wished she could have read my advice not to buy one as a pet before she had bought hers. She was not an unthinking lady who had carelessly embarked on buying a hand-reared cockatoo but one who had wanted to do everything possible for her pet. She even built an aviary in the garden so that when she was out the cockatoo could exercise and play there. Unfortunately, when she came home the cockatoo screamed so much that, very reluctantly, she returned it to the breeder. The breeder had taken back the other two cockatoos she had reared because the purchasers could not cope with them. She said that she would use this lady's bird for breeding.
Now does this make sense? None of the three young she had hand-raised had been acceptable pets so the breeder wanted to set up even more pairs and presumably produce even more young which would be discarded as pets. Was it a coincidence that all three young were returned? I doubt it. Another breeder, of Umbrella Cockatoos, will take back any birds which do not make suitable pets, rather than have them go out to the trade. While I applaud this attitude which hopefully stops some cockatoos from having numerous homes, surely breeders should be asking themselves why they are producing white cockatoos when so many are destined to end up in rescue centres, or become so neurotic or badly plucked, that there is no future for them at all.
I blame the breeders. Most of them sell white cockatoos before they are naturally weaned. Bare-eyed Cockatoos are an exception, as they wean at an earlier age. Most cockatoos are force-weaned, before they are physically and emotionally ready to be independent. In the wild, young cockatoos (also macaws), with the exception of the Bare-eyed and the Galah, spend many months with their parents. In the largest species it is known that some spend the first ten to 12 months with their parents. To wean them so early in captivity is the equivalent of throwing a seven year old child out of the house and expecting him to fend for himself. This would have devastating consequences emotionally. This is why so many hand-reared white cockatoos have such sad and wasted lives. Their emotional needs and super-intelligence are neglected. The key to producing healthy and psychologically sound white cockatoos of the large species is, of course, in prolonged weaning. In my experience, species such as Moluccans and Umbrellas normally wean between the ages of five and six months. I was happy to feed them until they weaned naturally.
Forced weaning has more profound psychological effects on white cockatoos than on any other parrots I have hand-reared (just over 100 species). It makes them exceedingly anxious and clinging. They go on to become screamers, pluckers and seed-flingers. I am not pretending that no wild-caught cockatoo ever behaved in this way but the incidence is low compared with those which have been hand-reared.
A couple of years back a lady sought my advice regarding an Umbrella Cockatoo which she had bought as weaned. She could not persuade it to feed on its own. She had sought advice from many people and always the answer was the same: Cut out the spoon feeds and make it feed on its own. I am appalled that many people are so ignorant on the subject of weaning parrots.
While a young parrot is hungry, and unable to eat enough hard food to sustain it, it will be anxious and miserable, disinclined to feed on its own. As soon as its crop is nearly full it will start nibbling at the food provided. Young parrots which are permanently hungry will, in the case of cockatoos, be continually whining to be fed and screaming for attention. In other species hunger may manifest itself as biting and all species will be susceptible to ill health at an age when their immune system is not fully functional.
My advice to breeders is: think twice before you sell a young cockatoo or other parrot at the standard age of so many weeks. Unless you are honest and tell the purchaser it still needs hand-feeding, you might be condemning it to an early and miserable death. Many purchasers of young parrots know so little that they cannot even recognise a food soliciting call. Show the buyer how to hand-feed and give them some of the food on which it was reared—even if you think it is fully weaned. Many young parrots regress when being moved to a new home and hand-feeding will tide them over this difficult period.
Think twice before you sell a young parrot to a pet store. Many employees cannot recognise a parrot which is not fully weaned. If you are a breeder or pet store employee, do not tell the purchaser that the bird is feeding well on seed or pellets. Young parrots need soft foods. Of course they will eat some seed or pellets but the transition period from the end of hand-feeding to eating hard foods should be much more gradual than is usually the case.
The following foods should be offered: wholegrain bread, frozen sweetcorn and peas, soft fruits such as apple, banana and grapes and, when available, fresh corn and pomegranates. Warm cooked pasta, with a little tomato-based sauce, is a good soft food.
The key to gradual weaning is, initially, not cutting out feeds but reducing the amount of food given and making the first feed progressively slightly later in the day once the parrot has started to eat an appreciable amount on its own. Spoon-feeding makes weaning easier because you cannot over-feed, thus reducing the young bird's inclination to eat on its own.
At this age young macaws, and some other parrots, are more interested in exercising their wings than in feeding. They should have a good flap before you start to feed. This flapping is often simulated flight and you can hear the parrot's heart pounding with the exertion. This form of exercise is very important and the parrot knows that instinctively. It cannot do this if its wings are clipped.
Finally, the subject of breeding cockatoos for the pet trade. If you are not prepared to sell them as honestly and totally weaned (a process which is too lengthy for most breeders), should you be hand-raising them at all? How about parent-rearing? This is not easy. Even some of the best aviculturists have not succeeded in producing parent-reared cockatoos. Those who can, know the importance of large aviaries, compatible pairs, lack of disturbance (human or otherwise) and the provision of nourishing soft foods several times a day. At this time cockatoos might even need cooked lean meat. Investing in a nest-box camera is important to prevent disturbing the parents. Ringing chicks might have to be abandoned. This will depend on the temperament of the parents.
Then what do you do with parent-reared cockatoos? Either they are socialised for breeding, which will be be important if the white cockatoos are to survive in aviculture, or you spend some weeks with them in the house, taming them. They will be real cockatoos who know their own identity. They will not be beautiful feathered creatures who are very confused about who they are.
I think the white cockatoos are incredibly wonderful birds; if you think so too, if you really love them, don't hand-rear them unless you are confident that you can produce psychologically sound birds. The only way that rescue centres will see a decrease in the numbers of cockatoos brought in is when breeders get the message that ethics are more important than money.
My views will not be popular. My concern is for the cockatoos.
Rosemary Low (UK)
One of the world's best-known aviculturists, Ms. Lowe has traveled extensively to observe parrots in the wild and has worked with some of the world's largest collections. She is an authority on all aspects of parrot care and breeding, the author of numerous books and articles, and an international lecturer of renown. She is currently the editor of Psittascene, the publication of the World Parrot Trust.