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Learn what a macaw is, where they come from, and how to care for them in captivity.

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Hi everyone.  I'm Jessi and this is Joy.  Welcome to Animal Wonders.  For over 12 years, we've been rescuing displaced wild and exotic animals, providing them a safe and comfortable home, and allowing them to become ambassadors for their species by giving educational presentations to the public.

Macaws like Joy are one of the most iconic parrot type birds in the world and they always get awws from audiences.  They get lots of love from artists and nature enthusiasts.  They have been part of human culture for thousands of years, and they're sometimes kept as pets.  Macaws are interesting and so very special, but they can be very challenging to have as a companion in your home if you don't know what to expect, which is why I wanted to talk about what makes a macaw a macaw, so let's get to know them by exploring what they are, where they come from, and how to care for them in captivity.


So what are macaws?  Let's start by classifying them.  At first, it seems obvious what they are, but as we get clsoer to their genus, things aren't always so clear.  First up is kingdom, which is Animalia.  They are a living organism that can move, so they're not a plant, they're an animal.  Phylum chordata.  They have bilateral symmetry and a notochord during development and a skeleton as an adult, among other characteristics of this group of animals.  Class aves.  They are warm-blooded, their body covering is feathers, they have a toothless beak, a four-chambered heart, lay hard shelled eggs, and have a really cool skeletal system that allows for flight in some species.  Order psittaciformes, this is the group that includes all parrot type birds, like cockatoos, lorikeets, keas, vasas, Amazon parrots, lovebirds, and parakeets.  They have a strong curved bill, upright stance, and zygodactyl feet.  Many of them have colorful feathers, but some are brown, grey, or black.

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Family psittacidae.  This group is referred to as "the true parrots".  It includes a variety of parrot species, but excludes those in the cockatoo family and the New Zealand parrots.  Sub-family arinae, these parrots all live in the neo-tropics of South and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands, so it excludes African grey parrots and budgies, among others.  Tribe, arini, this group is exclusively neo-tropical macaws and parakeets, which includes jenday conures, half-moon conures, and hyacinth macaws, but doesn't include Amazon parrots, quaker parrots, or parrotlets.  This is a monophyletic group, meaning they all have a common ancestor.  Genus ara, and we're getting down to it now.  This group has just eight species of macaws.  They all have large beaks, long tails, colorful plumage, and a bare face patch around their eyes.  It includes species like the scarlet macaw, blue and gold macaw, and military macaw, which are some of the most common macaw species kept as pets.

We have two macaw species living at Animal Wonders, Joy, the blue and gold macaw (also known as a blue and yellow macaw), her species is ararauna, which gives a label to her color pattern.  She has a little green on top of her head and then the rest is blue going down her neck, over her wings, and the top of her tail.  She has yellow cheeks, chest, legs, and under her wings and tail, with a black beak and neck, and black lines of feathers on her face.  We also have Scarlet, who is not a scarlet macaw, but instead, she's a green winged macaw, also known as a red and green macaw.  Her species is (?~3:35).  These macaws have a red head, neck, shoulders, chest, belly, and legs.  Their wings are green and blue.  They have a tan upper mandible and a black lower mandible, and thin red lines of feathers on their face, and Joy has been a wonderful study and we're gonna say goodbye to her.

And we're going to welcome Scarlet the green wing macaw.  So now that we've delved into what a macaw is and given two close-up examples, let's talk about where they come from.  To understand why an animal does what it does, you have to look at where they would naturally spend their time.

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Knowing their native habitat and learning what they do all day helps open your eyes to what their world is all about.  Macaws are from the group Arini, meaning they have proportionally larger beaks than the little conures who are closely related to them.  They live in and around tropical forests of the new world.  The exact timing of new world parrots divergence from the old world parrots is debated amongst phylogeneticists, but it happened between 40 and 66 million years ago when Australia and South America were in the process of separating from Antarctica.  

Macaws have evolved specific adaptations that allow them to thrive in their environment.  They spend most of their time perched in trees foraging for food.  In order to do this effectively, they have a specialized beak and feet.  Using their zygodactyl toes, meaning two facing forward and two facing backward, they can hold on to and maneuver a large piece of food, like Scarlet's going to do, yes, and if this was a hard-shelled nut, they would use their powerful beak, apply just the right pressure in just the right spot, to crack the hard shell or they can peel fruit or pick apart a flower.  Their beak is also strong enough to chew into a hollow tree to make a safe nest. 

Another special adaptation is their narrow wings, which allow for long or short flights through the forest in search of food or safety from a predator.  They have exceptional eyesight and can use their ability to see more colors than humans are capable of seeing to discern things like good or bad food, a potential mate, or a camouflaged predator hidden in the foliage.

Macaws are very social.  They live in a flock of about 20 and form strong, monogamous bonds with their mate.  Every macaw also has a distinct personality.  Some are silly, others are curious.  Some are sensitive, and others are straightforward and pushy.  Some macaw species like blue and gold macaws or green wing macaws have distinct facial features for each individual.  If you look closely, you can tell them apart by their unique pattern of feathers on their face.

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Now their main food sources are fruits from palm trees, seeds, nuts, flowers, and very occasionally, high protein prey like insects or small vertebrates.  Macaws specialize in consuming seeds and nuts that most other animals can't open, but they do sometimes contend with monkeys.

In order to compete with the monkeys, macaws can eat unripe fruit and nuts that contain higher levels of toxins than the monkeys can tolerate.  In order to handle the toxins, macaws will eat clay containing high levels of tannins that help purge their bodies of the toxin build-up.  

When macaws are foraging for their food, they stick close to their mate, even when they fly in their flock, mates will fly so close, their wings almost touch.  When it comes time to breed, the pair will carve out a nest and the female will incubate the eggs while the male brings her food.  Once the chicks hatch, the mother feeds them for the first week, after which both parents tend to their needs.

The babies fledge at about three months and stay with their parents for a few more months before finding a flock of their own.  They reach maturity between three and six years and go through some personality changes, kinda similar to humans.

Macaws spend their whole life actively foraging, socializing with their mate and other flock members, and utilizing their specific adaptations to survive in a competitive environment, which (?~7:22) to look--hi--at how we can appropriately care for them in captivity. 

The short answer is, it's hard.  The long answer is to keep all their natural history in mind when finding solutions to their care, and with that, we're going to say goodbye to Scarlet.  You were wonderful, thank you so much.

So the first thing we need to address when we're talking about care in captivity is their housing.  Macaws need to move a lot, so keeping them in a cage where they can just barely spread their wings open is not enough space.  Macaws really need a large aviary, a room, or several rooms, to be active in during the day.  They also benefit greatly from being allowed to fly.  Flight training is a great way to give a captive macaw a good life.

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It's not only good for the health of the macaw, it can be a great way to ensure plenty of time is put into building a trust bond between macaw and human companion.  In order to free fly a pet bird safely, you need to prepare and progress together through training.  Please don't bring your bird outside without proper training or they could spook and end up lost, scared, and unable to protect themselves from predators.

Macaws also need plenty of enrichment to keep them happy.  Enrichment is anything that gets them to engage in actitivites that they would do naturally, like foraging, climbing, vocalizing, playing, and chewing.  If you don't provide interesting activities for a macaw to engage in, they will find something to fill their time, like chewing on walls and trim, screaming to get a reaction, or just because they need to release some energy. 

They can also become so bored or frustrated that they will exhibit neurotic behaviors like chewing and plucking their own feathers, repeating the same motion over and over, biting the bars of a cage, or becoming severely aggressive.  So to keep them happy, make sure they have plenty of macaw-appropriate enrichment.  

Next up is a proper diet.  Now, some people want to give their macaws lots of fruit because they like it, and while macaws do eat a lot of fruit in the wild, most of the fruit is unripe and doesn't contain as much sugar as the fruit we have available in the market, and most people don't have a clay cliff near their house, so offering unripe fruit isn't a great choice either, so it's important to limit the fruit in their diet.

There are two main routes you can go for achieving a healthy diet for your macaw.  You can either offer a wide variety of whole foods including nuts, seeds and grains, flowers, legumes, sprouts, dark greens, fresh vegetables, and occasional fruit, or you can offer a pellet that contains all the essential vitamins and minerals with a variety of fresh vegetables and offer seeds, nuts, or fruit as special treats.

If you choose a whole foods diet, I recommend researching heavily to ensure you're covering all of their nutritional needs.  If you choose a pellet, I recommend a cold pressed pellet without any sugar or dyes.  Ours look like this and our macaws love them.

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A healthy macaw can only be achieved by keeping them feeling fresh and clean.  Daily showers are a great way to maintain cleanliness.  Our macaws, Joy and Scarlet, don't enjoy showers, so to compromise, we have mandatory showers twice a week.  Keep in mind that macaws have natural oils on their feathers, so the water temperature should be cold.  Warm or hot water can strip the oils from their feathers.

Also, providing natural sunlight is a great way to keep them feeling fresh.  That can be challenging for those living in the Northern Hemisphere, so finding opportunities to get them outside as much as possible should be a priority.

Lastly but so incredibly important is macaws need so much time.  Remember how closely they bond with their mate in the wild?  They need almost constant companionship under human care as well.  Leaving them all alone for hours at a time is not okay.  If you're not able to be there for them, they need another companion that can provide social interaction and entertainment while you're gone.  

Interacting with a macaw also takes understanding and practice.  Their ways of communicating are different than humans', so you'll need to learn their body language in order to form a trusting relationship.  Pay attention to their pupils.  Pinning and dilation are communication cues.  Watch their head feathers for being raised in warning or relaxed in comfort and their wings for signs of being territorial or spread slightly in anticipation.  Feel the tension in their feet when they're perched on your hand or arm and pay attention to the weight shifting from leg to leg.  All of these subtle and not-so-subtle behaviors are ways they are communicating with you.  Observe their behavior to judge their overall mood during each interaction and adjust your own behavior as needed.

Macaws are incredibly smart and social and fascinating from an evolutionary standpoint.  They're the big beauties of the rainforest and I want everyone to appreciate their beauty and also respect them for who they naturally are, and now we've covered what macaws are, where they come from, and the basics of how to properly care for them.  

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There's so much more about macaws that I couldn't include in this video, so to encourage you to continue learning about macaws, I left some links to a variety of articles in the description below.  

Thanks for watching, and if you would like to meet more of the animals we care for at Animal Wonders and go on an animal adventure every week, be sure to subscribe.  Thanks.  Bye.