These members of the parrot family have powerful curved beaks for crushing nuts and seeds, and strong, agile toes for grasping food and climbing. Macaws’ bodies and long tail feathers are streamlined for flying through the trees. Their colorful feathers blend in well with fruits, flowers, leaves, and forest shadows.
What They Eat
Macaws feed mainly on seeds, nuts, fruits, and berries. Hyacinth macaws specialize in eating the hard fruits and nuts of palm trees. They sometimes gather in cattle pastures to take advantage of the softened, partially digested nuts passed by grazing cows.
Where They Live
Blue-throated macaws inhabit the swampy lowlands and savanna grasslands of north central Bolivia. Hyacinth macaws can be found in southern Brazil and western Bolivia. They prefer the tall trees and palms of swamps and rainforests, near rivers and open grasslands.
What They Do
These social birds live in bonded pairs or small family groups within a larger flock of up to 100 birds or more. As a group, macaws spend their day preening, roosting, chattering, and squabbling, and flying to the day’s feeding grounds. Eggs are laid once each year in a tree hollow or in a cavity on a cliff face.
How They’re Doing
Most species of “blue macaws” are now rare or extinct in the wild. Numbers have been drastically reduced from illegal capture for the pet trade, and habitat loss due to farming and logging. To help increase wild populations, some landowners have stopped permitting trapping on their property, and ex-poachers have been hired to protect remaining nests.
The Minnesota Zoo is home to a hyacinth macaw named Gandy. He hatched on July 4, 1994, and was acquired by the zoo in 1995 from a private Minnesota breeder. Gandy’s sire (father) was captive bred and his dam (mother) was wild-caught.
With cobalt blue feathers and bright yellow skin around his eyes and lower beak, Gandy is hard to miss. He is gentle, but takes time warming up to new trainers. For those hearing him for the first time, Gandy’s vocalizations can be quite intimidating. He usually only does them in his house or crate, and rarely when on the hand. He sometimes resists being loaded into his travel crate when moving to the indoor show, and needs constant reinforcement in this situation.
Where to see Gandy at the zoo:
Hyacinths are slow to mature and develop. They are strongly motivated by social interaction, so developing a good relationship with their trainer is very important. After considerable training, Gandy started performing in our outdoor bird show in 1998.
A macaw’s beak is strong enough to crack open palm and macadamia nuts
When they are young, macaw chicks start out with gray or black eyes, which change to brown or yellow as they mature.
Macaws “scream” and “squawk” to stay in touch with each other, define territory, or warn others of danger. Like many birds in the parrot family, they can also imitate sounds and words that they hear.
A macaw’s dry, slightly scaly tongue has a bone inside of it, making it a useful tool for breaking open and eating food.
All macaws are threatened in the wild because of illegal trapping for the pet trade, and loss of habitat due to urban development, agriculture, and logging. Due to their limited range, numbers of hyacinth and blue-throated macaws in particular, have been heavily reduced due to illegal capture for the pet trade. Saving the remaining populations may be possible through a combination of research, conservation, education, and reintroduction from captive breeding programs.
One of the biggest challenges facing the blue-throated macaw has been capture for the international pet trade. After nesting sites were discovered during the early 1980s – early 1990s, 400-1,200 birds were exported from Bolivia, many of which are now in captivity in Europe and North America.
An organization called The World Parrot Trust is working hard to protect remaining blue-throated macaws. Their conservation efforts are focused on looking for more birds, protecting a handful of existing nest sites, and providing support to ex-poachers in exchange for protecting the remaining birds. Research teams are also working to discover what factors contribute to successful breeding and fledging, and trying to educate local Bolivians on how they can help with conservation efforts.
Through the Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Grant Program, the Minnesota Zoo has provided financial support to the conservation efforts of The World Parrots Trust. Staff champion for this project is Dave Cruz, World of Birds Show Supervisor.
SouthWild is a non-profit, non-government organization that owns a private reserve called Hyacinth Cliffs Reserve in the Brazilian state of Piaui. The Hyacinth Cliffs Reserve is one of the biggest and safest refuges in the area for the Hyacinth macaw, with guards monitoring the area on a regular basis. In addition, ecotourism has been introduced into the area to provide local people with jobs.
At one time, hyacinth macaws were widely distributed throughout Brazil. By 1995, less than 5,000 remained in the wild. Since 1996, special efforts have been put in place to help the hyacinth macaw population recover.
World of Birds Show
The World of Birds Show at the Minnesota Zoo raises funds for BioBrasil conservation programs during the shows. During summer shows, one of the parrots demonstrates how to place dollar bills into a donation box, after which guests are invited to do the same. More than $15,000 has been raised so far and fundraising efforts continue.