Meet the Macaws
Macaws are the largest parrots in the world. They’re beautiful birds, often showing off brilliantly colored feathers. Most macaws live in Central and South America. Macaws are part of the parrot family. They are related to all parrots but are less closely related to parakeets and cockatoos.
adly, these colorful, intelligent creatures are in trouble. Some species of macaws areextinct already. Many more are endangered, which means they could become extinct. Only about one million macaws are still living in the wild. A million sounds like a big number, but only three species (blue-and-yellow, red-and-green, and scarlet macaws) make up most of it. Most species have very few members left. For example, there are thought to be fewer than 100 blue-throated macaws left in the wild.
At Home in the Rainforest (Mostly)
The red-fronted macaw is from central Bolivia and is the smallest of the large macaws. From head to tail it is only .6m (24in.) long. The rare birds were not recognized as a definite species until the 1970’s.©Andrew Short
Most macaws live in South and Central America. However, at least two species—scarlet macaws and military macaws—can be found in Mexico as well. Most macaws live intropical rainforests, where they make nestsin holes in trees, but some live in otherhabitats. Red-fronted macaws live in semi-desert regions, in holes and cracks in cliff faces. The yellow-collared macaw lives in grasslands.
Even in the rainforest, different macaws prefer different homes. Red-bellied macaws are found in swampy areas. Scarlet macaws prefer the lowlands. Most macaws are not very adaptable. When their preferred habitat is damaged, their breeding habits and health can be seriously affected.
A Parrot Pair to Last a Lifetime
Red-and-green macaw chicks can't see and need a lot of care and protection when they first hatch. The chick's eyes don't open until it is about 15 days old. This chick is about one-month-old with eyes wide open and already growing its colorful sheath feathers.©D.Dicksson/Tree Top Bird Center
Fossils of parrot-like birds have been found in Europe dating back as far as 50 million years ago, but scientists don’t really know much about how modern macaws evolved. They do know a lot about how macaws live and breed today. For instance, they know that most macaws mate for life. They form breeding pairs called pair bonds that live together,groom each other, and share food.
Macaws lay eggs once a year. Breeding seasons generally begin in late fall or early winter. In most cases, two or three eggs are laid at a time. Females keep the eggs warm while the males find and bring back food. When the eggs hatch, both parents go “shopping” for the family. The newly hatched chicks are helpless until they grow their flight feathers and become fledglings. Then they can leave the nest and join the flock.
And It’s a Long Lifetime
Macaws in captivity can typically live longer than macaws in the wild. Still, macaws have long life expectancies, ranging from around 40 years to around 80 years—or even beyond 100! Smaller macaws have shorter lifespans.
Some species live in small family groups of only a few members, but some live in flocks of dozens of macaws. Even when flying with a flock, pair bonds fly close together, wingtip-to-wingtip.
Macaws are social birds and enjoy playing, grooming and calling out to macaws of the same species. Several different flocks of macaw species are roosting in the forest canopy.©Bill Swindaman
Macaws are large, powerful birds specially adapted to their world. The largest ones, hyacinth macaws, are approximately 1 meter long from beak tip to the end of their tail. The smallest, red-shouldered or Hahn’s macaws, might be only 30 cm long.
Friends, Not Fighters
Macaws are very intelligent and sociable animals. Courting macaws preen and “kiss” each other—trading gentle beak-to-beak bites. They are curious and playful, spending a lot of time with friends and family. They can also be really noisy. Like other parrots, pet macaws can imitate human speech. They explore, investigate interesting objects with feet and tongues, and chew things to keep their beaks in shape. They also take frequent baths.
Although they have strong beaks and legs tipped with sharp, grasping claws, macaws are not fighters. They will deliver a bite if necessary, but would rather fly away than take on a predator.
Let's Hit the Drugstore before Dinner
When macaws eat, they usually stand on one foot. With their other foot, and the help of their beak and strong tongue, they can open almost any nut or fruit. They can easily grasp different kinds of object with their feet and toes.©M.Durham/GLOBIO.org
Macaws are herbivores. They eat primarily seeds, nuts, and fruit. Using their impressive beaks, they have no problem opening even the toughest seed. First they scratch a thin line with their beak’s sharp point, and then they shear the seed open. But inside some of those seeds are poisonous chemicals. How can macaws eat the seeds without getting sick or dying? They visit clay licks—the rainforest’s natural “drugstores.”
The Amazon rainforest has more than 100 of these special clay- and mineral-rich areas along riverbanks. Throughout the mornings, hundreds of macaws will stop by to lick and nibble at the clay. Scientists and other macaw experts believe that chemicals in the clay neutralize the toxins in the seeds. In this way, the macaws keep themselves healthy.
Macaws eat fruit, nuts and seeds but some macaws eat only one kind of nut. Macaws have no problem splitting open the hardest nut shells with their sharp, strong beaks. A human would need to use a hammer to open a palm nut.©Sarah McDermott
When macaws eat seeds, they destroy them. For this reason, they are sometimes referred to as seed predators. When many other animals eat fruits, the seeds pass through their systems undigested. In this way, seeds are distributed to new locations where plants then grow. Macaws take advantage of this when they forage in cow pastures. By picking palm nuts out of the cows’ droppings, they get an easy snack--one whose tough shell has been removed by the trip through the cows’ digestive systems.
Red Alert: Macaws in Danger
Hyacinth macaws are the largest flying parrots. They fly in small flocks or in pairs and stay with one mate for life.©M.Durham/GLOBIO.org
Macaws face two major threats: habitat destruction and the pet trade. Places where macaws live are being destroyed mostly as a result of deforestation. More than 18,000 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest are cut down every year. That’s an area larger than the state of Connecticut in the United States! So many macaws have been captured and sold into the pet trade that this has become a serious problem.
According to the World Conservation Union (sometimes called the IUCN), an organization that prepares a yearly “Red List” of species in danger, macaws are in big trouble. Five macaw species are already extinct, and nine others are endangered, including the hyacinth macaw.
Given their beauty and appeal, it’s not surprising that macaws figure in the mythologies of peoples of Central and South America. In Mayan mythology, the sun god was represented by a macaw, which is a natural role for a bird with such brilliant feathers.
But what can people do now to help these magnificent creatures?
But what can people do now to help these magnificent creatures?
The macaw shows up in many different forms of ancient Mayan art and artifacts such as painting and sculptures. This Mayan artifact shows a king or ruler wearing a macaw headdress.©Justin Kerr
One of the most important steps is to establish and protectconservation areas, safe zones for macaws to live freely and in peace. This sounds simple, but it’s expensive. Rainforest land is valuable. Many people want it for the resources it produces. However, when conservation groups pool their money and buy the land, they can set it aside legally so it won’t belogged and destroyed.
Of course, spreading the word about macaws and their rainforest homes is another great step. The more people who understand that macaws are threatened in the wild, the more people can help.