Keeping and Training Macaws as Pets Part II

Keeping and Training
Macaws as Pets
Part 2
by Candie Bradley

The task of training your Macaw cannot, nor should you expect it to, be achieved in a short space of time. My own Macaw, Gizmo, is 3½ years old, and despite all the training that he has undergone thus far, he is still learning and still teaching me too!
I feel very privileged and honoured over the past 18 years, to have been able to train and meet so many different species of Macaws and I am still learning something new every day.

The degree, to which one wants to train a bird, is entirely up to the individual. Some owners are content to simply train their pet to “Step up” whilst others want to achieve a higher degree of training e.g. Roller Skating, Hoisting Flags etc. Personally, I believe that these wonderful creatures must be trained in the basic handling techniques, any further trick training should be determined by the bird itself, encouragement being given if it wishes to develop other skills.
Macaws are very active, curious and highly intelligent birds, but they should not be confused with being a “Circus Performer”. Training should be conducted in the interest of the bird and not in the interest of the owner’s desire to have a circus performer.

So how would we define the Macaw Species? My own definition is:-

Magnificent and loving
Agile and Playful
Curious and Inquisitive
Adventurous yet sensitive
Wonderfully entertaining

Thus, in this second part of the article on Macaws, I will only deal with the basic training and not the specialised training that would be required to perform “Tricks”. Macaws are extremely intelligent and with the correct training they will become loving, tame pets quite capable of speech.

Having achieved the “Step up” manoeuvre as described in part one, the trust bond between you and your bird will have commenced. The “Step up” procedure needs to be repeated frequently, in order to re-enforce the technique and further enhance the bond between owner and bird.
If there are other members of the family living in the home, the bird also needs to be taught to “Step up” on their command. To ensures, that in the event of the principal owner / carer being absent, the bird will be still respond to handling. This situation is imperative, as it will help to prevent dominance by the bird over the rest of the household and also facilitate handling the bird in a medical / accident, escape / rescue scenario, should the principal owner / carer not be available.

I have experienced many situations where a bird has further injured itself, or sadly died because the owner has not been present and no one else could handle the bird.

Aside from the family, a Macaw needs to be socialised with other people, Macaws also love to be the centre of attention and thrive on meeting different people.
My own Macaw, Gizmo, comes with me on school visits, attends fundraising fetes and shows.
Gizmo recently attended the Derby “One Spectacular Day” event where HRH the Queen, attended. There were 24,000 people present and Gizmo thoroughly enjoyed all the attention that he received, especially when he toured the crowded stadium.
He lapped up the shouts of “Gizmo!” from the crowd and the applause as we walked around, even when he had numerous requests to pose for photographs; these were met with equal joy. He waved his wing and continually shouted “Hello!” to his many fans and I’m positive that he just treated me as a mobile perch! Indeed if I had not walked around with him, he would probably have walked around on his own! A friend said that she had seen Gizmo at the stadium and enquired as to whether I was in attendance!

Macaws, if given the opportunity to meet other people, seem to derive great benefit from this activity and soon adopt the role of celebrity. Perhaps when Macaws are used as performers this is why they appear to enjoy the activities. One often sees other birds such as African Greys perform with Macaws but their role is mainly as a stooge, rather than that of an actual star performer. However, I still maintain that the bird should be allowed to choose to what degree it performs for its human’s pleasure.

As with all birds, patience, love, time and repetition are the keys to successful training sessions. No bird, especially Macaws will respond to, nor, understand punishment or shouting. It simply is not in their make-up. A screaming bird will be far more likely to understand that its behaviour is unacceptable if it is ignored than if the owner responds by shouting back at it! Shouting back at a bird is often a mistake that many owners make. In effect, they are rewarding the bird for its bad behaviour! The bird has simply succeeded in gaining the attention of its owner! If the behaviour is ignored then the bird will quickly realise that this is not having the desired effect and the behaviour will quickly cease. It is much better to praise the bird when it is behaving correctly, thus instilling in the bird the knowledge that good behaviour gains attention.

Treats can play a very important part in the training of any bird, but this too has to be done in a structured manner to have the desired affect. Choose the bird’s favourite treat, a grape, a cedar or pine nut (NOT peanuts as these can be harmful to birds because they prevent the absorption of the crucial Calcium mineral). During the initial training sessions restrict these treats and only use them as a reward for achieving the desired command during training. Use them ONLY for this purpose and then the bird will begin to associate this treat with good behaviour (this can also work with many parrots).

Training should be restricted to no more than 5 minutes at a time; birds will not retain concentration for longer periods than this. It is far better to have 5 minutes of quality, productive training 2 – 3 times a day, than longer but unproductive sessions. All training should be carried out in a different room to the one in which the birdcage is situated to indicate to the bird that a special, set procedure is taking place and one that differs from the bird’s normal daily routine.
If possible training should be carried out at regular set times during the day, do not attempt to train the bird if it is about to eat, if he/she is tired or when other people or household pets are present, as these things will prevent the bird from concentrating on the require disciplines.

Always remember to praise and reward the bird for completing each task. Keep to one training task at a time, not half a dozen at once, as this will only confuse the bird. Wait until the bird becomes proficient at this task, before introducing other commands. The bird needs to know when it has completed a command successfully; then it will begin to understand the benefits of good behaviour and look forward to pleasing its owner and getting praise and or a treat as a reward. Use a small portable perch, chair back or the floor to train the bird. Obviously a separate free standing perch would be ideal and would also allow the bird to have somewhere away from its cage, upon which to play and perch during the day. Do not attempt to train the bird on its cage for the reasons stated previously.

Calmly spoken commands are the most effective. Shouting will only confuse and alarm the bird and not achieve the desired results. It can also have the added disadvantage of annoying your neighbours! Try to keep the commands short and simple.

When training, the bird must always be below your eye level, the bird should look up to you and you should look down on to the bird. This prevents the bird from becoming dominant over you. A dominant bird will be impossible to train. All birds are flock orientated and they need to have a flock leader, you must become that leader in order to achieve results. Similarly, the bird must not be allowed to perch on your shoulder until it is fully trained in the basics. Aside from the bird gaining dominance, a Macaw has a strong beak that can inflict serious damage to the face and eyes.


Teaching your bird to talk will take time. This technique can be conducted when the bird is in its cage as well as when it is in other areas. Choose a simple word such as “Hello”, to start with.
Say the word slowly and emphasis the syllables “Hell-O”. Repeat this word as often as possible until the bird begins to mimic it. Often a bird will not say the word in front of you, until it feels that it is as close to the sound that you have made. I have spent many happy moments standing outside my bird room, listening to the attempts by my parrots to get the sound right in an effort to please me, and it always raises a lump in my throat, because it is then that I really appreciate their keenness to please. Once the bird has mastered the first word, you may then add other words or phrases, but beware, I holiday board many birds and have been greatly entertained by some of the things they repeat.Their owners would be mortified if they knew how much their birds tell me!

Please, please, do not be tempted to teach your bird to swear. The bird does not realise that it is swearing and this can become embarrassing to the owner if the bird is to go into mixed company or areas where children are present.
If my parrots swore, then they could not go into the many schools, hospitals and shows that they now enjoy attending, nor would they be able to go into holiday boarding!

There are certain training aids available from good pet stores and bird shows, one is the “Clicker”.
I know that many owners have used this tool successfully, I do not use it myself as in my opinion it is the treats used in conjunction with the Clicker that encourages the bird to react. Another aid is a pre- recorded talk training tape. This may seem like a good idea, however, it can result in the bird only identifying the voice on the tape and not reacting to your own voice. Besides, I think it is flattering when people say “Your bird sounds just like you”!
Another popular aid is the harness, whilst I know of several owners who use this apparatus to convey their birds, I personally do not advocate this method, they are not dogs and harnesses are alien to birds.
If the bird is travelling with you it will (assuming that the basic training has been achieved) most likely be perched upon your shoulder. If a thief decides that he would like to relieve you of your companion then all he needs is a pair of scissors. The lead is cut, a good tug and the bird is whisked off your shoulder leaving the thief to run away without even having to touch the bird. However, if the bird is on your shoulder then the thief has to be brave enough to decide whether to risk a nasty bite if he has to grab the bird and wrestle it from you. Obviously, if your pet is to travel on your shoulder (Gizmo travels everywhere by this method) then caution is required to prevent the bird from being startled by unexpected noises or sudden movements.
Again, training is the answer. I have taught all my parrots to remain on my shoulder, by initially walking around the house and garden, whilst members of my family have made loud noises and sudden movements, I simply touch my bird’s claws and say “Stay”. My birds all have their wings partially clipped to enable them to make trips with me. When first taking your bird outside I advise that you choose a quiet time of day, walk around your own garden first and then progress to visiting a neighbour’s house. This way the bird is gradually integrated into the fast, noisy and colourful world around it without being subjected to a shopping spree in the local town on its first outing!
Similarly, travelling in a car needs to be introduced in a structured way and a sturdy, safe, secure carrier needs to be available. Ideally the carrier should have water and a food container. Put kitchen towel on the bottom, and a favourite toy if possible. Take the bird for a few short journeys first before embarking on the 40-mile trip to see Aunt Joan! A cover should be made available with which to cover the carrier should the bird appear to become startled by passing vehicles.
DO NOT leave the bird alone in the car; especially on hot days, aside from the threat of theft there is the threat of heat stroke and subsequent death of the bird.
Of course, should the bird escape from the carrier, you could return to your car to find that it has greatly depreciated in value! The car not the Macaw!

Caution also needs to be used when introducing your Macaw to other household pets. A Macaw’s beak will inflict serious injury to a cat, a dog’s soft snout or a smaller bird, and in fear; the bird may strike out at what it perceives to be a predator. My own cats and dogs treat my parrots with great respect as several of them have been on the receiving end of a parrot’s beak! However, they have adopted the maxim of once bitten, twice shy! Now everyone, including the humans, lives in perfect harmony, as the pecking order has been well and truly established!

All birds need to be taught the value of interactive and lone play, this is not something that many birds will be naturally adept at. When a bird is to be left alone in his cage he needs to be taught how to amuse himself, without screaming the house down, ripping the wallpaper, or plucking himself through boredom. If you need to leave your bird alone for any period then provide stimulation, leave a radio playing, preferably one that has a mixture of speech and music. A good way to teach any bird to play is to finish the training session with a short playtime, this will also encourage the bird to look forward to training sessions as it will then know that a playtime will follow.

Begin with simple toys. A small hard, “Macaw proof” ball rolled gently towards your pet’s claws often results in the bird “kicking “the ball back to you. Thus the first steps towards a game of footy are taken. Gizmo loves to sort things, as do many Macaws that I have trained. He loves to put things into other things, e.g. rings on a post, blocks into holes, cotton reels into a margarine tub. He particularly loves to activate the various musical toys that he has. He also enjoys his toy box; a simple tub filled with treats, nuts, toilet roll holders, cotton reels, wooden dolly pegs, dog chews and dog biscuits. He spends hours rummaging around in the box and playing with all the goodies in there.

During training it is quite conceivable that your bird may become tired, frustrated and start to nip. If this happens then end the session. To help prevent further biting, blow hard into the parrot’s face and say “No” firmly. After a short period the bird will soon stop biting as parrots do not like the sensation blowing creates.

After a hard day a parrot needs suitable rest. Your bird should be given 12 hours covered rest each night. Make sure that the cover which should be of a dark colour, completely covers the cage with no gaps at the bottom,. This will help to prevent “Night Fright” e.g. car headlights, fox’s/cats eyes, all of which can represent a predatory threat to your bird, resulting sometimes in sudden apparently unexplained death.

In conclusion, I hope that this article has given you some tips on keeping and training your Macaw. There is no greater reward than having a loving, tame, cuddly bird and whilst I do not advocate that you train your pet to give the same passionate, tongued French kiss that Gizmo gives to me (and any other female who shows an interest in him!), with patience, love and praise, your bird will become the same perfect companion that I am lucky and privileged to have own me!

Copyright. All rights reserved by Candie Bradley

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