KEEPING AND TRAINING MACAWS AS PETS Part I

KEEPING AND TRAINING MACAWS AS PETS
Part 1
By Candie Bradley.

The magnificent plumage, the beautiful colours and the sizes of the Macaw parrots, not only give them the distinction of being the largest members of the Parrot family, but also make them a much desired pet. They are, to many people, the epitome of a “Parrot” and their longevity (often living up to 80 years of age) coupled with their impressive talents, often displayed by performing parrots as seen at shows and zoos make them a popular choice as a domestic pet.
However, few people who embark upon owning a Macaw actually realise that the Macaw species, require special considerations when it comes to caring for and training them.
There are of course Dwarf Macaws, Hahn’s Macaws and several other species that are the smaller members of the Macaw family, but for the purposes of this article, I am referring to the larger members of this group, i.e. Blue & Yellows, Scarlet, Military, Green Winged, these being the most popular that are offered for sale by breeders, pet shops and other sources. I do not include the Lear’s or the Hyacinth, as these are now extremely rare and unlikely to be offered for sale to the public. I also exclude Macaws that are destined for life as Aviary birds. Their needs are different from those kept as indoor pets.
All parrots have the average intelligence level of that of a 4-41/2 year old child and therefore, not best suited to being kept in a cage all day. After all, would you keep a 4 year old child in a room alone all day? Of course not.
Macaws especially need plenty of space, not only for their accommodation, but also for their successful development and well being.
I own over 20 parrots and take many more in as holiday boarders, rescue,
unwanted, ill treated and sick parrots and the observations contained herein
are based on my own observations and extensive experience, accrued over
a large number of years. The following points are designed to help you
to think carefully and to decide whether the larger Macaws are really the pet
bird for you.

COSTS

Most Macaws, if they are purchased from a breeder or a pet shop will
cost you anything between £1000 to £1800 dependent on the age and type of
Macaw. They will need a very large cage and one that is strong enough
to safely contain these strong beaked birds. These are just the basic costs
involved in the initial purchase of the bird.

Accommodation

Macaws need a very strongly constructed cage in which to live. Ideally it should be manufactured from a powder coated metal to prevent the danger of Zinc poisoning occurring. Macaws like all parrots, use the bars of their cage to sharpen and clean their beaks and if the cage is of a brass or ordinary chrome construction, then eventually the bird will erode the top coating, exposing the under metal which is often zinc. Zinc poisoning kills many caged parrots each year! These cages can cost anything from £295 upwards. The smallest size of cage that I would advise for a single Macaw is 90 x 60cm with bar spacing of 2.5cm. Anything less than this and the bird would damage its long tail and wide wing span when moving around in it. Even if you intend to keep the bird in an Aviary, it is wise to bring the bird indoors during the winter months.
As these birds like to chew, the cage must have a good adequate sized perch and plenty of toys to occupy its extremely active mind. The bird will also require a play area for when it is outside its cage. A good quality play stand, again constructed from powder coated metal would be ideal. Again, these can cost from £120 upwards. These play stands must also be equipped with drinking and feeding stations and a variety of toys.
Placing the cage is also of vital importance. As these birds have become domesticated, they are not able to withstand extreme changes in temperature and therefore need to have their cage placed away from drafts, but not in a window, as sunshine can cause the bird to become overheated. The best option is to place the cage against a wall, so that the bird feels secure, whilst allowing it to see outdoors if possible. Thus you are providing shade and light. The cage should be covered at night with a dark material. This will allow the bird to get the required restful sleep of 12 hours minimum, whilst also protecting it from drafts and possible disturbance from car headlights, cats sitting on window sills( which will be perceived by the bird as a predator) or anything else that could frighten or disturb your bird.
Cleanliness is another vital routine that must be followed. Domesticated birds are often susceptible to many diseases and their recovery can be slow or sometimes the disease causes fatality. Keeping your bird cage clean at all times is essential. Macaws especially enjoy throwing their food around and if fruit or vegetables are allowed to lie in their cages for longer than a day, this food matter will quickly become mouldy. Macaws also tend to defecate frequently and in large amounts, again, this must be cleared daily. Also bear in mind that when the bird is on its play stand, it will throw food around and chew toys, so the area around the stand will also become scattered with debris. If you have expensive carpets, then this could become a problem. Also, Macaws like many other parrots are extremely resourceful when they have a mind to wander and many parrots learn how to open their “parrot proof” doors in next to no time! So be warned, put a good quality chain and padlock on the door. (Remember to remove the keys to the padlock. I forgot one day and found the bird out of its cage, padlock on the floor and the keys bent to an unusable condition in disdain!!).

FOOD

Macaws, like many of its fellow parrots, need a wide and varied diet. They need a good quality seed and a variety of fresh fruit and nuts everyday. This can be expensive, especially during the winter months, but nevertheless important in maintaining your pet’s health. Also, because they are in captivity, parrots need their diets supplementing with vitamins and minerals. They need extra vitamins such as Calcium and Vitamin A and a good source of minerals. Fortunately, in this day and age, these supplements are readily available from good pet stores and suppliers. Extra considerations needed for Macaws are shelled nuts, grit, dog biscuits and beak sharpeners such as lava stone. A Macaw that is not on a well balance diet will soon become ill. Too many sunflower seeds, peanuts (which are harmful to parrots) or fatty foods will prove to be inappropriate for your bird.

CHILDREN

Not all parrots are adaptable towards children, especially small children and as is the case with the larger Macaw, their formidable beaks can cause nasty injuries to a small child. After all, Macaws can open a Brazil or walnut with little effort, so just imagine what it would do to a delicate finger! If you have children then, think carefully before purchasing this type of bird.

OTHER PETS

Another factor to consider is whether you have other pets already established in your home. Not all parrots tolerate other pets, such as dogs, cats, other birds. Some pets will accept each other with time, others will take to them immediately, although this is rare, and some pets will not accept another trying to take the attention of it’s owner. Because one type of bird is introduced to another or to the same species, this does not mean that they will tolerate each other. Also, especially with Macaws, they tend to bond to their favourite human and can be quite unfriendly towards another animal, bird or even human. Careful integration is needed when taking a new Macaw into a home that already has a pet, no matter what the type. A family that already has a pet budgie may be likely to risk it having a heart attack, if a large Macaw is suddenly allowed to land on the budgie’s cage unannounced!!
There are certain techniques to introducing a new Macaw into a household and these can be discussed directly with me should anyone wish.


YOUR HOME
As already discussed, a parrot and especially a Macaw should not be expected to remain in its cage all day. It will need exercise and will want to be with the rest of its “flock” i.e. the family members. Macaws in particular, are avid chewers and will not respect furnishings, wallpaper, dados, picture and door frames. If they can reach these items easily, they will chew them. Even those Macaws that are given plenty of toys and wood to chew will if given the opportunity seek and find new delights upon which to exercise their beaks! They will not just nibble at the item, when a larger Macaw decides that an item is worthy of its attention, it will take chunks out of it!! A Macaw belonging to one of my friends, was left in its cage in their newly decorated and furnished lounge whilst they went out shopping. Unfortunately for the owner, the cage was not properly locked and the bird had had a great time. It had stripped most of the expensive wall paper from several sections of the room, including the ceiling!, chewed the dado rail and door frame. Chewed the expensively framed picture of her Mother in law (She says she was not too bothered about that!), chewed a hole near the door in the new Axminster carpet, removed most of the curtain hooks allowing the curtain to fall to the floor which was consequently lovingly covered in half chewed strawberries and parrot poo and then finally rearranged the TV remote control buttons into a colourful pile on the floor. The shades to her new chandelier were shredded and the net curtains were given a new set of large holes. All this in the space of 3 hours!!
So, if you are house-proud and have spent a lot of your hard earned cash upon your home, ask yourself if you are able to keep your eye on your Macaw all the time, if not, then maybe this is not the bird for you! The most effective way of letting a macaw “play” is to designate a room for the bird, where any damage that it might do, will not be of importance. Even a Macaw that is given plenty to occupy it’s time with, will occasionally wander in search of other entertainment! They are natural “chewers” and they cannot, nor will they, differentiate between your belongings and their own toys! Macaws in the wild will spend their days foraging for food or chewing suitable branches etc. and being a natural instinct, this will apply whether free in the jungle or kept in captivity.
Normal parrot toys that are purchased for African Greys, Amazons etc. are not durable enough for the average Macaw. Macaws are very inquisitive birds and they like to investigate, explore and generally be nosey, so toys that require some brain power are ideal.
A constant supply of “chewables” needs to be made available to Macaws. Chopped untreated wood is the most effective and economical and can be bought in bags from hardware shops. Apple branches are also good. Bought toys can be expensive and many people are astounded at how quickly a Macaw can destroy a toy. One or two chewable items in a cage or on a play stand are insufficient to keep the bird amused for long. They also need a constant change in their toys as like all parrots; they will become bored with the same things. Normal quickie toys, like toilet roll and kitchen roll inners will disappear in seconds with Macaws. If these items are to be used, then fill them with treats such as dried apricots, bits of wood, brazil/walnuts and then at least they will last for longer periods. Even so, the golden rule is do not leave a Macaw alone in a room for long periods, always check upon the bird regularly, otherwise damage will and does occur. This is not only upsetting for owners, but often the materials chewed are not good for the bird.

TALKING

Not all Macaws are talkers. African Greys tend to be the most talkative of the parrot species, however, some Macaws do manage a few words and of course there is always the exception to this rule, before I get inundated with calls from those of you who have good talkers! They tend to be slower to talk than Greys. If you are hoping to have a chatterbox, then a Macaw is not for you.

TRAINING

All parrots that are to be kept as house pets, need to be trained, at least in the basic techniques and with the larger Macaws, this is essential, otherwise you will end up with a very large bird that rules and even can terrorise the household and the rest of the family. The basic training needs to begin as soon as you acquire the bird, as when the bird reaches 2 to 21/2 years old, it will go through a hormonal and discipline stage, known as the “Dreaded 2′s”. If basic training is not in place by this time, then the bird can become difficult to handle on a day to day basis.
Training a Macaw or any parrot, takes a lifetime, as one is always learning from these clever birds, but basic training can be achieved in a relatively short space of time. Patience, love and repetitiveness are the keys to success. Given these ingredients a Macaw can become as loving and devoted a companion as any pet dog and often far more entertaining than our canine companions.
If this highly intelligent bird is mis-handled or ill treated during this initial training period, then it often can become quite vicious, mainly due to fear. Also if the bird denotes a fear reaction in its handler, then the bird will react to this with further fear and hey presto, a biter which has a large and powerful beak, is created, before the training has properly commenced! Aside from the beak, the claws on these birds are strong and the grasping power is like that of a vice. The bird in fear will also use their claws as a defensive mechanism. Therefore the use of both can be a dangerous combination.
One thing to remember throughout the training is that parrots do not understand punishment; their mentality does not recognise why it is being punished.
Before beginning training, gain the bird’s trust, by keeping it in a room used frequently by the family, in order to orientate it to humans. Go to the cage frequently and talk to the bird in a calm fashion, making no sudden gestures as these can alarm a bird. Allow the maximum of a week for the bird to settle into its new surroundings.

Although wing clipping is an emotive subject, I clip all my birds as well as many others that have been brought to me for this service, but in the correct way, both wings are done and no closer than the primaries and shaped to follow the body line. I do not believe that this procedure harms or hurts parrots, as in my method, the bird is not totally robbed of flight and can get out of a predators way if required. This will facilitate faster easier training as the bird cannot so easily fly off when it has had enough and it will also mean that the bird will be able to enjoy a better quality of life by going out with you into the garden, to visit friends and neighbours etc. The wing clipping must be done by an experienced person otherwise the bird is likely to be traumatised.
Begin by offering the bird a titbit, a favourite treat, through the door of its cage. Do not feed the bird through the bars as this lead to a biting bird later on. Once the bird has accepted the treat on several occasions, offer a stick or a spare piece of perch, by pushing it gently up to its chest, just above its feet. Remember, it is far easier for a bird to step up than for it to step down. If all goes well then repeat this exercise several times. Once this movement is achieved with little or no fuss, gently slide your free hand along the stick whilst offering a treat with the other. The bird should step onto your hand without realising. Once this has been achieved, then cease to use the stick and offer your hand instead. Because Macaws can be heavier birds, do not offer a single finger, this will not be a sufficiently firm perch on which your bird can feel comfortable. Often the bird will also use it’s beak to assist it to get onto your hand. You must understand that this is not a bite, simply a way of the bird checking that the perch is safe enough and firm enough for it to alight.
Once this step has been achieved several times, slowly walk around the room with the bird on your hand. It may well be slightly confused to be conveyed in this manner, but it will soon enjoy the experience.
Thus your training with the bird has begun!
In part 2, I will give tips and hints on basic training, bonding techniques and how to make life fun for both you and the bird, whilst achieving the results that will enhance both of your lives.

Copyright. All rights reserved by Candie Bradley


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