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Macaws are one of the most recognizable groups of new-world birds. There are seventeen species, split into six genera. Their vibrant colors and loud screeches are symbols of the tropical jungles of the Americas. If you have ever traveled to this area of the globe, you will have seen at least one restaurant or hotel named for a macaw.
In my years of observing macaws in the wild, something I have noticed is that they can be bizarrely well camouflaged. Despite their plumage’s bright primary colors, you can look up at a tree for a full minute before spotting it. The bold patterns distort the outline of the bird. It is an example of the Tyndall effect- tricking your eye into seeing colors that you are not seeing.
One of the great things about birding for macaws is that species names are very helpful for identification purposes. Unlike many bird species (I’m looking at you Australian “magpie”), the common names almost always point out the identifying characteristic of the bird. The blue-headed macaw has a blue head. The red-bellied macaw has a red belly.
- Taxonomy – New World and African parrots- Psittacidae
- Size – Between 30 cms and 100 cms
- Distribution – Mexico to Southern Brazil
- Habitat – Lowland tropical forests, woodlands, savannahs, and waterway clearings
- Diet – Seeds, fruits, and nuts
- Colors – Green, red, blue, yellow, and orange
- Vocalizations – Loud screeching sounds such as “ARK RAARK”
How to Spot a Macaw
Macaws include some of the largest parrot species in the world. They range in size from the enormous hyacinth macaw at 1 meter in length to the 30 cm red-shouldered “mini” macaw.
Macaws are easy to differentiate from other species of wild parrots. Are you birding in Central or Southern America? Check. Does the bird have a long, graduated tail? Check. Is the beak large and hooked, with the appearance of something that could break your finger? Check. Their body shape is also typically thinner and more streamlined in appearance compared to other parrots.
Except for four species, macaws have distinctive bare patches of skin around the eyes and cheek. This patch is usually white, although some species have yellow or patterned apeterium. Species with very small or absent bare patches are the hyacinth macaw, indigo macaw, blue-headed macaw, and Spix’s macaw.
Although macaws have impressive and boldly colored plumage, you won’t find as large of a range of colors as other parrots. Almost all macaws have a combination of green, red, blue, yellow, and orange feathers.
When looking at that nutcracker of a beak, you will also notice that most macaws have an entirely black beak. Four species have a black lower mandible with a horn-colored upper. These are the scarlet macaw, red & green macaw, blue-headed macaw, and red-shouldered macaw.
Last but certainly not least is the sound. Macaws are known for their distinctive and loud vocalizations. More of a screech than a song, the “ARK RAARK” of macaws clocks in at approximately 100 decibels. About as loud as a lawnmower. It is very common to hear macaws before you see them.
Where to Find Macaws
Macaws are neotropical parrots that live from Mexico through to Brazil. Blue macaws, mini macaws, and Spix’s macaws can be found exclusively in South America, including Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, and the Guianas.
If you are interested in spotting macaws in the wild, you should focus on lowland habitats. Macaws are typically found at no more than 2000 ft (800 m) of elevation. Look for areas of humid rainforest, open woodland, gallery forest, and clearings near rivers, wetlands, and beaches. There are even some species of macaws that can be found in savannah habitats. Although the presence of trees is a prerequisite.
What Do Macaws Eat
Generally speaking, macaws eat seeds, fruits, and nuts. However, when you are looking for specific species of macaws, their diet becomes much more interesting. And let’s not forget that several macaws like to lick clay. More about that later.
Birders often need to become familiar with various plants to find the elusive species they are looking for. If you can identify the bird’s main food source, you can simply pull up a log and wait. A basic list of trees and plants to look out for is as follows:
- Beach almond tree
- Palms (acuri, bocaiuva, grugru, urucuri, licuri, moriche, & caribbean royal)
- Physic nut
- West Indian Elm
- Brauna Trees
- Dioclea Peas
- Chinaberry tree
- Ceiba or kapok tree
- Brazillian firetree
- Sandbox tree
- Teak trees
- Tonka bean trees
- Sacoglottis trees
- Vochysia trees
- Olla de mono
If you are trying to attract macaws to your garden or bird feeder the best thing to do is plant some of the above trees. You can also go for a walk in your local area to collect the fruits and seeds from these trees and place them on your birdfeeder. Macaws are extremely adaptable and intelligent creatures, so they will figure out quite quickly that there is a new food source in town.
When I was a volunteer at a parrot recovery project, I found out firsthand how adaptable macaws can be when it comes to food. I was taking care of a baby macaw that had just begun to eat solid foods. I was preparing all sorts of produce for the various parrot species at the center, and I left the room for about 2 minutes.
When I came back, the baby macaw was sitting in a shredded mess of papaya, with papaya all over his face, puffing like he was out of breath. Macaws are not known to eat papaya in the wild. He looked at me as if to say, “wow, I didn’t know that I liked that!”
Clay licking is another fascinating part of a macaw’s diet and behavior. It has been observed mainly in Peru, Ecuador, and other parts of the Amazon rainforest. I have never seen a macaw do this in Central America. It was widely believed that macaws and other parrots lick clay to remove toxins from their diet.
However, in a 2017 paper published in Ibis, researchers found no evidence of this. Instead, they discovered that the behavior was mostly observed during the breeding season. These and other data suggest that macaws lick clay to supplement their diet with salt. Sodium and other micronutrients found in clay assist with healthy egg production. A little bit like prenatal vitamins.
The Monogamy Myth – Mating, Breeding, and Nesting
One thing you will have undoubtedly heard about macaws is that they “mate for life.” It’s a beautiful birdy love story, but it’s not entirely true. Macaws do bond very closely with their mates and can often be found flying or feeding closely together.
However, macaws have also been observed engaging in infidelity, and some even get divorced. Neglectful macaw partners can be dropped and replaced with a new mate. Sorry for all you romantics out there, but macaws are imperfect, just like us.
Macaws typically breed from spring to early summer. Although, in tropical countries close to the equator, this can be a pretty loose concept. Much like other types of parrots, macaws nest in the cavities of trees and holes in cliffs. You can also check dead palm trees for a chance to spot one. Females lay one to three eggs per nest, and chicks fledge between two and three months after birth.
All species of macaws are dependent on their parents for a long time after they learn to fly. The scarlet macaw and the military macaw can stay with their parents for up to a year. Longer childhoods in animals have been linked to higher levels of intelligence such as with crows and ravens. The fact that macaws learn a lot from their families may explain why different populations of the same species have been observed to have different behaviors and diets.
Typical Macaws (Ara)
The genus ara is the biggest group of extant macaws, with eight recognized species. Typical macaws can be found from Mexico to Argentina. The most commonly spotted species are the scarlet macaw (ara macao) and the blue & yellow macaw (ara ararauna).
As previously discussed, macaws are very adaptable and learn what to eat and how to act from their parents. In Costa Rica, wild populations of scarlet macaws have discovered the beach almond tree. This tree is not native to the region; it comes from India.
However, these macaws gobble up about 49% of all the beach almond seeds. In recent years, great green macaws have also acquired the habit of munching on beach almonds. An excellent sign for the recovery of their population, as their native food Dipteryx oleifera was heavily logged.
Rambutans, another introduced species from Indonesia, are also a popular food of macaws in Central America. The birds consume the unripe seeds before other parrots can get to the sweet ripe fruit. The genus ara is also the only genus of macaws where species have been observed to eat bugs, larvae, and even snails.
In addition to the eight recognized species of ara macaws, there are five hypothetical extinct species in the genus. In the famous 1926 painting of a Dodo by Roelant Savery, you might notice two of these cheeky little fellows in the corners.
List of Species
- Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus)
- Blue-and-yellow Macaw (Ara ararauna)
- Red-and-green Macaw (Ara chloropterus)
- Blue-throated Macaw (Ara glaucogularis)
- Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)
- Military Macaw (Ara militaris)
- Red-fronted Macaw (Ara rubrogenys)
- Chestnut-fronted Macaw (Ara severuses)
Blue Macaws (Anodorhynchus)
Blue macaws are probably the most striking of all macaw types. The two extant species feature brilliant blue-indigo feathers and bright yellow around the eyes and at the base of the beak. Blue macaws can be found in Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Blue macaws do not have large bare patches of skin on their faces as most other macaws do.
The hyacinth macaw is the largest of all macaw species, measuring one meter from beak to tail tip. The enormous beaks of these parrots can produce 300 pounds of pressure per square inch. This makes them some of the only birds around that can crack brazil nuts, macadamias, and even coconuts.
If you have ever tried to open a coconut, you will understand that this is no easy feat. The hyacinth macaw has been reported to use rudimentary tools when working with particularly hard nuts. Chewed leaves and pieces of wood are used to prevent the nuts from slipping from the branch.
The indigo macaw can be differentiated from the hyacinth macaw by size and coloring. The indigo macaw reaches a maximum length of 75 cm. It is very much a blue bird, but can also have a greenish tinge around the head. The yellow patch at the base of the beak is larger and more rounded than that of the hyacinth macaw.
In addition to eating the nuts of palm trees, the indigo macaw also enjoys Brazil plum, brauna trees, dioclea peas, agave flowers, and even corn. This acquired habit of predating corn fields is not very fortuitous for these macaws, as farmers have come to regard them as pests and may shoot them.
List of Species
- Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)
- Indigo Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari)
- Glaucous Macaw (Anodorhynchus glaucus)- Declared extinct in 2018
Mini Macaws (Primolius & Orthopsittaca & Diopsittaca)
Mini macaws, as the name suggests, are smaller than your average macaw. They range in size from the relatively tiny red-shouldered macaw (30 cms) to the red-bellied macaw (46 cms). Mini macaws include five species in three separate genera. They can be found in South America, including Brazil. Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Paraguay, Ecuador, The Guianas, Colombia, and Bolivia.
The red-bellied macaw is the true specialist of the Mini macaw species. They feed almost exclusively from the moriche palm and use the dead palms for nesting and roosting. If you want to spot a wild red-bellied macaw, stake out a moriche palm.
This species of macaw is mostly green and blue, with much of the chest having a “scalloped” appearance. You can easily identify this macaw by the dark red patch on its lower abdomen and the yellow patch of bare skin around the eyes and cheeks.
The red-shouldered macaw is the smallest of all macaw species. It can also be differentiated due to the almost entirely green-olive plumage. Except for bright red wing feathers at the leading edge. When perched, this gives the very distinct appearance of a red “shoulder.” Thank you to whoever came up with the common name for this bird.
Macaws of the genus primolius have the smallest ranges of all the mini macaws. They can be found in small pockets of Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. All three species are predominantly green. The blue-headed macaw has (you guessed it) a blue-grey head. It is also notable for the comparatively very small bare skin patch around the eyes, which is grey.
The blue-winged macaw has a yellowish patch of bare skin around the eyes and cheeks. The upper flight feathers and primary coverts are blue, hence the name. The species also features a bright red patch just above the cere. Lastly, the yellow-collared macaw has a bold yellow stripe around the back of its neck- like a collar. Once again, I would like to thank whoever is popularizing these macaw names.
List of Species
- Red-shouldered Macaw (Diopsittaca nobilis)
- Red-bellied Macaw (Orthopsittaca manilatus)
- Yellow-collared Macaw (Primolius auricollis)
- Blue-headed Macaw (Primolius couloni)
- Blue-winged Macaw (Primolius maracana)
Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii)
The Spix’s Macaw was declared extinct in the wild in 2019. Your kids might recognize this bird from the animated film ‘Rio’. Spix’s macaw is a blue parrot. The head is bluish-grey, while the underparts are light blue and the upper parts are bright blue. It can reach lengths of approximately 54 cms.
There is some good news for this enigmatic species. In June of 2022, a conservation project released a small flock of birds in Bahia, Brazil. So far, the project reports that they are doing well, and they hope to release more in the future.
The Conservation of Macaws
In addition to Spix’s macaw and the glaucous macaw, all macaw species in the wild continue to face the threat of extinction. Since pre-Columbian times the birds have been prized for their feathers.
Today, the largest threats to macaw populations are deforestation and the illegal pet trade. All macaw species are on the CITES list- an international treaty trying to protect at-risk animals from illegal trade. There are a variety of macaw conservation programs with different goals and varying levels of success.
When I was a volunteer for a parrot rescue project in Costa Rica, the macaws were by far my favorites. One of the most important things that I learned was regarding “soft” and “hard” release programs.
Because macaws are extremely intelligent and adaptable birds, they can easily become accustomed to humans and also to foods that may not be in their best interests in the wild. If you are searching for a macaw conservation project to support, I urge you to ask them about their release method. “Soft” release programs are much more beneficial as they utilize long socialization and acclimatization processes. Here are a few key points to keep in mind:
- How long is the release process? Soft release programs may take up to one year per bird.
- Does the project utilize foods that grow wild? Steer clear of recovery projects that use commercial seeds or foods that do not grow in the area for release.
- Does the project facilitate bonding macaws with a mate before release? Bonding with other birds is vital to a successful recovery program.
- Does the project use a graduated release program? Steps may include providing the macaws with larger and larger spaces to fly, followed by open-topped aviaries in the release zone.
- Does the project monitor the birds that they have released? Monitoring is vital to understanding the successes and failures of the program.
Community or ecosystem-based conservation projects are also a great way to support macaws. These projects use a holistic approach to improve the prospects of macaw species. Activities may include reforestation, environmental education, and financial incentives for locals. For example, the Rio Foundation in southern Nicaragua pays community members to become “nest guards” for great green macaws.
Answer: In the United States, it is currently legal to have a pet macaw. You must purchase one from a registered breeder in the country. This regulation helps to prevent illegally captured wild birds from being sold.
Just because you can have a pet macaw doesn’t mean that you should. Macaws require a huge amount of space to fly and explore. Due to their intelligence, they become easily bored in captivity and may exhibit neurotic behaviors without enough stimulation.
In the wild, macaws are social creatures, and they will need almost constant companionship from you when in captivity. Lastly, macaws can live for up to 60 years. Having a macaw as a pet is a long-term and intensive commitment.
Answer: Some macaw enthusiasts will insist that they can see the difference between a male and a female. However, there is no proven reliable method for sexing a macaw in the wild. If you want to make an educated guess, male macaws may have slightly larger beaks and more square-shaped heads.
Answer: If you are planning a trip to Central or South America, Peru, Brazil, and Costa Rica are excellent choices for macaw sightings. Stick to lowland habitats such as forests, clearings near waterways, and open woodlands.
You can also plan a trip to the famous clay-licks of Peru, where up to six species of macaws can be seen. Last but not least, you should familiarize yourself with the list of plants that macaws eat and then keep your ears open for that squark!
- CITES- Species List
- Macaw Recovery Network
- Costa Rica Guide
- Revista de Biologica Tropical
- Animal Wonders
- All About Birds
- “The Birds of Costa Rica”, Richard Garrigues & Robert Dean, 2014.
- “An Illustrated Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica”
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