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Choosing a Hyacinth Macaw

By: Dr. Susan Clubb

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Known as the gentle giants, hyacinth – or blue – macaws are the largest of all the parrots, with an average length of 36 to 40 inches and tails that are almost as long as their bodies.

The birds are prized for their personality and for their remarkable beauty. Overall, they are an iridescent violet-blue. Their long, tapered tails and wing undersides are a sleek black and their eyes are brown with bright yellow rings. More yellow shows up in a small patch next to the lower beak and on a stripe on the tongue.

Young, hand-raised hyacinths are gentle and are easily handled. They sometimes have problems when they are first adopted, however, and should be allowed ample time to become accustomed to their new home. They should be socialized and exposed to a variety of experiences (veterinary visits, other pets, visitors, wing and nail trims, car rides, etc.) at a young age to avoid fearful behavior.

Although they can make excellent pets for practically anyone, hyacinths can be very loud as well as destructive. While some speak, most have only limited ability to mimic. Still, they are particularly animated and comical in their movements. Since they are very intelligent and relatively easy to train, they are a favorite for shows and trick training.

Life Span and Personality

They are not, however, as long-lived as cockatoos. The life span of hyacinths is not precisely known but is probably around 50 years. Breeding age starts between 6 and 10 years old and can last into the 30s.
Hyacinths are playful and love to chew. They should always be provided with toys, especially wooden blocks and branches from non-toxic trees. In order to ensure safety, companion macaws should not be allowed unsupervised freedom in the home as they often encounter toxins or dangerous items.

In the wild, the birds, whose formal name is Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus, range through tropical South America, from northeastern Brazil below the Amazon river to the Pantanal, a seasonal floodplain in the southern part of the country. The northern-based population lives in arid scrubland in the states of Goias and Bahia, and nest in cliffs. The southern group, in the Pantanal, nest in the cavities of large trees.

Hyacinths' diet consists principally of the nuts a variety of palms. These nuts are extremely hard, but are easily cleaved by the birds' powerful beak. Fluids come from unripe palm fruits. Hyacinths co-exist well with habitat modifications – as long as they are not hunted – and can be seen around pasture land with scattered palm trees. The birds usually fly in pairs or small family groups but sometimes in flocks of up to 25 birds.

Hyacinths are fairly common in captivity, but are quite expensive (often between $7,000 and $10,000 for a young bird). They are relatively difficult to breed in captivity although some individual pairs are very prolific.

Feeding

All macaws need plenty of energy. Their natural foods – palm nuts – are rich in oils and calories. Macaws should be fed a pelleted diet supplemented with fresh fruits and vegetables daily to add variety. Feed approximately 3/4 cup pellets along with 3/4 cup of fresh fruits and vegetables. Give 5 to 10 nuts – macadamias, walnuts, pecans, almonds and filberts – daily as treats. If you choose peanuts or Brazil nuts, make sure to inspect them for mold or contamination prior to feeding. A small amount of high-fat seeds, such as safflower or sunflower, should also be provided. Vitamin supplements are not needed for birds eating a formulated diet.

Hand-feeding these birds is very difficult and should not be attempted by the novice. Instead, allow the parents to feed the chicks for a few weeks. Chicks require a high-fat, high-protein diet at a young age and will usually require supplementation for best results. Ground nuts, seeds, vegetables and vegetable oils can be used to increase the fat and protein levels of the diet. Transferring a hyacinth prior to weaning carries with it an inherent risk of problems, even for experienced hand feeders. Health problems will often occur after a transfer due to the stress of drastic environmental change.

Grooming

Routine bathing or showering is vital to maintaining good plumage and skin condition. Birds can be misted and allowed to dry in a warm room or in the sun, or dried with a blow drier. An ideal way to bathe macaws is to put them in a cage outside, sprinkle them with a hose, and allow them to dry in the sun. Since macaws are strong fliers, most of the primary flight feathers (10 feathers closest to the tip of the wing) should be clipped to prevent flight. Clip only enough so the bird will glide to the floor.

Housing

Macaws are very active and should be provided the largest cage that space and budget allows. At the very least, the birds must have enough space to fully extend their wings or their muscles will atrophy, rendering them unable to fly. Ideally pet macaws can also have a large cage outdoors for bathing and exercise.

As macaws are strong chewers, durable cage construction is very important. Since many are also adept at opening cage latches, locks or escape-proof latches may be necessary.

Breeding

Hyacinth macaws are relatively difficult to breed. The breeding season in North America is usually in late spring and early summer, although some pairs will breed almost year-round. Clutch size is usually two to three eggs but sometimes more. Incubation period is between 25 and 28 days.

Additional nuts, palm nuts, coconuts and high-fat seeds, such as sunflower seed, should be added to the diet during the breeding season to stimulate reproduction. Inexperienced hand feeders should allow the parents to feed for the first few weeks.

Large horizontal wooden boxes (approximately 24 inches by 24 inches by 36 inches or 48 inches) are well accepted by large macaws; some will breed well in a vertical wooden box. Large palm trunks or hollow logs, or whisky barrels may be used. Additional wood for chewing should be provided inside the nest box. Macaws should be provided with plentiful chewing material. Pine shavings make excellent nest-box bedding.

Macaws must be able to open their wings without touching the sides of their breeding cage (wing span is approximately 3 to 3 1/2 feet) and should have adequate space to move freely between two perches. Example of appropriate suspended cage size for hyacinth macaws is 6 feet by 6 feet by 12 feet, although larger is better. Cages should be suspended 3 to 4 feet above the ground.

Cages for large macaws must be constructed of strong wire, which can withstand chewing. Ten gauge welded wire, 1-inch by 1-inch works well for most pairs. Chain link may be needed for pairs that break welded wire caging. When breeding hyacinth macaws, noise and proximity to neighbors must be considered.

Common Diseases and Disorders

Macaws are relatively healthy birds but are susceptible to the following:

  • Proventricular dilatation disease (Macaw wasting disease)
  • Feather picking
  • Psittacosis (chlamydiosis)
  • Bacterial, viral and fungal infections
  • Chewing flight and tail feathers by juveniles
  • Beak malformations - chicks
  • Pancreatitis
  • Kidney disease - gout
  • Toxicity, heavy metal poisoning
  • Lipomas in older birds

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