Home > Uncategorized > Living with a Blue and Gold Macaw

Living with a Blue and Gold Macaw

Back to blogging! I do want to write more about native North American birds here, but first I want to write about the most common and popular of the macaw species: the Blue and Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna).

Of all the large macaw species that are available as pets in North America, the Blue and Gold Macaw is the most common. This is likely because they breed well in captivity (if set up and cared for properly), they can often talk quite well, and they are beautiful. They are not globally endangered and many were imported into North America until the early 90s.

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Wild Macaws

The Blue and Gold Macaw is the quintessential parrot – big, bold, colourful, and talkative. In the wild, they can be found in the northern half of South America and southern Panama in a variety of lowland habitats, including city parks. They feed on fruits, nuts, and seeds and their powerful beaks can crack open very tough shells.

Wild blue and golds are often seen in small flocks, and outside of the breeding season, they will often sleep in groups. However, even within a group, it can be very evident which birds constitute breeding pairs, as pairs will typically fly and feed close together, even outside of the breeding season. When I was in Brazil, I noticed most of the macaws I saw seemed to be paired off. Even within flocks, it wasn’t hard to tell who the couples were.

Macaws as Pets

As far as their suitability as pets goes, Blue and Gold Macaws can be either phenomenal companions or a pet owner’s worst nightmare. It all depends on the owner’s expectations. Due to their size, loud voices, and powerful beaks, macaws are generally considered to be high maintenance pets.

First, because of their strong beaks and curiosity, macaws cannot typically be allowed to freely roam in a house without supervision. Thus, a cage is needed and a suitable macaw cage will often cost $1000 or more. However, a macaw should never be confined to a cage for its whole life, and thus macaw keepers often must invest in a large parrot stand (or two) for the bird to perch on when outside of the cage. Even with access to interesting bird stands, many macaws will roam around a house. An outdoor cage or aviary is also a nice thing for a macaw to have.

I recently (a year and a half ago) got a twenty-three year old Blue and Gold Macaw named Pteri. She is the bird in all of the pictures accompanying this article. Her cage is in the living room of the house, but she is generally out of her cage if someone is home to watch her. She has a big parrot stand downstairs to perch on and a few places to perch upstairs. Her parrot stand also has chew toys hanging on it. However, she still likes to walk around the house and climb on the bannisters. She sometimes climbs up the bannisters and slides down them. She’s quite good about not destroying things she shouldn’t but will sometimes try to chew furniture and walls. If she does that, she is given something more suitable to chew on. If she’s really bored, she’ll climb on the curtains.

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                                           Pteri climbs on the curtains

Speaking of chewing, macaws do need things to chew on. Pteri does like to chew on wood, baskets, pine cones and other similar items and her cage is generally stocked with safe chew toys. She has some store bought toys, but macaw toys are generally quite expensive (especially considering their purpose is to be destroyed). A lot of her chew toys are natural items from outside. Note that it is important to be sure that natural plants given to parrots are nontoxic and have not been sprayed with pesticides.

One question that nearly all parrot owners are asked is “does s/he talk?” Blue and Gold Macaws are often very good talkers. Pteri can say hi, good morning, water, what, apple, popcorn, corn, pasta, cat, hot, and parrot, and she can laugh and bark like a dog. She also uses a few words appropriately. For example, she greets people who come in the house with an enthusiastic “Hi!” and she says “water” when ever I change her water or give her a spray bath. She also says “Good morning!” in the morning. She uses other words at random and doesn’t appear to know what they mean.

Although many macaws I know can talk, not all macaws speak well and even macaws that can talk will often make a lot of loud screeches and squawks. Pteri often talks to herself when no one is around and she will also screech periodically. Her screeches are high pitched and extremely loud. Such vocalizations can often be minimized using behavioural modification techniques, but it takes patience and it’s unreasonable to expect a macaw to be a quiet animal. I also tend to tell people who want a parrot primarily because a talking animal appeals to them to rethink their decision. Not all parrots talk, and some who can talk only learn a few phrases. And as I always say, the novelty of having a talking bird will wear off!

The Mess Factor

Macaws (along with cockatoos) are among the messiest birds one can keep. They of course poop a lot, but they can also make a mess with their food and toys. Pteri loves nuts so her diet does include some walnuts, pecans, hazel nuts, and almonds in the shell. She sometimes receives Brazil nuts as well. She always somehow manages to get the shells outside of her cage, so I have to clean that up. The woody debris from her chew toys also ends up outside of her cage as well. Still, she isn’t as bad as Mitri, my Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, who actually kicks food bits, wood, and paper outside of his cage.

That Huge Beak…

A lot of people find macaws to be very intimidating. That’s not completely unreasonable, as macaws do have large, strong beaks. A large macaw can slice through a walnut or hazelnut shell like it’s butter. Macaw bites are painful.

However, there are steps one can take to minimize the likelihood of being bitten. Macaws are not subtle in their body language and will often give warnings before they bite. An agitated macaw will likely lower her head, pin her pupils and erect her head feathers. Don’t ever try to touch or pick up a macaw who is giving such warning signals. Some macaws will also lunge and shriek before biting. Pteri does that, but she only rarely actually bites.

Training a macaw from a young age to step up on an arm or a hand-held perch can also make her easier to handle. Parrots trained with positive techniques are less likely to become biters than parrots trained with force. A macaw is also less likely to become a “one-person bird” if handled by multiple people. I’ve met many macaws – primarily blue and golds and greenwings – who have remained quite friendly to even strangers into adulthood.

It’s quite important that a potential macaw owner not be intimidated by the bird. Macaws often become very difficult when their owners become afraid of them. What can happen is that the bird will lunge or bite once, and the owner then becomes afraid of the bird. As the bird is handled less frequently, she will become more unsure of people and will become more likely to nip. That results in less handling, and the frustrated macaw may become more bitey and noisy. Macaw owners must be comfortable around large birds so that doesn’t happen.

Macaws are very social birds and they can be quite demanding of attention. A macaw is not the type of bird that can be left in a cage all day. Most will want to be with their people. Pteri seems happy as long as she’s perched near me or my husband. She talks back to people who talk to her (although her responses don’t always make sense) and she will yell to be let out of her cage if she feels she’s been in there too long. Macaws are also quite capable of learning tricks. In short, they are very interactive, high energy and demanding pets.

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Diet

Most macaws will do well on a good pelleted diet supplemented with nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and other healthful ‘people’ foods.

Useful Resources

I noted a few times above that macaws respond well to training using positive reinforcement. A few books about parrot training are available and include The Parrot Problem Solver by Barbara Heidenreich and Clicker Training for Birds by Melinda Johnson.

The best book written about macaws is, alas, out of print. It’s called The Large Macaws: Their Care, Breeding, and Conservation and it’s by Joanne Abramson (author), Brain L. Speer (author), Jorgen B. Thomsen (editor), and Marsha Mello (illustrator). Used copies are not cheap, but if you don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on a book, try finding a copy at a library. I had to use an inter-library loan to get a copy to look at.

There are a couple of basic macaw care guides available from Avian Publications as well.

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  1. Nicky
    July 6, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Hi Pteri I miss you and dream about you lots.

    (Jessie was kind enough to take Pteri for me after my medical condition deteriorated to the point my chronic pain started to give me grand mal seizures. At that point, I decided that I was no longer capable f giving her the best care possible, and Jessie seemed like the perfect person to take her, for which I am very grateful.)

    Pteri was rescued from a very bad situation when she was 2 1/2 years old- extremely malnourished, biting, plucked and she had been taught to speak- mostly swear words though. I rehabilitated her and was able to extinguish the swear words by morphing them into other words. I cared for her for over 17 years (I don’t like to say I “owned” her, because she is very much her own “person”.)

    I’m so glad to see she is thriving. ❤

  2. November 16, 2014 at 5:59 am

    I appreciate your sharing what life is like with B&Gs. May I ask what birds do you have at present? I have a whole host of questions I’d like to ask you, pick your bird brain so to speak!

    How do Macaws as pets compare to Cockatoos? I have no experience with Macaws however I have an Umbrella ‘Too & an African Grey. I can well understand messy and destructive behaviors as my U2 is ALL of that. He can speak although not as clearly as my Grey and he doesn’t seem as interested, IMHO, outside of “Hi”, “Hello”, his pronunciation of “I Love You” and some other phrases he uses in one form or another. My CAG on the other hand is more shy however his pronunciation and interest is noticeably greater.

    I wasn’t aware that B&Gs are that attention seeking. How do they compare to Cockatoos? My U2 DOES NOT like to be left alone, sometimes screaming for me even if I’m in view but in the other room. However he has gotten better, miraculously enough today he stayed in their room (the Grey on the stand in the living room) quiet, content even while I hustled around in the other room watering Orchids. My CAG on the other hand is perfectly content just chilling on the stand, the chair, in the room alone. Sometimes he is FAR more talkative when left in the room alone and even prefers it that way. He likes his fair share of attention and is happy to regurgitate for me (whether or not I’m interested), but nothing like the needy often overwhelming desires of my U2.

    Okay…maybe I should e-mail you? Lol…do you notice any significant differences in older birds?

    Is your Macaw pretty smart? Or is she very “clever”? My CAG pays attention and often picks up new words using them appropriately even.Whereas the U2 prefers to take things apart (like his cage) and is very active. He’s obsessed with boxes & paper bags, often become a bit too aggressive in his attempts to get at them. The Grey is half-hearted about it and more mellow in general. Btw, CAG: 18 years old; U2: 12.

    Thanks for sharing, I hope you don’t mind me picking your brain! There’s more to come. 😉

    • November 16, 2014 at 5:50 pm

      Hi – I have a Jenday Conure, Maroon-bellied Conure, Green-cheeked Conure, Blue and Gold Macaw, Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and Red-lored Amazon. I also have an aviary with a budgie, two lineolated parakeets and a Bourke’s parakeet. The bigger parrots are tame and like human attention and the aviary birds prefer each other’s company and don’t like being handled by people. I also have an aviary of finches.

      Macaws can be quite attention-seeking, although they (generally) are not as clingy as cockatoos. We (husband and I) let Pteri (the blue and gold) out of her cage when we’re home and she likes to be close to a person but she has two play stands (one upstairs and one downstairs) and is happy being close to us. Sometimes she does insist on perching on a person. Mitri the cockatoo likes to have more hands on contact and loves being petted on his head. He adores my husband, and if Mitri knows my husband is home and awake, he really wants to be in the same room as him. Mitri loves boxes too and will chew them up. He needs a lot of things to chew on.

      Pteri is a fairly good talker. She seems very smart and has figured out how to get out of her cage, so we had to add some extra clamps to it to prevent her from getting out when we’re not home. She uses some of the words she knows appropriately, but others she doesn’t seem to know the meaning of. She will talk if no one’s in the room like your grey does and does that quite a bit.

      • November 16, 2014 at 6:41 pm

        Macaws sound like they have a slightly more manageable personality than cockatoos, except for maybe their size. I’ve never had any really serious bites from my U2 until this spring when during a frustrating day with each other I picked him up and he launched at my ear biting through the cartilage just above the lobe. I had to have 6-7 stitches. My life-long commitment to him keeps me going but I can certainly imagine how many people would shy from their birds after being bit. People always ask me in addition to “Do they talk”, “Do they bite?” My response always relates back to the fact that it’s sort of the “nature of the beast”. They communicate with their beaks and don’t have quite the pack leader understanding that we’re told dogs should be brought back to time and again when they act up. I know just where I went wrong when it comes to his bites so it’s not some random freak accident (more like the freak came out!! Lol).

        That’s cool that Pteri likes to talk in her own time as well. With my U2 Nala I’ve become a big fan of duct tape to keep him in his cage. But I should have known better – both of them are from pet stores – because he was climbing all over the tops of the other birds’ cages when I walked in the store. No one knew how he got out until I saw that he had pushed the bottom grate out and climbed up from under it. And yes, he’s done that to me as well…out comes the handy duct tape.

        Does Mitri ever act aggressive towards you when he’s with your husband? Or does he just prefer him? My U2 has a habit of becoming sexual with others, especially my mother with whom he will become aggressive in order to get to her even biting her on the jaw once. I felt horrible even as she tried to play it off.

        May I also ask, do you trim their wings? If not, have they taken to flight well? My too doesn’t seem as interested, or maybe it’s the fact that he’s quite clumsy. The Grey is improving (I’ve gone back and forth over the years, finally settling on letting them be). His biggest problem is endurance, he becomes winded rather quickly but his landing skills have improved.

      • November 21, 2014 at 4:27 am

        I’m lucky with Mitri in that he doesn’t get aggressive towards me even if my husband is around. I’ve known other cockatoos that can be quite aggressive towards their rivals, though. Mitri just prefers my husband, but he can get nippy to either of us when he’s on the floor. He likes to chase and nip people’s feet.

        It’s nice that you won’t give up on your cockatoo after such a bad bite. Cockatoo bites definitely hurt!

        Most of my birds have light wing trims (five flight feathers or so) since we take them to parrot club meetings, and my husband really worries about them getting out by accident although we are very careful. The exceptions are the finches and the aviary birds (various small parakeets) that have cages big enough to fly in and don’t like to interact with people. They are not trimmed.

        It does take time to get a bird used to flying but I’m sure your African grey will build up endurance with practice.

      • December 2, 2014 at 1:42 am

        I’ve heard of toe-nipping birds and am glad mine are so crazy about it, although my Grey does like to go for my toes once in a while if I’ve got my feet up while on the recliner.

        Big birds surely aren’t to be messed with or taken lightly. I’m really grateful though that this isn’t a common occurrence with him although I would like to socialize him more with people so he gets more used to being around people without being the center of attention.

        I love being able to see them fly but in the past I have trimmed their wings because it’s a pretty big worry for sure. When I take my guys out I use harnesses and will “toss” my Grey up to let him fly some. This worries me though when I think about the leash snapping or something going wrong! Plus my Too gets a bit too worked up watching him fly around us – he doesn’t like to get into the action when it’s his turn – and that doesn’t bode well for my hands!

        Thanks for the reply.

  3. Nicky
    April 22, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    How’s Pteri doing? I miss her so much, things got really bad in Australia I’m homeless now, my partner turned out to be pretty unbalanced. I can’t believe I gave up mu house and especiallly Pteri for this. I haven’t posted to facebook because I don’t know what to say apparently he’s gaslighting me. No one helped me when I asked for help in CAnada anyway so theres no reason to go back the only reason would be for her but I can’t even get my house back and you can’t have a B&G in an apartment. My life is ruined.

    I just want Pteri snuggles so bad when I was sad she would preen my eyebrows and eyelashes so gently and make “awwww” sounds.

    • April 22, 2016 at 5:36 pm

      That’s terrible…I have been very worried about you. I was hoping thing would work out better for you in Australia 😦 You could have Pteri back if you came back to Canada. She has been doing well. Do you at least have somewhere safe to spend nights? Also, my Email is jzgurski@ualberta.ca . Send me an Email if you want my phone number too if you need someone to talk to.

  4. Nicky
    April 24, 2016 at 10:36 am

    Thanks I;ll call I’m so scared

    I’d like to Skype with Pteri but I think I’d blow her mind and it wouldn’t be fair on her

    I have some lorikeet buddies at this place, the cme in for visits

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g39qpRO-9CU 🙂

    • Jessie
      May 7, 2016 at 10:05 pm

      What a gorgeous lory! Is she a wild bird? That’s pretty neat.

      Pteri just went on a massive adventure. I had moved to Fort McMurray at the end of April because I got a job there doing a lot of bird work and wildlife monitoring. I had been laid off of my other job. Quentin (my husband) stayed behind to prepare the house to sell, but I moved up there with five parrots and Micro, a Maltese. Quentin had the cats, finches and other small birds, and our other dog.

      We had to evacuate Tuesday due to a raging forest fire. My car had little fuel in it and nearby stations had run out but a co worker of mine picked me up in a fully fueled work pickup truck. After an eight hour ride that covered about 77 km, we took a shuttle to Shell Albian Village, which was taking in fire evacuees. Albian Village is normally a camp for workers and it’s quite large. We stayed there a couple days, but they started to fly people south to Edmonton. We took a bus to the Shell Aerodrome and flew out to Edmonton and I took a taxi back to our place in Edmonton. Overall, Pteri had to go on a long car trip, two bus rides, a plane ride, and a taxi drive. She, and the other parrots and Micro, are doing fine now.

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