Saturday, May 23, 2009
The Red-fronted Macaw (Ara rubrogenys)
M. L. Simmons, DVM, President
Veterinary Resources Americas, Inc. Vero Beach, Florida
Introduction To present the Red-fronted macaw as a complete entity is a daunting task. To make it easier, I have divided this article into two main parts -- the RFM individual characters that I know and the RFM species information available through the literature and my own experience. I decided to put the story of the characters first as a pictorial review and the species information second, after the reader has learned something about the individuals. The story is in chronological order. The Red-fronted Macaw is the smallest in the grouping known as the "large" macaws, and, like all macaws, each individual has its own personality and way of doing things.
Baby Carmen Miranda
The first time I saw Carmen Miranda, she was in a large playpen at the breeder's home with quite a few other varieties of babies. She was eating out of a dish of seeds. I asked the breeder, "What kind of parrot is this?", and she replied, "That's my husband's Red-fronted Macaw baby." All of a sudden, the baby looked up and just marched over to the side of the playpen and held up one foot. Of course, I picked her up, and that was the beginning of my interest in RFMs. I said to the breeder, "Tell your husband his baby is sold!" (Since I was doing their sexing free at the time, I figured he would agree, and he did!).
At the time, Carmen was just a little green parrot with red cheeks and not much other color, and I did not realize what a beauty she eventually would become. I took her home and prepared a temporary cage for her and ordered a Macaw tree. The cage very soon became too small for her, and when the Macaw tree came, we found she could not reach between the perches on the tree, so I fastened natural hemp rope between them and also a knotted rope that went all the way to the floor. Food and water was kept near the top center so whatever spilled went into the tray at the bottom. This macaw tree was kept in my kitchen area and she played, ate, and slept in the tree for over a year. If she fell or flew off, she would run back to the rope and climb right back up.
As we became better acquainted, I discovered the RFM's charming personality and acrobatic expertise. The only time she was noisy was when I ran the coffee grinder. She hated that and screamed her head off until it stopped. Other than that, she was vocal but not loud. She housebroke herself almost immediately, never even having an accident, always waiting to go back to her perch. I made a car perch for her and put a paper on the floor and would stop and put her on the paper every 30 minutes or so and that worked out fine. She loved to wrestle and play "gotcha" and would squeal with delight with any games I could make up.
She loved to be wrapped in a towel and take a nap on the sofa with the TV on. At one point, I taught her to stand on roller skates. The skates I made for her were too big, and she only wanted to stand on one skate. She loved it when I put her on a slanted surface so she could roll down to the end and crash! She also liked to roll back and forth on the skate holding onto my finger with her beak with me providing the locomotion. (She never did become a real skater, but she seemed to think she did!)
Fred and Ginger Arrive in Florida
By this time, I was so intrigued by the species that I had looked into the RFM adult size and coloration and had started to talk to people on the phone who knew more about them. The more I heard about them, the more interested I became. That's when I started looking for an adult breeding pair. I'm sure I don't have to report that I found what I was looking for -- an adult pair four years old and supposedly ready to go!!! I had them shipped to the Orlando airport and met them and picked them up one afternoon. They arrived in a very well-made wooden duplex shipper with burlap covers over the wire. (The birds could not be seen at all!) I quickly tore the burlap off the wire and saw two of the most beautiful parrots I had ever laid eyes on. (I had never seen an RFM with the exception of the immature Carmen Miranda at that point.) They were not fearful and came up to the wire and made some chirping noises which I could not, at that time, understand. I was aware that the RFM was the only macaw that totally changed coloration between its immature phase and its adult phase, but I was not prepared for the drama of that change. (I think that's one reason that the RFM has been slow to achieve the commercial success of the other large macaws. People see the little green, not too colorful parrot and pass it by for something more exotically colored.)
I brought the pair home, and because they had been shipped in separate compartments, I set them up in adjacent cages. They refused to eat and hung on the bars as close to each other as they could and cried and cried for hours. A very mournful heart-rending crying it was, too. Finally, I decided they had to be put together, so first thing the next morning, I put them together in the largest cage. They immediately started beaking and grooming each other, and after about forty minutes of that, they started eating as though they were starving. The habitat I was building for them was not yet completed, so they had to live in the cage for about a week, during which time I became better acquainted with them. They were fully flighted and very wild so I could not handle them.
At this point, they still did not have names, but when they were finally put into their new flight, they were so happy that they started a kind of high-energy, precision dancing back and forth on the perch, and a friend who was watching them said, "They look just like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!" So...... they became Fred and Ginger from that moment on.
The habitat was a disaster! It was made of cyclone fencing, and the first problem was the squirrels, which would waltz in and out, but Fred and Ginger were so laid back that they would sit side by side with the squirrels and eat out of the same dish. (This would never do!) Then Fred & Ginger began to enjoy unwinding the wires holding the mesh together at the joints, and after one week, they had to be moved back to the cage while their habitat was reconstructed. I had also noticed that insects were getting on their food, so the rebuilding was more extensive than originally planned. The habitat redesign and rebuilding took considerable time and basically consisted of interior 1" x 1/2" wire, then cyclone fencing, then mosquito screening, and finally an exterior hardware cloth. The layers had to be kept far enough apart that the birds could not tear the mosquito screening from the inside, and the squirre ls could not tear it from the outside. Finally, they were back to the habitat.
About a year passed, and they had never gone into their nest box. I re-sexed them to make sure they were a male/female pair. They were! For a still-unexplained reason, they started getting more and more noisy, and a friend in northern Florida offered to build a new habitat for them and take them out on a farm. I thought it sounded like a good idea, and it was only about 75 miles away, so I moved them to the farm.
One day, after they had been there for a few months, I stopped by "unannounced" to see them and found black water, rotten veggies, and generally terrible conditions. I had a discussion with the farm owners concerning these conditions which was not conducive to continued friendship and agreed to pick them up on my return trip. (I was on a side trip to deliver some lories.) When I picked Fred & Ginger up, my "friends" had put them in a closed box with air holes (my beautiful duplex shipper had disappeared!), so I brought them home in that box. When I opened the box to let them out into their old cage, I found all their tail feathers had been yanked out and thrown in the bottom of the box! I was very upset that somebody would do something like this but thankful that I had been able to rescue them still alive.
Within six months, they were back to their original beautiful condition and starting to indulge in what I learned was macaw "recreational sex". This would go on every day with a noise that sounded like a car trying to start with a low battery. They still did not go into their box or lay any eggs.
Carmen Meets Bolivar
With Carmen now over a year old and Fred and Ginger not going into their box, I decided to acquire a mate for Carmen. I finally found a male baby not far away in Florida and went to get him. He had just been weaned and was very sweet, so I bought him and placed him in quarantine, and after that period, I introduced him to Carmen. I had named him Bolivar, and it was love at first site. Carmen accepted him immediately, and they have never been separated to this day many years later.
Fred and Ginger's Nest Box Mystery
By this time, Fred and Ginger had been here for several years, mated often and still had shown no interest in their "regular" macaw nest box. I looked at ads for RFM babies and started calling people who had them for sale. Most of the breeders were not interested in helping me (So much for helping the species survive!), but I did find one that was more interested in the birds than the money. He asked me what kind of nest box I was using and immediately told me it was the wrong box. He said he used a rural mail box turned around with the front as his viewing access and a hole cut in the back end for the birds to use. He said they like the box to be up as high as possible. I went that day to get such a box and had my neighbor refit it. Then it was cleaned and installed. Not completely convinced, I left the old box in place as well. I then placed pine shavings in their new box. (The sharp edges of the cut hole have to be smoothed and a ledge fastened to the bottom part of the hole to protect their feet when they go in and out.)
Within only a few days, I noticed the shavings from their new box on the floor of the flight and checked the box and found it completely empty. I put in more shavings, and the next day, it was empty again. I put in newspaper in wadded up balls, and in two days when I checked the box, I found the paper chewed into a fine bedding and still in the box. Mating started up again, this was in July, at a fantastic rate of four or five times a day, and within a very short time there were three eggs in the mail box.
Fred demanded that Ginger stay in the box with the three eggs. He would allow her out of the box a couple times a day for more mating and bathing and would then chase her back into the box. He fed her constantly in the box. Fred would go into the box with Ginger whenever I came into the flight, and when I walked under the box, they would both throw mouthsful of bedding down on me. That was as aggressive as they ever got.
All three eggs were fertile and were developing very well. At the 28th day, the first egg did an external pip, and I expected it to hatch soon. On the 29th day, it still had not hatched, so I put it in the incubator. I could hear the chick vocalizing inside and expected it to hatch momentarily. As it turned out, the egg didn't hatch, and the baby died in the shell. I was very upset and started calling the experienced aviculturists that I knew, trying to figure out what went wrong. The consensus was that these were eggs that would have to be assisted in order to hatch, and I immediately went into a state of total panic, never having done an assisted hatch. I pulled the other two eggs and placed them in the incubator, following the directions given by phone for assisted hatching. The next two babies survived with assisted hatchings despite my inexperience and anxiety, and Fred and Ginger went on to have another clutch of three eggs, which were all assisted hatches and all survivors. To this day, out of many clutches, only one egg has hatched completely on its own. (I always try to give them every opportunity to do so.)
Carmen and Bolivar Play Catch Up
While Fred and Ginger were having their first clutch, Carmen and Bolivar were growing up and getting ready for their own family. Having learned the lesson of the right size nest box, I had provided them from the beginning with a wooden box about the size of the mail box, and they took to it right away. The fact that Carmen was a year older than Bolivar was not good because she was maturing faster than he was, and when she was three years old, he was only two and not the least bit interested. I was watching them from a window one day, and Carmen was standing with her tail in the air, backing up to him, and he was eating a peanut and ignoring her. She bent her neck down and looked under her body to see what he was doing back there, and when she saw him eating the peanut, she was so disgusted with him that she reached back with one foot and gave his leg a really hard yank. Unfortunately, all that she accomplished was Bolivar falling off his perch. However, the following year, when she was four years old and he was three years old, Bolivar finally figured it all out, and they had their first clutch of three fertile eggs, and they have been producing two clutches a year with three or four fertile eggs every year since. With the first clutch, the parents did not feed well, so I pulled them and hand fed the babies, but now they have learned to hatch and feed well, so I leave the babies as long as 14 days before pulling them for hand feeding. More details about methods, habitats and starting techniques will be covered under the section on Breeding.
The Red-fronted macaw was introduced into the U. S. from its native Bolivia in the early 1980s. It has only one fairly small area of habitat in Bolivia, unlike many other Macaws which have widespread multiple locations. This fact creates a serious problem wherein the small current wild population is even more vulnerable to habitat destruction and environmental degradation.
The exact location of the habitat seems to be described differently in every reference. Forshaw (1) mentions nesting sites "in crevices in cliff faces" and "found on lower slopes of the eastern Andes". This would make a lot of sense because their flying ability is amazing. They seem to be able to hover like a hummingbird in an effortless manner of speed and maneuverability much like large swallows. Cliff and mountain dwellers would certainly need this kind of maneuverability. Abramson (2) locates them in south central Bolivia, but in any case, it is a very small area, and the bird numbers are miniscule. It seems to be agreed by all that their habitat is a subtropical area of different altitudes constituting a desert type flora.
It may also follow that this type of habitat would have much lower humidity than is ordinarily associated with "tropical" parrots. This needs to be considered in planning artificial incubation. This sort of desert-dwelling Macaw will no doubt be exposed to a considerable amount of cool cool-to-even-cold weather, especially at night. In Florida, they become very animated and active when the weather grows cooler. They love rolling over and over in standing water and don't seem to care how cold the air is when they do it.
It is believed that the Red-fronted Macaw's diet in the wild may include a lot of ground feeding on crops, and while I am sure that this is true due to the availability of ground food and the constant decrease in their natural habitat, I doubt they would go to the ground without the enticement of food. In large flights in captivity, mine almost never go to the ground, not even to pick up something they have dropped.
Although there have been many attempts to quantify the numbers and exact locations of the various groups of Red-fronted macaws, the overall numbers and geographic habitats are still not well known. This is probably because much of their range is not accessible except on foot, and it is very difficult terrain. It is known that they feed on farmed crops such as corn, peanuts, and vegetables on the ground. Much more field work is needed to determine the exact numbers and wild status of this lovely parrot.
The Red-fronted macaw seems to be making a comeback domestically as people are discovering the beauty of the adult, as well as and their wonderful dispositions and personalities. They are successfully bred in several aviaries and raised with excellent results from the F1 level within our own aviary, which no doubt means there are also offspring from F2 levels if we had complete information on all captive parrots. There is rumored to be an RFM studbook, but I have been unable to locate it after many attempts.
The Red-fronted Macaw is a unique and beautiful bird even in the world of macaws, which has many members of its genus that can be so described. It is an almost perfect size, approximately one-third smaller than the large macaws, lending itself to domestic in-home life.
The photographs of this bird simply do not do it justice. The deep red-orange band just above the beak subtly gives way to an orange-red as the color blends into the shiny green crown. The shade of green varies rather obviously in different family groups. The green of the "Fred and Ginger group" has more of an olive cast than the green of the "Carmen and Bolivar group" which is a brighter and greener more intense green. This makes it possible to distinguish between them, even as small babies. This has not been mentioned in the literature but it would be of interest to know if the same family or geographical differences exist in the wild. The orange "front" pattern is noticeably variable at the interface, and individuals can often be identified by these variations. The skin around the eye in the immature birds is a flesh color but on maturity becomes an orange-pink color. During the mating season, this area becomes thickened and much more orange in coloration.
The immature bird has a dark-brown band across the beak, the red front not being acquired usually until around the sixth month, although this varies a lot with individual birds. The red cheeks are a bright rouge-red and give the appearance of high-cheek makeup. The shoulder epaulets are a very bright orangey-orange. Some birds have completely red legs, making a boot-type appearance, and many have a lot of red mixed in with the green on their chest and bellies. (Some people mistakenly think this is some kind of mutation but it is totally normal.)
The primary flights are a beautiful aquamarine color which is lost with a severe wing clip. The underwings are also a bright orange which gives an amazing flashing color in flight. The dorsal side of the long tail feathers is also a pale aquamarine in the center with varying darker colored borders.
The overall appearance on the ground, when combined with their comical little strut, always makes one smile and think of little toy soldiers. However, in flight or perched, they present an aura of elegance. They also have an entertaining habit of raising a crest when they see you so that they look quite different for a short time.
As a pet, I cannot think of a better choice. Red-fronteds are mischievous, loving, comical, and intelligent and will hang out with their people all day long if given a choice. Even though Carmen Miranda and Bolivar are very attached to each other, they will always come right to me if I enter the flight. Babies are easy to spoil as they are so cuddly and so must be properly trained from the beginning to enjoy spending some time alone. They house train themselves and seem to know instinctively not to poop on friends!!!
They are good talkers and have amusing little cartoon character-type voices. They can develop a fairly large vocabulary. They also communicate with a variety of sounds like a "chik-chik-chik" sound when they are pleased and also have a kind of loud purring sound they make when happy.
Some of them will become "silly putty" and fall over backwards when you pick them up. One friend calls it RFM "melting". It is just a form of total relaxation that is astonishing the first time it is observed. I have one bird that likes to "meltdown" on his back right on top of the big dish in which I am carrying the sprouts around. Makes it hard to feed sometimes.
Captive Breeding Habitat
The captive breeding habitat is, of course, very important for any parrot, but the RFM is a very active bird and needs a lot of exercise to stay healthy. In Florida, we have a wide variety of problems from which to protect captive breeders, including insects, snakes, rodents, hawks and eagles, wild birds a s disease carriers, possums, raccoons, feral or partly wild cats and dogs.
The outermost line of defense should always be a perimeter fence around your aviary property. Another excellent line of defense is an aggressive dog. A dog can reduce problems from 'possums and raccoons. The primary line of defense must be the habitat construction. It is easy to build a habitat that is varmint proof, flying insect proof, and covered so that feces of wild birds and climbing varmints cannot wash through and contaminate food, water, and perches. It is very difficult to keep out roaches and ants and other crawling insects. (To help control them we use anoles and geckos in the habitats.)
Since we now have access to large numbers of publications about the spread of avian disease, it makes sense to develop habitats that can eliminate the threat of as many of them as possible. We know that sarcocystis and other fatal diseases can be carried to food dishes by insects. And we know that pigeons and other wild birds sitting on top of aviary flights can introduce disease by passing their feces into the flights. We also know that 'possums defecating on the top of aviary flights can contaminate the food, water, and perches within the flights.
We all know about about snakes getting into nest boxes and eating parrot eggs or young birds, raccoons chewing birds feet off by attacking them through the bottom of suspended flights, and rats burrowing under buried fences and gaining access to parrot food dishes. So the task is simply designing the habitat as an environment protected from all of these things.
We have come up with several alternative designs which work well with the RFM and other parrots as well. The latest and best design is the ULTIMATE HABITAT which has its own web site.
Some important specifics in the general design are: 1. Parrot containment inner wire. 2. Mosquito screening layer. 3. Outer hardware cloth to prevent squirrels and other critters from tearing the screen. Note: At least 1.5 inches of space needs to be maintained between each layer for prevention of screening layer damage.
The solid bottom is slanted toward the hole in the middle (or the door in the back depending on the model) with the guillotine door acting as a seal. When you hose out the habitat, you leave the door closed and hose from the sides toward the middle allowing the bottom to fill with water. Then you open the door and..... whoooosh!!! -- all the water and debris flush out, and then you rinse the floor with the hole still open. Here I let the debris go to the ground because I have fat 10 lb. squirrels who will make short work of the food that washes out. However, if you are inside, you can hook the hole up to a sewer system or a pipe going to a compost area.
The solid bottom has a raised wire floor over it which is made in two panels. The panel width must be smaller than the diagonal dimension of your service door for easy removal. This also keeps smaller birds from escaping during cleaning when the cleaning hole is open.
The roof or top of the habitat (any design) should be completely covered with adequate drainage to one side for water runoff.
The habitat should either have a solid floor or sides that go all the way to the ground to protect the parrot's feet from varmints and to prevent insects from accessing the flight from the bottom. I like to have the food bowls and water at least four feet off the ground if the habitat goes to the ground. For portable flights, the water can sit on the bottom, but the food will still be placed at least halfway up.
The RFMs love to bathe, even in cold weather, so I like to give them large planter bottoms or dishpans for bathing. They do not wash their food in water like some parrots do, so the water is only changed once daily.
The Red-fronted Macaws in Florida generally go to nest at the end of June to early August. This is hurricane season, so we want to move the nesting season forward to avoid the storms and the hottest weather as well. This is easy to do with the RFMs because they respond very well to a lengthened light cycle. We have all our habitats wired with electrical outlets so we just plug in a timer with a daylight bulb and start it at 8:00 a.m. and off at 10:00 p.m. After the second clutch, we remove the light, and that stops the breeding season. This way we have all the hatching done and over and the babies inside before the really hot, stormy weather gets here.
Since the breeding season in the wild is partly stimulated by the rainy season and the availability of fresh food, we think it helps to change their diets to simulate that effect. Spring is our driest season in Florida, so there is not much rain, but they seem to respond to the light cycle coupled with diet changes. In January, we increase the hard nuts and add more green foods. They especially like fresh peas in the shell as well as fresh corn. (Some breeders in Florida recommend 10 days on only dry seed to make the transition to fresh food more abrupt, but we have not found that necessary.)
The regular diet is sprouted seed, fruit, and vegetables in the morning and nuts, peanuts, and natural (non-fortified) seed mix and two monkey biscuits each in late afternoon. We use the natural additive PD (Parrot-Deli) which contains organic beet, garlic, alfalfa, and non-organic carrot powders. We put one heaping tablespoon of this per two quarts of the sprouted seed mix.
This system seems to work well for both breeding pairs as we routinely get four fertile eggs per clutch from Carmen and three fertile eggs per clutch from Ginger.
We use the Alpha Genesis Wild Bird Incubator and a temperature of 99.2 F with a relative humidity of 37% to 40%. The incubator has an automatic rocker which we set to rock once per hour and we turn one quarter turn five to seven times per day, always in the same direction.
When the internal pip is complete and they start on the external pip, we move the eggs to a hatcher and lower the temperature to 98.5 and raise the humidity to 75% R.H. If it is an assisted hatch, we will observe closely to decide when to intervene, and if it is not assisted, it will be allowed to hatch normally in an individual dish with a wet paper towel covering the bottom.
Handfeeding the RFM babies is easy if you pay attention to a few simple rules. Heat the water first, and then add whatever you are using. (We use our own recipe, but we have had success with several commercial HF formulae.) Make sure the temperature is about 108 F., and they will take it just fine. If you are feeding day one hatchlings, you need to wait until they are 8-12 hours old before starting to feed them. We start them with a probiotic and water for the first few feedings.
We feed entirely with closed ended pipettes which come in all sizes. We start with the smallest one and place the droplets on the side of the mouth where the upper and lower beaks meet. We do not put the tip inside the mouth until they have shown that the swallowing reflex is working properly. This will avoid any aspiration of food. As soon as they are swallowing properly, we change to thicker food. It needs to be thick enough so you don't have to draw it up into the pipette, sticking the tip of the pipette into the food is picking up enough of the formula for them to eat off the pipette. As they grow, we change to the larger sizes of pipettes. You can cut the end of the pipette with scissors to get the exact size opening you want.
We have found that if you have particles in the HF formula instead of totally smooth, it helps prevent any crop slow-downs. This is why we always begin the feedings with CeDe Lory powder because it has a rougher consistency. It is not adequate nutritionally for more than a few days for macaws but makes an excellent starter diet. After a few days, you can add egg food shaken through a strainer and some additional low-iron hand feeding formula to the mixture, and it works very well.
The Red-fronted macaw is a parrot that can be saved from its endangered status by aviculture. Since it also does make an excellent pet, people should be encouraged to breed it for that purpose. It is my opinion that once a bird is established in the "good pet" arena, breeders are much more interested in keeping it going. It is fairly easy to breed with the right habitat, nest box, and diet, and with its charming ways, it is a pleasant parrot to have around.
It is imperative that much more be done to evaluate the Red-fronted's wild status, and hopefully, money will become available not only to do that but also to encourage the protection of its limited habitat.
(1) Forshaw, Joseph M., 1989. Parrots of the World, Third Edition (2) Abramson, J., Speer, B.L., and Thomsen, J. B. 1995. The Large Macaws, Their Care, Breeding and Conservation.
(3) Clubb, Susan. 1992. Psittacine Aviculture, Perspectives, Techniques and Research.
(4) Boussekey, M., J. Saint-Pie, and O.Morvan. 1991. Observations on a population of the Red-fronted Macaw Ararubrogenys in the Rio Caine Valley, central Bolivia. Bird Conservation International 1:335-350.
For More Information About The Red-Fronted Macaw, As Well As a List of Available Babies,
E-mail Dr. M. L. Simmons at: firstname.lastname@example.org