What is a Macaw?

R. Kayne

A macaw is the largest member of the parrot family, indigenous to Neotropical regions of Southern Mexico and Central America down into Central South America. Macaws are brightly colored with long tails, streamlined bodies and large heads with a hooked mandible or beak.

Macaws live in mated pairs in rain forests.
Macaws live in mated pairs in rain forests.

The very sight of a macaw brings the word, tropical to mind. In the wild, these beautiful birds are found in the upper canopy of rain forests where they live in mated pairs that sometimes gather in flocks of 10 — 30. Highly social birds with loud vocalization, they call to one another from the time they awake just before dawn throughout the morning's preening ritual. As a group they take flight to forage for the day's food consisting of nuts and fruit, often traveling great distances to locate suitable groves. They feed until midday then settle down again for more preening and calling. An afternoon forage follows before they take flight in unison around dusk to head home to roost.

Macaws come in a variety of colors.
Macaws come in a variety of colors.

Macaws are on the endangered species list due mainly to the ongoing destruction of the rain forests and other macaw habitats. They reproduce slowly, having only two eggs per clutch. Additionally, throughout the 1980s over one million of these magnificent birds were reportedly captured to be sent to the United States and other countries to be sold in the pet trade. This combination of factors has played badly for macaws.

Macaws are indigenous to Southern Mexico, Central America, and South America.
Macaws are indigenous to Southern Mexico, Central America, and South America.

There are 6 genera of macaws and 17 species but only about 6 species are commonly found in the pet trade. Most stand between 30 — 35 inches tall (76 - 89 cm), though the mini macaws are smaller while the royal blue Hyacinth stands 39 — 40 inches tall (99 — 102 cm) and can range in price from $6,500 - $12,000 USD. Most macaws cost far less but still demand a hefty price of anywhere from $800 - $1,800 depending on species. Prospective owners are encouraged to find legitimate breeders through such sources as BirdTalk Magazine to avoid inadvertently supporting the ongoing smuggling trade. Macaws born to breeders will also be more docile having been handled nearly from birth, and hand-weaned.

Red-fronted macaws are highly sought after as pets.
Red-fronted macaws are highly sought after as pets.

Macaws are popular animal companions because of their rainbow-colored beauty and extreme intelligence. They have excellent articulation and can mimic sounds including words with voices that tend to be high and nasal. However, much consideration should be given before taking on the responsibility of caring for a macaw as they can be very trying for the wrong owner.

Macaws live for about 80 years in the home, leaving the problem of outliving their caretakers. In the wild they mate for life, and will bond with one person in the home whom the bird will relate to as a mate. It may be aggressive to all others in the family, including children and other pets, and is therefore best suited to a home where it is the main attraction.

A macaw's intelligence makes it necessary to have near-constant interaction to be happy, and lots of toys to play with. These birds love figuring out puzzles. A large bolt and nut that the macaw can unscrew and other mind-games are necessary to keep it mentally occupied. It can easily learn how to escape a cage.

Because of the bird's size, a roomy cage is a must. A suggested minimum is 3-foot wide by 2-foot deep by 5-foot tall (1 meter x .6 meters x 1.5 meters). Macaws also eat a lot of nuts and fruit which can get expensive, and they require constant gnawing to keep their beaks in shape. Blocks of untreated wood are necessary but furniture is always at risk of acquiring the macaw's personal signature.

Perhaps the most important consideration is that these birds are extremely loud and they love to vocalize. They can't be trained to "be quiet" in the same way a dog can be trained, though they can be trained to do lots of other things, like eat with a spoon or do tricks. The more interaction you give a macaw, the happier it will be. But it will always chew and it will always call loudly at will, as is its nature.

For those who love these birds enough to put them first, there is no more fascinating, beautiful or exotic animal companion. Non-profit organizations exist to help preserve macaw habitats in the wild, and macaw clubs also exist for those dedicated to these wonderful birds.

Macaws prefer to eat fruit and nuts.
Macaws prefer to eat fruit and nuts.

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Discussion Comments


Macaws have been portrayed in films for many years as companions to characters in the story. They are usually made to speak or do tricks in various scenes. A macaw is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of tropical places. I guess that's why many of the stories in these films take place in the tropics.


@bear78-- It is challenging to care for a full sized macaw. I agree with you about that. But there are different species of macaws. There are also mini macaws that are much smaller and much easier to care for.

Of course, animals are better off in the wild. But if they've been captured and brought to another country and being sold, it's better for them to be in a home with loving caretakers. And I think the macaws sold now are specially mated.


I did not know what a macaw was until I saw a program about them on TV. I think these are amazing birds. Their appearance, their intelligence and affection are all very impressive.

As much as I love caring for pets, it doesn't sound like a macaw belongs in the home. These birds have their own lives in the rain-forest and it will be challenging for both the owner and the bird to keep them home. They ought to be free and living life as they should.

I don't think people should take them as pets. I think we are harming them by separating them from their habitat and forcing them to live like a human, surrounded by humans. I doubt that they are very happy inside cages.

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