Denver Zoo Map
April 4, 2014

Feathered Friend Friday - Spirit the blue and yellow macaw

By Jennifer Nixon, Denver Zoo Bird Keeper

Introducing this week’s feathered friend, Spirit. Spirit is a blue-and-yellow macaw (Ara ararauna) or if you prefer - blue-and-gold macaw. Macaws are members of the parrot family. Spirit is at least 14 years old but her exact age is unknown as she was a donation to Denver Zoo in 2000. She has a strong relationship with her keepers as well as her best friend Gulliver, a green-winged macaw, who came with her as part of the same donation.

One of her most noticeable features is her strongly hooked beak designed for opening the toughest of nuts and seeds. That beak packs 2000 psi and can snap a broomstick in half. Which is why her keepers have a healthy respect for her boundaries and encourage her to use her beak for constructive things, such as Brazil nuts (one of her favorites) and an assortment of destructible toys for her to play with. Macaws tend to bond with either a person or another bird so approaching one without the owner, or in this case keeper, is not advised.

Blue-and-yellow macaws, like Spirit, are very inquisitive and enjoy tearing things apart with their beaks and making a general mess. Spirit receives a lot of enrichment at the zoo to keep her brain and body active, as she is a very intelligent, energetic bird. They are messy eaters as well. Spirit gets a complete well-balanced diet made up of parrot pellets, fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts, half of which she just throws on the floor. She is very fond of waxworms and will gently take them from her keeper. If however, her keeper is feeding other birds near her, she will try to get her attention and tug the keeper’s hair if she can reach it.

She is zygodactylous which means two of her toes face forward and the other two backwards. She also uses her powerful beak as another limb when she is climbing around on her perches. While some parrot species are known to be good at mimicking, the macaw is not known for this skill. In the wild, they do not mimic other birds, but when they are around humans constantly they can pick up some mimicked words. Spirit has only learned how to say hello, but only in exchange for a reward. She is not especially fond of speaking and the keepers focus her training on things that are best for her care. For example, she can hold out her wings or hold up her feet for a visual inspection to make sure she is staying healthy.

Spirits relatives are native to South America and have a fairly broad range. They are important for forest regrowth since they are messy eaters dropping seeds and nuts as well as feces on the forest floor. They flock to mountains of clay called “macaw licks” that they use to supplement their diets with minerals and salts. It can also neutralize some of the toxins in certain things they eat. There has been a decrease in their population size recently as human population growth and habitat destruction puts pressure on macaw habitat of tropical forests, mangrove swamps and savannas. Unfortunately, they are also captured for the illegal pet trade. The U.S. Wild Bird Act forbids the commercial import of any bird listed by CITES which include most parrot species.

Most people are mesmerized by how beautiful and intelligent macaws are and they may desire owning one. If this is the case then here are some facts to consider and more research is necessary to see if they would make the right pet for you. If you decide you are up to the commitment of owning a macaw then please make sure to get one from a reputable breeder or owner.

  • Macaws live between 60-80 years so it is very possible they will outlive you and need to be put in your will.
  • Very messy and love chewing, including furniture, doors, walls and anything within reach.
  • Require a lot of toys (enrichment). Imagine a 2-year-old for 80 years.
  • Have specialized needs for veterinary care, environment and diet.
  • Very loud, so not the best pet for an apartment for instance.
  • Bond strongly to usually one person so getting a petsitter is complicated.
  • Finally, they can bite very hard.

For the right pet owner, parrots can be a very rewarding commitment with their inquisitive nature, intelligence and personalities. On the other hand, you can always visit Spirit at Denver Zoo! You can find her with Gulliver in the Rainforest room of Bird World, presented by Frontier Airlines. She is on display every day until roughly 5:30 p.m. She tends to get very vocal at the end of the day when she is ready to go to her nighttime home behind-the-scenes.

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