The gracious, seemingly always happy hyacinth macaw (anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) ranks as the world’s largest flighted bird and largest psittacine. Affectionately known as the “Gentle Giant” of the bird world, this Neotropical parrot sports a cobalt blue headdress, striking golden bare-skinned eye-rings, and complementary golden facial outline around beak, which give a hyacinth the appearance of happiness and unflappable graciousness. Unlike other macaws, the hyacinth has a feathered face and lore (area of a bird’s face from the base of the bill to the front of the eyes). Maxing out the bird world in its length, the hyacinth macaw measures around 100 cm in length (3.3 ft) and weighs between 1.2 and 1.7 kg (2.6 to 3.7 lbs.) This lankiness is borne with elegance and grace.
A hyacinth macaw’s dark-brown irises draw an observer’s gaze, and, with uncanny directness, a hyacinth typically returns the gaze with steadiness. The hyacinth’s incommensurately happy appearance hides a disproportionately stocky set of legs and low center of gravity. When you least expect it, this parrot grabs a side support and hangs sideways or upside down with extraordinary tensile strength. And these birds are highly intelligent, problem-solvers known to use tools. Here Shadow of Instagram’s @Heidenelsin demonstrates the facility coordinating claw and beak to maximize their dexterity and skill-level.
When the 1980’s saw the massive growth in parrots’ popularity as companion animals, it’s hardly any wonder that the personable hyacinth gained wide popularity — and high price, as their populations had never been great, due to various constraints on reproduction in their native South American habitats.
First described by Europeans in 1790, the hyacinth macaw in South America numbered anywhere from 100,000 to three million. Today, due to deforestation for cattle ranching, natural rain forest fires, and extensive exportation for the international companion animal trade in the 1980s the hyacinth population has only approximately 6,500 in the wild, after recovering from an estimated low in 1986 of 2,500-3,000, an estimated 10,000 having been illegally exported in the 1980s. This population turn-around largely is attributed to legal changes, increased law enforcement and conservation project initiatives which both support these macaws and raise awareness about their plight with local farmers.
As a large bird, the hyacinth macaw matures more slowly than other parrots, not reaching sexual maturity until seven to nine years of age. Only about a third of hyacinths do attempt to reproduce, and they mate only every other year. Monogamous and non-migratory, breeding pairs tend to use the same hollowed-out manduvi tree-trunk nest year after year. Preferentially, in the Pantanal, where the largest population of wild hyacinths live, hyacinths nest in manduvis that have reached 60 years of age, yet they compete with seventeen other species for such sites, including black vultures (Coragyps atratus), collared forest falcons, and red-and-green macaws (Ara chloropterus), who may break hyacinth macaw eggs. Secondarily they may nest in nester tree trunk hollows. In other regions, where there are no manduvi, hyacinths actually nest in cliffs. The Hyacinth Macaw Project has had success supporting wild hyacinths by placing nest boxes for them, but even these may be taken over by bee colonies.
A female hyacinth lays only two eggs per clutch, typically sometime between August and December. Each egg is approximately 48 mm (1.9 in.) long and 36 mm at its widest point. After between 28 and 30 days of incubation, the eggs hatch but only one chick is likely to survive. The eggs hatch asynchronously.
As hyacinth aviculturist Kashmir Csaky explains, hyacinth egg shells are notably thin and brittle, and the proper weight of egg, indicating the appropriate ratio of fluid and dissolved oxygen, may not always be maintained. This is critical to successful hatching: the chick must have adequate oxygen for the necessary vigor to break the hard shell. For aviculturists, an equation specifies the proper weight of an egg given an estimated weight at laying and a species-specific coefficient, which for the hyacinth macaw is 0.0005640:
Length x width x 0.0005640
Advanced aviculturists like Kasmir have techniques for adjusting egg weight back to the optimum as well as techniques for assisting hatching.
After hatching, the male helps gather food for the chick(s), chewed and regurgitated palm nuts. While the parents typically feed their young for six months, they chicks fledge at around 110 days. As it takes time for young macaw beaks to develop the strength to crack the necessary palm nuts, young remain with their parents a considerable time. As they separate they tend to associate with other young, many years remaining before they will choose a mate.
Both as egg and hatching, hyacinth young, of course, are vulnerable to particular predators in their several environments in Brazil and smaller regions in Bolivia and Paraguay, such as carnivorous ants (Solenopsis sp.), other insects, collared forest falcon (Micrastur semitorquatus), and spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata). The toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) and great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) are also suspected of chick predation, but this has not yet been confirmed.
Hyacinths consume a specialized diet of the fruits of various palms, which are inside extremely hard nuts. Hyacinths forage for palm nuts and water on the ground, but may also forage directly from the palm tree and drink fluid from unripe palm fruits.
The hyacinth macaw, now listed as threatened on IUCN’s Red List and as Appendix I, CITES has faced only fairly recent existential threat. The 1980’s saw a simultaneous deforestation of its native habitats in Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil along with a rapid increase in exportation for the international pet market.
Understandably, as a companion animal, the hyacinth macaw commands a premium price, approximately $13,000 for a male in the US market, $20,000 for a female. In some countries their parronts may be required to maintain CITES certification from the breeder proving the bird was aviary-raised and not wild-sourced. The expenses for a hyacinth can be considerable: large aviaries that are sturdily built, a steady flow of over-sized enrichment toys and treats, the specialized diet, veterinary care and pet insurance all contribute to the necessary budget. It has been recommended that parronts should put aside between $5-10,000 annually for hyacinth expenses.
Kashmir Csaky is an international speaker, writer and certified parrot behavioral consultant. Her papers have been translated into Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, Chinese, and Thai. Her articles have appeared in Bird Talk, Companion Parrot Quarterly, Parrots Magazine, Parrot Information Pages, Psittascene, Watchbird, In Your Flock, the German magazine Papageien, the Czech publication Nova Exota and in numerous newsletters and journals. Kashmir has advised zoos and private aviculturists on breeding Macaws, artificial incubation procedures, hand-raising chicks and parent-rearing chicks. Kashmir was the first breeder known to co-parent Hyacinth Macaws. She served on the board of directors of the International Aviculturist Society and Bird Clubs of Virginia.