Tony Silva NEWS: Questions and answers. “My macaws feed each other and mate, but they do not lay eggs.”

May 31st, 2015 | by Tony Silva
Tony Silva NEWS: Questions and answers. “My macaws feed each other and mate, but they do not lay eggs.”
Tony Silva NEWS


My macaws feed each other and mate, but they do not lay eggs. What tips can you give me to get them to breed? I usually question the writer as to how the birds are housed, what the nest dimensions are, how long have they owned the birds and what diet are they feeding the birds. In many cases, the birds were acquired only months earlier but already the potential breeder is distraught at not having had success.



My response invariably contains the same starting sentence: If parrots bred like chickens, they would sell for the price of a chicken. This is the cold, hard fact. That sometimes a pair will breed soon after they are acquired is an anomaly. Most pairs require an adaptation phase, where they become accustomed to their new enclosure, new diet (as rarely do two people feed exactly the same diet in the same proportions), nesting box and their keeper. I waited 11 years before a pair of Red-fronted Macaws bred. They were wild imports that refused every nesting box that I could provide. Eventually they nested in an open-topped box on their enclosure floor. I suspect that they had become bored with my attempt to entice them into every elaborate nest imaginable, including one that consisted of three chambers connected with a small tunnel, the entire nest forming a large C.


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Red-fronted Macaw; two in a cage with a nestbox. (c) TJ Lin. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


The greatest virtue that a parrot breeder can have is patience. The second virtue is understanding the birds. They communicate their likes and dislikes, but we must understand their language. A pair that opens their wings, sticks their head inside their nest and screams is telling you that they are afraid to enter. They dislike their nest. It may be too light or too large or the wrong shape, or the birds may have entered and then quickly fled because of rodents.

To breed parrots, you need to have a pair. Behavior is never infallible. Two males or two females can bond, feeding each other, pretending to mate and spending long periods of time inside their nest. They should be sexed using a scientific method. Witching—suspending a ball or piece of crystal over the bird´s head, so that it gyrates or swings to determine gender—is merely a game of guessing. I have used this method on proven pairs and about 50% of the times, the pendulum swung in a manner that identified the bird´s true gender. In the other 50%, the witching proved wrong. Fifty percent is as good as guessing. Head size, coloration and behavior are NOT true guides. The pair also needs to be compatible. Two macaws that sit at opposite ends of the cage or never interact or feed together will probably never breed. They are telling you that they dislike each other. In my experience, they will rarely overcome this emotion to breed. I know of a pair of Scarlet Macaws that have been repeatedly surgically sexed to verify their gender, receive an excellent diet, live in a spacious cage and have a proper nest, but they have failed to nest in the 33 years they have been kept together. The owner is patient… but in this case patience will never yield results because the birds detest each other.



Macaws in Balinese Safary & Marine Park


After having a pair, diet and proper housing come into play. Each parrot species has its own dietary requirements. Macaws and African Greys require high fat diets. On the other hand, high fat diets will produce fatty lipomas (tumors) in Rose-breasted Cockatoos and cause obesity that will affect breeding in Amazon parrots. Within the macaws, different species have different fatty requirements. The Green-winged Macaw has evolved to crush hard, oil rich palm seeds. It has a high fat requirement as evinced by the diet it consumes in the wild. In contrast, the Red-fronted Macaw comes from a dry area where palms are uncommon. It feeds on pods, legumes and even shoots. They will take peanuts from farming plots but this may be a fairly recent event, as peanuts and corn were brought to the area by peasants to supplement their meager diet. These examples show that the same diet cannot be fed to all species.

Because I have described diet in the past, I will only superficially summarize that information. The diet should be varied, where possible emulate the natural diet (especially in terms of fat and protein content) and contain a broad variety of items—pellets, seeds, fruits, vegetables, healthy table food and, depending on the species, nuts.

In my opinion, vegetables should be offered in greater quantity than fruits. If you observe wild parrots, it immediately becomes apparent that they do not wait for fruit to ripen; if they waited for the fruit to ripen, they would compete with a myriad of other animals, including primates and bats. To eliminate this competition for a limited resource, the parrots eat the fruit when it is green, typically bitter or astringent and low in sugar. Besides, most cultivated fruits have been produced with an exorbitant sugar content to make them attractive to humans. Simply bite into a cultivated apple and then a crab apple and you will quickly note the difference.


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The Blue and Gold Macaw eating fruit at Loefling Zoo, Ciudad Guayana. (c) miguelmorales85. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Nests used by wild parrots tend to be small. There are exceptions, but these species are merely utilizing an available cavity. Tree nesting parrots utilize small, often tight fits. More than once in my wife I have found chicks in wild nests that would have been unable to fledge because they lacked the dexterity to maneuver out of a tight entrance hole. This is why offering a pair of macaws—or any species for that matter– a nesting box the size of a child´s bedroom is to discourage breeding. The smaller nest provides the feeling of security. We offer our large macaws nests 90cm (36 inches) long x 35 cm (14 inches) wide x 40-45 cm (16-18 inches) high. I have seen nests three times this size offered to a pair, who for years did as previously described: they would place their head inside the entrance and scream, or they chewed around the entrance, or in general avoided contact with the cavity. When given a smallest nest as described above, many of these pairs were inside within a day and three weeks later the females were incubating eggs.

The trend is to give pairs nests filled with shavings. I do not do this. After having observed a vast array of parrot species nesting in the wild, it has become very apparent that nest preparation is a nesting stimulus. The time spent in chewing and kicking out the excess nesting material has a stimulating effect. In my nests I place only pieces of rotted wood, which the birds must chew into slivers. They discard the excess. This activity replicates a natural behavior that induces gonadal development. In Moluccan Cockatoos I have seen a direct correlation between this behavior and fertile eggs, with previously successful pairs producing clear eggs if their nest was filled with shavings and they did not need to spend any time inside before laying.


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A Hyacinth Macaw looking out from a nestbox in a zoo in the USA. (c) Don Kasak. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


The nest should also be dark. I have never seen a wild parrot nest in a cavity that it brightly light. Darkness allows the incubating bird, the eggs and ultimately the chicks to remain hidden from sight. This increases the likelihood of success. In a brightly lit nest, on the other hand, predators would almost certainly predate on the incubating bird, eggs or chicks.


Title photo:  A Blue-throated Macaw at Chester Zoo, Cheshire, England. (c) Steve Wilson. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.




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