For the Birds Radio Program: Blue-and-yellow Macaws

Original Air Date: Nov. 1, 1996 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Sept. 5, 2001; July 21, 2000

Do parrots deserve to lead lives as pets?

Duration: 4′35″


Years ago, my husband used to watch a TV show set in Hawaii about a detective called Magnum, P.I. I wasn’t much interested in the show myself, but I did like to watch the opening credits to see Torn Selleck waking up in the morning and attending to his two pet macaws. He didn’t pay much attention to the birds during the rest of the show, so he was hardly the ideal bird owner. I also felt sad because, at the time the show was produced, aviculturists had had little success breeding macaws in captivity, so these two show birds most certainly had been kidnapped as chicks from the Amazon basin. But they were in glorious plumage and obviously well tended by the TV animal trainer. Despite their sad origins and the fact that South American birds were being used to show the exotic nature of Hawaii, they were a visual treat for me.

Parrots are popular as pets for several reasons. Some other families are as beautiful, but parrots are easier to keep alive and healthy, eating a varied diet of fruits, nuts, and seeds easy to provide in captivity. Parrots are flocking birds that mate for life, and their devotion to natural mate and companions is easily transferred to a human owner if the parrot is properly cared for. In the wild, young birds are careful listeners who eagerly mimic the others in their flocks. In captivity, this keen interest in communication is directed to mimicking human speech.

But parrots pay a heavy price for their popularity–78 members of the family are currently in danger of extinction thanks as much to the pet trade as to destruction of their tropical forest habitat. The pet trade has a shameful history of cruelty in smuggling birds–even when it was legal to bring exotics into the country, they would cram so many baby birds, still dependent on their parents for feeding, into one small box that many would die from overheating and all would be emaciated, some starved to death, when they reached their destination. It’s estimated that for every pet bird that survived being kidnapped and smuggled into the US, another four have died.

The Blue-and-yellow Macaw is one of the largest, most beautiful, parrots in the world. It’ s also the most popular macaw as a pet, partly because it’s so easy to steal babies from natural nest cavities along the Amazon. All you have to do is chop the nest tree down and pull the chicks out of the hole. Some ethical aviculturists have worked hard to develop techniques for raising macaws in captivity and have succeeded fairly well, but the bird’s rarity and the expensive, demanding requirements of captive breeding make pets very expensive. This high cost makes it worth the risk for unscrupulous traders to continue smuggling macaws into the country, so it’s very difficult to be certain whether a given pet has been acquired legally or not.

Macaws and other parrots are the most manually dexterous of birds, capable of fine manipulation of food and other objects. Each bird is either right- or le ft-footed, using the dominant foot as we use our dominant hand. Our social systems are similar to those of parrots, and so we study these birds for language development and other evidence of higher intelligence. When people care for them properly, with huge amounts of love and attention, macaws and their relatives can thrive in captivity, living long, happy lives, and the human owners can be rewarded with a loving and interesting companion. But wild birds really belong in the wild. Anyone interested in acquiring a pet macaw should make sure the seller can document that it was truly bred in captivity, not a victim of birdnapping.