The Mysterious Macaw (The Unique Red-Bellied Macaws)

© Howard Voren. Click here to use this content.

In the past, it was not uncommon for certain types of birds to be imported in large numbers before we knew anything about them. Throughout the “importation years,” many importers would find sources for certain birds that had never been previously imported, and it would be the aviculturist’s dilemma to try to figure out “what made them tick.” In most cases, we have fared well. One major exception, however, is the red-bellied macaw (Ara manilata).

This was a bird that, despite its easy availability for many years, has remained a mystery. In fact, not only have red-bellied macaws proven to be difficult to breed, they also have been difficult to keep alive. This led to a decision by most responsible importers to stop importing them. Throughout their quarantine period, they would continually die. Not in large numbers, but one or two at a time. This steady mortality would continue after quarantine and until almost all the birds were dead. One year after importation, there would be few if any birds left alive. No one, including the top avian veterinarians, could determine the cause of their failure to thrive in captivity. It was obvious to everyone who worked with them that these birds were very different from all the other “mini macaws.” They acted different, sounded different and interacted with each other very differently than all the other macaws. The secret to keeping them alive and happy was a deep, dark mystery.

This certainly was something that aroused my curiosity, but all published information on them did not even come close to giving me a clue on how to solve the mystery. After exhausting all available sources of information, I made the decision that it was best to forget about them and move on to other things that offered a greater possibility of success. That is, until I was invited to travel to Guyana, South America. This was the country from which the red-bellied macaws originated. I was asked to travel there to oversee the care of a commercial shipment of parrots and macaws. I would have the opportunity to pick up new knowledge in the country to which these macaws were native. Hopefully, I could add enough new information to what I already knew to allow me to solve the mystery surrounding these unusual birds.

I recalled some information that I had gleaned from a veterinarian who, at that time, was the only person to have successfully bred them. He had received a large group of red-bellied macaws from an importer who could not stop them from dying. He was given the group to first determine why they were dying and then to stop the mortality. After lab results gave no good clues, he began shooting in the dark with general treatments. He told me that the more he medicated, the faster they died. When the dust had settled, only four birds were left alive. The importer told him to keep the four survivors, and, luckily, they turned out to be two males and two females. Worrying that they might be carriers of whatever killed the rest of the flock, he isolated them at the back corner of his property, away from all his other birds. He split them up into pairs, placed them into two breeding flights and left them alone except to feed them. To his surprise, one of the pairs produced babies. I was hoping that this scanty tidbit, along with anything else I could learn, might begin to paint a legible picture.

One of the first things that I asked the Guyanese exporters with whom I would be staying was if they know anything about these birds. They said that they only had bad experiences with them and believed that it was better not to lose more lives by continuing to send trappers out to catch them. The first problem was that the majority of the red bellies would not eat. They would sit in their cages with full bowls of cooked rice and corn, and would never even try to eat. These birds, of course, would pass away rapidly. Those that would eat would be shipped to importers, but even those would eventually pass away. No one could understand why. They said that if I knew of any secrets to keeping them alive, they would be willing to try a few. I explained that I knew very little and felt, as they did, that losing more lives out of ignorance was foolish. I would look into possible answers to the problem while I was there and would only ask them to send out trappers for the birds if I felt confident that I had solved the mystery.

A Mystery Unfolds

Directly after my arrival, I was brought to the jungle compound. We had decided that it would be best if I lived at the compound with the birds. One of the things that we discovered upon entering the compound was that one of the trappers had delivered 10 red-bellied macaws. It was the first time that he was trapping for that company, and no one had told him not to capture red bellies. Since they had their wings clipped, they could not be released. We had no choice but to try to keep them alive and healthy.

We separated the birds into two cages and placed them high in the corner of one of the smaller, more private bird-holding rooms that the exporter had set up. They were extremely nervous, and all scrambled into one of the upper rear corners of the cage. Whenever anyone would enter the room, the birds would scream shrilly. I closed the doors to the room and observed them through the corner of a window that I had visually blocked with a burlap sack so they could not see me. To my delight, one in each cage went to the food dish and began to eat. By the next day, half of them were eating. The exporter was pleased that half of them were eating, but I could only think about the five that refused to take even one bite. I began to force feed these twice a day. I began to notice that even though I was feeding them, they were losing weight. I examined those that were eating on their own and realized that they, too, were losing weight, not as much as those that I was force-feeding, but, nevertheless, there was a noticeable loss. Their droppings were healthy-looking, and they did not seem to be suffering from any type of infection. A local veterinarian believed that since they were passing food so well, a logical assumption would be that the birds had some type of intestinal parasites. I agreed, and we proceeded to treat them. This did not help at all. They continued to lose weight. Within two weeks, we had lost them all.

I was saddened that 10 birds had lost their lives because the trapper did not know that we were not buying this type of macaw. I was depressed that with all my years of accumulated knowledge and all my so-called “talent for understanding parrots,” I was able to do nothing. I believed that all my skills were worthless.

About a week later when my depression began to lift, I began putting some serious thought into what had taken place. I thought about how even though they were well fed, the red bellies kept losing weight. If they were not sick, and it appeared that they were not, how could this happen? I began to think of people whom I had known who seemed to be able to eat large quantities of food yet always remain thin. I recalled a female friend from college who weighed a mere 98 pounds. She had an almost electric nervousness about her that you could feel when you were with her. We would go out for pizza, order a large pie and each eat half. I would gain weight, and she would remain as thin as a rail. She eventually married a friend of mine, settled down and lost the nervous edge to her personality. She now maintains normal weight and, in fact, becomes heavy if she overeats for a period of time. Could this be the answer why the birds lost their body weight? Could they have burned themselves up with nervous energy? Previously, whenever I discussed the mortality problems of these birds, I was with importers or vets in the United States. We would always assume that the birds were infected with some type of disease that they had contracted while being fed contaminated food or by being housed in contaminated surroundings. This group, however, was placed under my care only 12 hours after capture and was housed in a building that never housed birds before. This problem could no longer be blamed on unknown disease or contamination factors. Was their nervousness from fear and insecurity enough to cause them to waste away and die?

Enlightening Insights I then made a decision to talk to some of the trappers about the red-bellied macaws. The manager of the compound brought me to the house of one of the trappers who had trapped them in years past, when no one had yet realized that they “could not live in captivity.” I explained that I was interested in learning everything I could about the habits and lives of these birds in the wild. He smiled and told me that they were, indeed, very different from all the other parrots. We talked for quite some time. He began by explaining that these macaws’ lives revolve completely around one particular type of palm tree. They called it the “It-tay palm.” This palm is mentioned in the book, Parrots of the World by Joseph Forshaw, where it is called the “Mauritia palm.” These macaws live in, sleep in, nest in and eat from these trees. In fact, even when they are flying, it is usually because they are traveling from one group of these trees to another.

As he talked, the fog that shrouded these birds in mystery began to lift. He explained that they came from an area that was all swampland. This massive swamp had small, high areas sprinkled throughout. It was on these high areas that the palm trees grew. Flocks of red bellies would move into large stands of these trees to feed on their palm fruits. These round fruits were about the size of a large plum. Between the brown skin and the cherry-sized nut in the center was a yellow-orange flesh that was the consistency of raw potato. This made up nearly 100 percent of their diet. They would choose large stands of these palms that had an overabundance of woodpecker holes as roosting sites. They would sleep communally in these groups of hollows. Depending on the size of the hollow, between five and 10 birds would sleep together. As dusk would approach, they would all pile into these dormitories and sleep shoulder to shoulder. They would also use these hollows to hide in whenever they felt threatened, which was usually by birds of prey, since no land animals enter the swamp. They also lived without competitive species. The only other parrot that would enter their domain on rare occasions would be small family groups (three to five birds) of Hahn’s macaws.

The red bellies would live in flocks all year long. All other New World parrots split up en masse at the beginning of the breeding season and go their own way to find a private place to raise a family. At the end of the breeding season, which lasts only a few months, they reform into flocks and begin their migrations to other parts of the country, depending on what food crops are naturally available. Not so with the red-bellied macaws! Not only do they not migrate, they also have a breeding season that lasts for about six months. If you include those that happen to breed exceptionally early, as well as those that breed very late, you have a breeding season that can be as long as eight months. When they get the urge to raise a family, they will break off from the group. They look for a hollow that has no others in close proximity. They will hatch their babies, and when the babies begin to fly, they rejoin the flock and bring their babies with them, even though they are not yet weaned. Another very interesting fact that I later had confirmed by another trapper was that there were always three birds at each nesting site: one in the hollow sitting on the eggs and two in the tree. No one knew what sex the “third wheel” was. Due to their habits, they were very easy for the trappers to catch. All they had to do was go into the swamp at night, hold a net over the entrance to the sleeping hollows while their partner beat the trunk of the palm with a club. The birds would panic and fly out of the hollows into the net. In a single evening, one could catch an entire flock.

This explained everything. Red-bellied macaws could not be expected to thrive because they were being treated like all other parrots–something that they were most definitely not. Here were all the answers! It’s not as if anyone were keeping these things secret. It was just that no one ever bothered to ask. All those red-bellied macaw lives lost. All the consulting with veterinarians, and the brainstorming between importers, exporters and bird experts as to why the birds would not thrive. No one bothered to ask the native who went out into the swamps to catch the birds. More than a dozen exporters had given up trying to work with these birds without ever thinking to ask the poor fellow with the tattered clothes who was standing in the yard waiting to get paid for the birds that he delivered.

This was the break I was hoping for. I immediately put a team of people to work. I ordered three flight cages built and suspended about 4 feet above the ground in a secluded area of dense vegetation. To further blind off this area from all visual contact with movement in the compound, I had tarps hung around the perimeter of the area. I then ordered three large dormitories built of plywood. Each had three compartments with open wire bottoms. This would allow the droppings to pass through to the ground. Everyone was scratching their heads, wondering what the crazy American was up to. I then sent two people out by boat with sacks to collect palm fruits. It was then that I announced that I was ready to try some red-bellied macaws.

The exporter was skeptical. “What makes you believe that you can keep them alive?” he asked.
“I now have a grasp on how they think,” I replied.

Searching for Answers

The following morning, we were off to visit the trappers. We traveled quite a distance. It was decided that we would deal with trappers that were in close proximity to the macaws’ habitat. We wished to obtain the birds as quickly as possible after capture. They agreed to trap the following night. We requested that they not try to transport the birds to our compound. We would come the morning after capture to pick them up. We asked them to put them in two large transport cages and not to separate any groups that were sleeping together. They agreed, and we were on our way.

At that point, I could only wait in anticipation. I began to get nervous. Was I too brash? Would I be responsible for a great loss of life? After all, I was not trying to save a group of birds that had already been captured. I had set the wheels in motion to capture a group of birds that everyone had all intentions of leaving alone. I have always believed that to ensure the perpetuation of a species, we must unlock the secrets to their captive production. Only then do we have something to fall back on in the light of the unstoppable habitat destruction that seems to go hand in hand with the inevitable advancement of civilization. The secrets to their successful captive production could only be discovered if healthy pairs were available to aviculturists. This was my goal. At any rate, it was too late for second thoughts. The die had been cast. Now, I could only pray that I was correct.

Dawn was forever in coming. Upon its arrival, we headed to the village where the trappers were to be waiting. As we drove up, they were waiting outside a small hut. Both cages were packed with red bellies (approximately 60 birds per cage). All appeared to be in good condition. There were several very young birds, and these were discernible by a white stripe they had running down the front of the upper mandible. Several of them were obviously unweaned. They sat on the cage floor and called for mama to feed them. She, whoever she was, would have no part of it, and they were ignored. There were two eggs on the bottom of one cage, and one on the bottom of the other. These observations proved that they, indeed, had just captured them that night. My fears that we would be conned into taking birds that had previously been captured and might already have the mark of death on them were erased. I gave my nod of approval to the exporters. The trappers were paid, and we were off to the compound with our flock of red bellies.

Hoping and Waiting

The first thing we did upon our arrival was fill the bottoms of the flight cages with the palm fruits. We then released the birds into the flights, removed the babies that needed hand-feeding and stood back to watch. All the birds flew into the dormitories. Within seconds, there was not a bird to be seen in either of the flights that they had been released into. I was instantly relieved to see that they had accepted my dormitories as a place of security. Hopefully, the fact that they had their friends and family with them, their natural food all around them, privacy and the dormitories as a security blanket, would be enough to allow them to thrive. Some pans of water were added to the flight cages, and everyone was ordered to stay away. I didn’t want anyone even looking behind the tarp until the following morning. I brought the cage of babies into a building to be hand-fed.

I found myself pacing like an expectant father. All I could do was follow my own orders and leave the birds in the flights alone. The following week would tell the tale. I will have either made a major breakthrough or committed a great sin. I could only sit and pray.

The week that followed yielded only three deaths. All three showed injuries that were incurred during capture. I could only hope that the following week would yield none.

Each day upon awakening, I would rush over to the workers and instead of saying, “Good morning,” I would blurt out, “Any dead?”
“None,” they would respond.
“Any acting sick?” I would ask.
“Can’t tell. They all run and hide in those boxes!” they would reply.

The days and then the weeks went by. All the birds thrived. We eventually went out and filled the third flight. In that group, we lost none.

Understanding a Species

Now it was time to ready the macaws for their trip to the U.S. The first thing that had to be accomplished was to wean them onto something other than palm fruits. These types especially were impossible to obtain in the U.S. All attempts to get the birds to accept boiled corn or rice failed. I wondered what I could feed them that was brown and round? Then it occurred to me–peanuts! Peanuts were certainly tiny compared to the plum-sized palm fruits, but they were the only thing available that was close. Off to the market we went. We discovered that there were no peanuts available in a shelled form, only whole peanuts in the shell. Of course, the birds completely ignored them. So much for everyone’s free time! For the next several weeks, we all sat around during the evenings and shelled peanuts for the next day’s feeding. Within two weeks, all the red-bellied macaws were eating the peanuts well enough to allow us to eliminate the palm fruits from their diet. We used vitamin supplements in their water since we did not want the birds to become vitamin deficient. We introduced other foods to them while we waited for the export papers to be completed.

When the people at the wildlife department learned that we were ready to export a group of red-bellied macaws, their first question was: “But aren’t they dying?”

The exporter was able to proudly say, “No. In fact, out of almost 200 captured, only three died!”

The head wildlife official decided that she wanted to inspect the birds herself. “A group of almost 200 red bellies, and they’re all healthy? This I have to see for myself How did you accomplish that?” she asked the exporter.

“Oh, we have certain tricks up our sleeves,” he replied with a smile.

When she arrived at the compound, she was very impressed. By that time, the birds had become more used to the presence of humans, and only about a third of them would run into the dormitories when someone would look at them from behind the tarps.

“They look beautiful!” she exclaimed.
At that point, she looked around and saw that the exporters had walked off to give instructions to some of the employees.
“Tell me. What’s the secret to keeping them alive?” she asked
She was, in fact, looking at some of my “secrets” and never saw them!
“I’ll tell you,” I said. “I sing them a very special song.”
“Will you sing it for me?” she asked.
“Maybe someday, if I return,” I replied.
“You know, a lot of exporters would also like to learn the song,” she stated.
“I bet they would,” I laughed.

She smiled and walked away. The exporters and I had previously discussed whether or not our findings should be shared. We all agreed that a massive re-exploitation of the wild flocks of red bellies was something that none of us wanted to be responsible for. This exploitation was something that would most certainly begin if the word got out. Therefore, the decision was made to throw up a big smoke screen and lead everyone into believing that some very complicated secret procedures were responsible for our “very lucky” success.

Finally, all the paperwork was ready, and I left for the States to prepare the facility to house the birds when they cleared quarantine in the U.S. As I entered the plane, I looked down and saw the wildlife official standing near a group of shipping crates that were bound for Miami. She looked up and with a big smile yelled, “Don’t forget to sing me that song when you come back!”


Nutritional analysis of the red-bellied macaws’ natural diet revealed that it consisted of high beta carotene, high carbohydrates and zero fat. This explained their propensity to become obese in captivity. Virtually all the usual parrot diets were much too high in fat content for these birds. Continued vitamin A supplementation in the form of beta carotene was a must. Deficiencies in vitamin A usually hit very rapidly and result in numerous serious aliments that can be fatal. Beta carotene is the only form of vitamin A that does not require fat to be absorbed. Successful breeding was achieved by adjusting their diet accordingly.

Pairs were housed in close proximity to one another with no visual blinds between cages. The pairs were set up in an area where they were not in visual contact with any other species. Hand-fed babies were much calmer than adults and were able to metabolize fat more efficiently than adults. They, too, however, showed the need for a very low-fat diet once weaned.

The exporters kept our “secrets,” and the wild flocks were never exploited in any major way. I never returned to Guyana, and it is now closed to export.

I wish to offer my special thanks to Lawrence and Cleo VanSertima for having the faith to trust me.