Green-winged macaws, also known as red-and-green macaws, are native to southern Central America and northern South America. They inhabit tropical rainforest.
The Maryland Zoo features a green-winged macaw among its Animal Ambassadors, which are introduced to audiences in education programs on and off grounds.
Macaws spend most of their time in the rainforest canopy where they feed, socialize, and take cover from eagles, their most likely predator. They remain in pairs or small parties but usually do not gather in large flocks unless congregating at a clay lick along a riverbank. This is an interesting behavior often observed in macaws, and biologists think that minerals and salts in the clay licks are essential to the birds’ diet.
When in large flocks at a clay lick, macaws are very gregarious and loud, displaying their full vocal range. (“A trumpet blown straight in your ear”: this is how Charles Munn, a wildlife biologist who has studied macaws for years, describes their signature shriek.) Under cover of the dense rainforest, though, macaws are surprisingly hard to spot. They forage and nest high in the trees and go very quiet while in the forest, so despite their bright colors they keep a low profile.
Macaws are very agile when feeding. They use their toes – two facing back and two facing front on each foot – to help them balance and perch. They hang upside down and reach sideways easily. They use their beaks as a third foot for climbing and balancing, and as a tool for breaking fruit apart and cracking nuts and seeds.
Macaws play and interact a great deal. Pairs will sit and preen for hours, removing lice and ticks from each other’s feathers. Macaws also talk to each other constantly. Family groups are often seen together. If you spot a trio or quartet of macaws, it’s most likely two parent birds plus offspring.
Macaws are distinguished by their large size, long tails, huge beaks, striking coloration, and marked intelligence. Like many species of parrot, they have an uncanny ability to mimic what they hear, including human speech.
All species of macaw are native to the Americas. Ever since European explorers returned home with macaws in the 16th century, these largest of all parrots have been popular as pets. Macaws are intelligent, gregarious, and charming, but also highly demanding. Anyone thinking of keeping one as a pet should know what they are getting into. They are long-lived birds that require considerable care and attention. They form strong bonds with their owners but can be very noisy, messy, and destructive, especially if ignored. If you decide to adopt a parrot, be sure that you can accept full responsibility!
Macaws mate for life and travel in pairs even out of breeding season. Breeding usually occurs during the month of December. Green-winged macaws nest in tree cavities high off the ground, often at least 100 feet up. The female will lay 2 to 3 eggs and incubate them for the next four weeks. While she is on the nest, her mate will bring her food stored in his throat pouch. He regurgitates the food into her mouth, just as both parents will do later for their offspring.
The eggs hatch 1 to 5 days apart, and the first chick to hatch is fed first at every meal. This is a distinct competitive advantage that usually results in the first chick surviving and other chicks perishing. When a chick dies, the parents will push the body out of the nest to the ground below.
Chicks remain in the nest for their first 3 or 4 months. By the time they are ready to leave, it’s often a tight squeeze out of the nest hole! They take their first shaky flight with their parents close behind, and within a few days are flying confidently.
Juvenile macaws stay with their parents for 2 or 3 years before going off to find their own mates. Juveniles allow their parents to feed and care for them right up until the moment that they break away to form their own pairs.
Macaw eggs are most vulnerable to toucans that can reach into tree cavities with their long beaks and tayras, a type of weasel that can scale tall trees and raid nests.
The green-winged macaw and most other species of macaw have bright coloration that warns predators of their power, and any macaw will defend itself if attacked. Eagles are the most likely predators of adult macaws. If one macaw sees an eagle circling above, it will sound an alarm cry and several macaws then may rush the eagle, shrieking at it until it goes away. Macaws also defend themselves with their feet and their very powerful beaks.
Like all rainforest species, green-winged macaws are threatened by habitat loss due to deforestation. They are now extinct in some parts of their range, including Argentina.
Protecting habitat is essential to insuring stable populations of all macaws in the wild. To boost the most endangered populations of macaws, conservationists in the field have experimented with artificial nesting sites (to increase nesting opportunity and raise reproduction rates) and fostering second chicks (to increase overall chick survival). Both tactics seem to be helping.
Green-winged macaws, like many other species of parrot, also have been pressured by over-collection for the international pet trade. These birds are now protected by CITES II, which prohibits trade in wild-caught parrots. Enforcement can be difficult though so to protect populations in the wild, it is important that pet owners insist on adopting only captive-bred birds.
Munn, Charles A. “Macaws,” National Geographic Magazine, January 1994, pp. 118-140.