Red Bellied Macaw Chronicles Part 7: Observing Sophia and Flock Integration
by Evet Loewen
Sophia (aka "Jack") at play
By June and July of 2000, my efforts went into somehow integrating Sophia into a complicated multi-species flock. Looking back on the natural proclivities of Red Bellied Macaws, and the other mini-macaws in my flock at that time, it only dawns upon me now what difficult a task that would naturally be.
I've never studied or even seen Orthopsittica manilatas
in the wild. The only observation that I can make about them in the wild is from videos and photos on the web. What I've seen rarely shows only one Red Bellied Macaw. There are typically at least three or four or a flock of twenty of their own kind. Perhaps it is just what the photographers and videographers were focused on, but as an amateur photographer myself
, the mantra is "why photograph one bird if two to twenty can be photographed together?" It is only a hunch but it seems to me that this species is intensely flock-oriented and doesn't generally desire to casually associate with other species.
I would not characterize Illiger's as overly-aggressive birds -- they are a very good-natured species overall. They will, however, kinda hang out in gangs if they find it convenient and be territorial, and it is not like there was a lot of territory to hang on to inside my residence. Dr. Van Sant used to refer in jest to three of my Blue-Winged macaws as "the thugs" because of their joint swaggering manner towards other birds. In general, though, the Illiger's mini-macaws have a really extroverted and playful temperament.
Sophia (aka "Jack") playing with gang of Illiger's and one Hahn's)
Sophia and Hahn's "Michie"
My Severe macaw, on the other hand, is a different story. She can be very high strung but her manner of high-strungedness is to try to put other birds on the defensive. To chase them out of whatever perches they thought they had. Frankly, it would take a gang of Illiger's to deal with Pepper.
Pepper with Overseer Illiger
My solo Yellow-Collar macaw has generally, not always, been a playful, sweet bird who avoids conflict in whatever way possible, unless there's a food fight. Even then, foraging on the floor of the aviary room seems to have become his way of avoiding squabbles over higher roosts (perhaps they go to ground a lot in the wild?).
Potter as a young bird with feathers
Over time with Sophia, my perception became that the Red Bellied Macaw temperament was distinctive. They are easily stressed by confrontation, and avoid it.
Sophia was an independent bird, to be certain. She did not want to step up on a hand or a stick, and I found ultimately that attempting to train her to do so was uncomfortable for both of us. She had a neat manner of avoiding conflicts over moving her from one place to another, however. She would fly from one location to another if I simply gestured where I wanted her to be. I never formally trained her to do this (I have no training as to how to train birds, so I spend my time being trained by them instead of the reverse).
For example, the flock had day cages on the first floor of my residence and smaller nighttime cages on the second floor. Sophia quickly learned that she could simply exit her nighttime cage and fly to her daytime cage and place herself in it, without having to deal with a request to step-up on sticks or hands. She would simply reverse this routine in the evening. None of my other flock members have ever been that cooperative.
Similarly, if it was desirable for her to be on a particular stand or perch, I could ask her to go there by pointing and touching the location, and she would respond.
Since this occurred without positive reinforcement training, I came to regard it as being a cooperative way to maintain choice and dignity. She was, after all, truly a wild bird.
She readily participated in chewing on toys and going through baskets to find items she enjoyed while in the presence of others of my flock -- as long as I was around to play "tot lot referee" with the crew, so to speak. Flock companionship was important to her.
She differed not only in appearance and in her means of participation, though. She avoided territorial and food aggressiveness, would separate herself quickly from any competition, and would never go on the offensive just for the heckuvit. Sometimes, my Red Bellied Macaws have not seemed adamant enough about their space, frankly.
Sophia, however, would show her mettle in a very clear biological manner after only a very few months of living with me. After all, my motto always was "A thing worth doing is worth overdoing." I had not stopped looking for other Red Bellied Macaws. I found some.
Next up in Part 8: Young Red Bellied Macaws Join the Flock
 My photos DO get better as these Chronicles move along. No kidding. Just you wait.
 There will be no "mea culpas" or apologies for the fact that small green birds boss me around. Just deal with it.
Posted by Evet Loewen on 07/19 at 10:04 AM
Red Bellied Macaw Chronicles Part 6: Feather Studies
by Evet Loewen
Of any of my birds, the Red Bellied Macaws have always drawn the greatest interest from their caretakers and the treating veterinarians and staff. It is their subtle and elegant appearance that first attracts people to them. As one gets to know them, it is their amiable nature, sans the drama of other small macaws and conures, which draws people into their orbit.
Red Bellied Macaws have a distinctive yellow facial patch that was described as "heart-shaped" by staff at For the Birds. That facial patch is a dark yellow for older birds and for birds that get the appropriate amount of sunshine (more on that to come). The featheration over the head, neck and chest is opalescent with hints of turquoise and blues amidst the general light lime green cast. Hints of a brown tone appear on the back and secondaries mixed in with the greens.
Chest feathers below lower mandible (male)
Belly feathers below crop (female)
The leading edge of the wings finds more blue than green, again with an iridescent quality. The underside of the wings brings in translucent yellow green featheration, with elongated narrow feathers. All featheration seems very understated compared to my "high-contrast" Illiger's.
There really seems to be very little of a red-belly on this species - more of a small patch of burgundy in the vent area. The physiology of the species from head to tail is very trim, with the tail feathers tapering to an elongated narrowed "V". Round dark brown eyes, black beak and legs and talons set apart the opalescent, nearly translucent featheration.
They are handsome. They are not raucous. Though I have one who is pretty silly sometimes, silliness hasn't seemed to be their modus operandi.
Since this avian species, like all others, evolved to fill an environmental niche, and developed their featheration and colors and behaviors in order to survive and thrive in the wild, it is hopelessly anthropomorphic for me to equate their appearance with my perception of their behavior. However, so far I've not been censored on this blog, so I'll say this: the subtleties of their featheration match their understated (compared to other macaws) personalities. They just aren’t "in-your-face" kinda psittacines. Mine have been gentle souls. Not that they won’t give you a good bite if they have to. But they typically prefer not.
Four feathers from Marco (captive bred) on left, and four feathers from Jake (wild caught) on right
To Follow: Part 7-- Observing Sophia and Flock Integration
Posted by Evet Loewen on 04/24 at 10:07 AM
Red Bellied Macaw Chronicles Part 5: Sophia (aka ‘Jake’) Gets Her Health Check
by Evet Loewen
The acquisition of my severe macaw, Pepper, had taught me the importance of getting an avian veterinarian to check any new birds to be introduced into the flock at the earliest possible time. So, at least I was educable in that sphere!
By the year 2000, my avian veterinary clinic was For the Birds, now located in San Jose, California. Dr. Fern Van Sant, DVM had taken over as the principal avian veterinarian for the flock from her associate, Dr. Hilary Stern, DVM. Both of them are excellent, knowledgeable, and caring about avians and their human clientele. They are thorough in their exams, and I came to simply accept their standards as the template. For the Birds has been a practice devoted 100% to extraordinary avian care for many years.
Even with my confidence in For the Birds, I decided to seek Sophia's first wellness exam from a third avian veterinarian in the San Francisco Bay Area, also with an excellent background for avian care, and with some experience with Red Bellied Macaws. Not many avian veterinarians had experience with the species, and I thought it important that Sophia be seen by one who did.
It was a week into May before I took Sophia for her wellness exam. It was also her first time being transported in a car with me. She had not settled in to the rest of the flock yet, and I thought it would be a rough ride for her.
Instead she was intensely curious, not making an anxious sound at all and looking all around at the scenery as we drove. Perhaps the drive gave visual stimulation, like flight, I thought.
As far as I could tell, the medical exam went extremely well. Sophia's featheration was pronounced excellent. A second DNA test was run to verify gender, and again came back that macaw was indeed female. A CBC was returned as normal, as was a fecal culture. No lesions or papillomas in the choana or cloaca. I frankly did not know what to look and listen for regarding the health status of this bird and so simply heard the term "nice bird" or "beautiful featheration". The one type of bloodwork not done at this time was for uric acid levels, and I did not understand the significance of that bloodwork until many months later.
With the wellness exam over and the indications positive, I didn't see a need to do anything further with regard to her health. I could begin to oversee her integration into the flock.
Over time, I learned that assuming knowledge that is really outside one's expertise is a dangerous thing; a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; the equivalent of nearly no knowledge is also perilous. It's a very fine line to walk with any avian species, and also with veterinarians.
The easy proclivity of the Red Bellied Macaws to gout and kidney disease was well-known even at the time Sophia came to me. Being knowledgeable enough to request bloodwork on uric acid levels would have been the right way to be. I didn't understand the need for UA bloodwork on this species, and I didn't take Sophia in to For the Birds for a workup. I think I just told the staff at my regular clinic that everything was cool, and assumed it was.
I was in essence a bird-owner-in-training. Over several years, I found the best relationship to have with any avian veterinarian treating my flock is a collaborative one, where either party could ask questions of the other and neither one would become defensive in giving the answer. Honesty was definitely the best policy even if it were slow in coming.
Case in point. At Dr. Van Sant's office, the veterinary technicians on a well bird exam would come out to inspect whatever parrot that was brought in and peer into the carrier to take an initial look-see at the bird and whatever else happened to be in the carrier. A brief report of that look-see would be given to Dr. Van Sant before the owner came into the exam room. A brief comment would then be made during the exam of the dangers of sunflower and safflower seeds, or peanuts, or the soft cotton rope toy given to keep that bird semi-entertained in the carrier and more likely to simply be pooped on.
So, did I stop giving the birds sunflower or safflower seeds, or peanuts, or cotton ropes? Noooo. I did diligently remove these items from the carriers prior to taking birds in to see Dr. Van Sant, however. That way, it became a case of "see no evil" on the part of the vet tech, and "hear no evil" on my part. Wasn't too hot for the bird, though. Dr. Van Sant does have a good sense of humor and really laughed out loud when I finally confessed to this ruse.
As a lawyer, I'm inclined to investigate facts for clients and ask questions. However, all along the way with my birds, I've not asked all the questions that could have been asked. The birds have all had to teach me about their needs. It's a tough job, but some bird has gotta do it.
And they all have. Whether they wanted to, or not.
Next up: Red Bellied Macaw Chronicles Part 6 - Feather Studies
Posted by Evet Loewen on 04/10 at 07:48 AM
Red Bellied Macaw Chronicles Part 4: Jake
by Evet Loewen
The First Red Bellied Macaw is the Best, Until One Gets the Next One or Two, That Is
Orthopsittica manilata were uncommon in 2000, eight years after the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 was in effect. Howard Voren's article on the difficulties of formulating a diet for this species was on the web then, and still is today. That was virtually the only information I had at the time concerning the differences in diet and temperament for this species in comparison to other parrots and especially in comparison to my other mini-macaws.
Manilatas have been notoriously hard to keep in captivity. Ignorance for most humans does indeed still constitute bliss, however. I am sorry to say that I am no exception to this rule.
P.A.S. was in full swing the Spring of the year 2000. I began an extensive internet search for Red Bellied Macaws for sale. There were very few leads on the internet, and I was diligently searching for any mention on lists of parrot breeders, listservs, and such print media as had classified ads by aviculturists.
Then, on some listserv pertaining to macaws, a participant named Michell mentioned that she had a Red Bellied Macaw. One thing led to another – I emailed Michell to inquire about her bird. She replied that she had just sold the Red Bellied Macaw (named "Jake") back to the lady from whom she had purchased him, whose name was Judi. I was advised to contact Judi directly, and promptly did so. "Jake" was still with Judi, and was available for sale.
Michell had thought Jake to be a very neat bird. She indicated that he liked to spend time in her kitchen, on the top of the refrigerator as I recall. He seemed to have some freedom inside the house. There was some family complication that made it not possible to keep Jake, although Michell was clearly charmed by him.
The back story to "Jake" is a bit fuzzy. Michell thought that Jake was handraised and was only two years old, and was a male. Judi indicated that this red bellied macaw was a wild-caught, with an open band, had been DNA tested as a female, and the age was not really clear. It didn't matter. He/she was a Red Bellied Macaw, the first I could locate, and that was that.
Ancient emails indicate that a first contact with Michell occurred on April 13th, 2000. By April 27th, a deal had been struck with Judi and "Jake" was shipped from Minneapolis Airport to San Jose California arriving at 1:43 PM. I was instructed to look at him/her before I left the cargo area – the health paper was on top of the carrier and her DNA paper was to be mailed to me.
Everyone knows not to purchase a bird sight-unseen, right? All ya'll reading this blog post know that, right? It didn't matter. Here was a Red Bellied Macaw. The first search had been successful.
"Jake" arrived in a state of high anxiety, it seemed to me. Red bellied macaws have a high pitched voice and make continual nearly staccato "beeps" when anxious. At least, that is my analysis of the sounds I've heard mine make. They are known to be stress-prone, tautly- strung birds. He/she was inside of a wired, specially made cage that itself was placed in a carrier, and very securely put together so as to prevent an escape. It must have seemed very claustrophobic to a bird, a creature of light and air.
Releasing "Jake" from the carrier and the interior cage was not easy (and not intended to be). Disassembling the carrier and taking pliers to the wired cage were necessary. When freedom finally arrived, this bird burst out of the carrier cage while crying loudly, and definitely looked straight at me with alarm and fear. I felt extreme concern for this beautiful bird who seemed so glad to be out of that enclosure, and at the same time, so frightened of me.
As quickly as I could manage, "Jake" was taken to his new cage located in a room with sunshine and an open window, set up with water and food, and then was left alone. I couldn't resist looking in on him frequently, but in general I understood that this bird needed time to adjust and as much quiet as could be managed in a house with other parrots and an open floor plan.
"Jake" was my first "wild caught" parrot. It was only 8 years since the importation of exotic birds had been banned in the US, so obtaining a wild-caught bird was not uncommon. Since then, there have been three other wild-caught parrots of different species that I have cared for. This Red Bellied Macaw seemed different from my captive-bred parrots in two particular ways: he did not want to be held; and he was notably more responsive and attentive to what requests I made of him, as long as I gave him plenty of physical space. As much space as I could give a creature of light and air who was now inside my small house, with hardly an outdoor patio for fresh air and sunshine.
Believing in matters of science (DNA testing) and in the certificate I received from Judi, "Jake" was thus renamed "Sophia". Of course, it didn't matter to Sophia what human name I gave her. I thought her to be a beautiful bird, and Sophia to be a beautiful name, so that's the name she received, based on the gender I then believed her to be.
Next up in Part 5: Sophia (aka Jake) Gets a Health Check
1 Parrot Acquisition Syndrome – See Red Bellied Macaw Chronicles Part 3
Posted by Evet Loewen on 03/08 at 03:37 PM
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