There is a saying about children making the best teachers. Indeed, this is true. At ARA Manzanillo, we have learned the most from our youngest flock member, Pewe, and his family. Thanks to them, we have had the luck and privilege of observing wild (for the most part) macaw parenting in action. It is amazing to notice how many similarities exist between human parenting and macaw parenting. Behaviorally it is intriguing to watch.
Macaw chicks go through developmental milestones just as human children do. They grow baby feathers which eventually lay smoothly and make them look like proper macaws. Their irises are darker making their eyes look bigger, and then lighten and brighten to the colors almost as stunning as their plumage. They have baby (macaw) voices that change into the famous and loud squawks and screeches that we all know and love. They move from being fed to feeding themselves, they learn to use their hands/feet rather than just leaning over and pecking at their food. They learn to communicate. They learn to stand up for themselves when confronted by bullies. As with human children, it takes time and lots of practice, work and even play.
Much like our human parents, Pewe’s macaw parents teach him using many different methods. They model specific behaviors and actions while perched directly in front of or very close next to Pewe, such as using their hands/feet to hold food to their mouths, they use their beak to balance up and down surfaces. They also use vocalizations as sort of verbal cues. They gesture with their beaks and use eye contact. They use touch, directing Pewe with a foot, wing or beak in the proper direction or alerting him to something nearby.
Pewe’s parents also used a form of behavior modification for the cessation of feeding Pewe, designed to increase Pewe’s independence when feeding. Rather than simply stop feeding him altogether they decreased the feeding a little bit over a period of time. At first, the less they fed Pewe the more frequent and loudly he begged. To any parent, this cycle sounds very familiar. When working to address behavior needs human parents are often informed that while decreasing a behavior, they will first see an increase in frequency and intensity of the target behavior. This proved true for Pewe’s parents as well. Throughout the weaning period, all day long Pewe could often be heard calling “mwah!” accompanied by a wing flap and head bob. This was often repeated by other flock members throughout the day.
Observing Pewe and his parents, it is impossible not to remark on the ways in which his parents teach him how to go about being a macaw. Being a very loquacious species, they naturally use their voices when communicating with him. Macaws use over 500 sounds in the wild (even more when they are involved in life with other species). But they also use non-verbal cues such as gesturing, touch, and modeling. At a feeding station, they typically position themselves with one parent directly in front of Pewe and the other sitting next to him. In this way, he can watch his parents use their hands (actually their feet) to hold food. Pewe has reached this milestone and has developed a dominant left hand (similar to the writer of this article). While he is still getting the knack of using his hands/feet to eat, he has been doing so more often as time goes by.
Much as human children do, macaws start off being fed soft food by their parents. After an extensive weaning period, that involved almost constant begging, Pewe now feeds himself completely. As with human children, Pewe is still feeding himself softer foods, such as fruits and small seeds, as he has not developed the strength and tongue dexterity needed to break and remove almonds from the shells. All in good time, as he has an interest in them, but for now, he just sort of plays with them while watching his elders crack and remove the mountain almonds, the favorite food of these birds.
And of course, the most touching (no pun intended) thing to observe is when Pewe solicits affection from his parents. He will utter a similar call used when he would beg for food, though softer in tone. He then sidles up to a parent or at times will wiggle under one of their wings. The parent will then commence preening, Pewe often closes his eyes during this action. His parents have recently seemed to be encouraging him to self-preen though they do give him little head scratches. One tour visitor remarked how tender and sweet it seems. And this is very true.
While tender and sweet are not words that one would use to describe macaws at feeding time, it can be applied to Pewe’s parents who, as the feeder becomes more populated will move to either side of Pewe acting as both protection against typical obstreperous macaw dining behavior and also as a comfort or confidence builder, enabling Pewe to remain at the feeder without fear to being shoved, jostled or jabbed.
Pewe has come a long way. He also has a long way to go before he is a strong, adult macaw. He is very much well on the path, though. Pewe seems to be meeting his milestones with gusto, and he is even now beginning to assert himself at the feeders rather than flying away from the more aggressive birds. His voice is starting to change and his eyes are becoming lighter in color. His feathers are starting to lay a bit smoother. It is bittersweet, as he is such a cute little fellow, though nobody is a baby forever. But he is going to be an exceptionally handsome adult macaw, and it is a gift to be able to watch him grow and learn, while we learn about him.
By Buffie Biddle
The ARA Project is an organization devoted to the repopulation and conservation of both macaw species indigenous to Costa Rica through captive breeding and gradual release and monitoring with the ultimate goal of having our released birds repopulate on their own accord in the wild.
Buffie Biddle is an author, illustrator, photographer and nature lover, as well as a lover of all wildlife everywhere, especially birds and cats. She is also a devoted volunteer of ARA Project.
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