Mexico, Central America, and South America


Rain forest, forests along rivers, and grasslands with trees

What makes a macaw?

Macaws are king-sized members of the parrot family and have typical parrot features. Their large, strong, curved beaks are designed to crush nuts and seeds. Their strong, agile toes are used like hands to grasp things. Loud, screeching and squawking voices help make their presence known in dense rain forests. They are also famous for their bright colors, which seem bold and conspicuous to us but actually blend in well with the green leaves, red and yellow fruits, and bluish shadows of the forest homes.

Getting around

Macaws are built to fly through the trees in the forest, with a streamlined body and tail shape and wings that don’t flap deeply. When they come in for a landing, they drop their tail and feet downward and use their wings like brakes to slow down before grasping a perch with their feet. Most macaws nest in holes of trees or in earthen banks and cliff sides.

A macaw’s beak is so strong it can easily crush a whole Brazil nut—or a person’s knuckle.
The hyacinth macaw has a wingspan of more than 4 feet (127 centimeters).
The red-fronted macaw can fly at up to 40 miles per hour (60 kilometers per hour).
Most macaws start out with gray or black eyes when they’re young, which change to brown or yellow as they mature.
A macaw’s tongue is dry, slightly scaly, and has a bone inside it, all of which makes it an excellent tool for breaking open and eating food.
The military macaw may have gotten its common name from the olive color of its feathers, a color often seen in military uniforms, or because these birds were first brought to Europe by military personnel who had been in South America.
Macaws fly as far as 15 miles (24 kilometers) each day to feed.

Our first macaws

Two scarlet macaws imported in 1923 were the first to be exhibited at the San Diego Zoo, followed soon after by green macaws and red-and-green macaws, which would greet Zoo visitors with a hoarse “hello.” In 1933, we were pleased to add a beautiful hyacinth macaw, named Blue-Boy, to our collection. An article in the December 1933 issue of our member magazine, ZOONOOZ, shared the following: “Blue-boy is often turned out into the garden by his keeper, and he hops around after him like a playful puppy, picking out stones from the hard ground and going over to gloat over the other macaws who live near him because they cannot have his privileges of freedom.”

Over the next few decades, we acquired other macaw species as well, but we found it difficult to get any of them to breed consistently. After years of experience and careful research, we realized that breeding pairs require lots of space for exercise and a natural diet for breeding success. Providing a proper nesting box was also essential, and many types were tried. We found that the macaws favored wooden barrels, as they simulated hollow trees.

Macaw ambassador

Today, many of the macaws in our collection serve as ambassadors, trained for animal presentations and educational programs at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. One of them, a scarlet macaw named Papagayo, was honored for her service by having one of the Zoo's eateries named after her: Poppy's Patio! Many of these birds also visit schools and television studios to help share conservation messages regarding rain forests, the exotic pet trade’s effect on wild birds, and the illegal export of parrots from South America. Read a blog post called Helping Harvey, a hyacinth macaw serving as an animal ambassador at the Safari Park.

Macaws in flight

You can also watch macaws in flight! At the Zoo, six to eight macaws (blue and yellow, scarlet, Buffon’s, and green-winged macaws) fly over the Zoo’s front plaza on their way home to the Zoo’s Wegeforth Bowl each morning as the Zoo opens for the day. Macaws are also part of the Zoo’s Camp Critters show at the Bowl. At the Safari Park, blue and yellow, scarlet, and green-winged macaws open the popular Frequent Flyers bird show by flying right over the audience. What a colorful and noisy experience!

Pet-trade problems

Since ancient times, macaws have been popular as pets. Their colorful plumage, large size, and ability to talk have made them “show birds” and “attention getters” around the world. Unfortunately, trapping for the pet trade is a major factor in macaw population declines. Captured macaw chicks can often bring in thousands of dollars from collectors to the trappers, giving them incentive to continue this practice.

Several macaw species are now listed as endangered or at critical risk, and some have become extinct altogether or extinct in the wild. Logging, farming, and development have reduced macaw habitat. For example, the Lear’s or indigo macaw is found only in a tiny part of northeastern Brazil and depends on the nuts of licuri palms for food. The clearing of this palm forest has severely reduced the Lear’s macaw’s habitat. The last known Spix’s macaw individual disappeared from the wild in 2000, and the species may be extinct in the wild. Although there are over 100 Spix’s macaws in private collections, attempts to release some of these birds into the wild have not yet worked out.

Conservation strategies

Conservationists are trying different strategies for helping macaws, such as offering money to local inhabitants for leaving the birds and their habitat alone or using tourist fees to buy up and protect areas of forests where visitors can see the birds. Many reserves have been created in macaw habitat that include lodges built for tourists interested in seeing these colorful birds. The lodges provide jobs for the local people, helping them earn a living by working with the forest rather than clearing it. Some programs have even hired macaw hunters as guides, transforming them from poachers to protectors. Many organizations continue to work to help conserve macaws.

San Diego Zoo Global now manages the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, a remote field station in a pristine rain forest area of Peru’s Manu National Park. From here we hope to learn more about macaws and other rain forest birds.