August 2001

by William Horsfield

The Red-fronted Macaw, Ara (strong) rubro (red) genys (cheeks) is one of my favourite macaws. Sized between the Caninde (Ara glaucogularis) and the Severe (Ara severa) it is approximately 60cm long, weighs just over half a kilogram, with an average wingspan of 84cm and cannot easily be confused with any other macaw.

Although they are not sexually dimorphic the cocks are often slightly larger and therefore heavier than the hens, with a marginally bigger beak and longer tail. However, accurate sex determination using either DNA or laparoscopy techniques is necessary.

Compared to the other macaws they are a relatively quiet species and seldom create a disturbance. Their calls are unlike the harsher squawks of other macaw species and consist of high trills which are somewhat similar to the Caninde macaw, also from Bolivia. For this reason they can generally be kept in fairly built-up areas without excessive fear of the neighbour bearing down on you with his shotgun.

Status and Conservation
The Red-fronted Macaw has one of the smallest ranges of all the macaws with less than 20 000 square kms native territory in Central Bolivia. It was listed on CITES APP II on 6/6/81 and upgraded to APP I on 7/29/83 and is now listed as ENDANGERED and a "restricted range" species. In 1997 the entire population was estimated at no more than 3000. The tragedy of this particular macaw began when it was "discovered" for the avicultural trade in 1977. Between 1977-1981 an estimated 1200 birds were exported worldwide (40% of the entire estimated population). Trapping continued till 1987 although trade has not been flagged as a problem since. However the birds' depredation of local crops (maize and groundnuts) results in some persecution by farmers, some of whom appear recently to have acquired firearms for the purpose! Severe population depletion through earlier trapping for the avicultural industry, along with the steady clearance and degradation of woodland by charcoal burners, firewood gatherers and goats is rendering the long term prospects for the species very doubtful.

There are believed to be probably less than 1000 individuals left in the wild today.

Natural Habitat
Arid montane scrub, deciduous and cactus woodland in intermontane valleys and gorges at 1100-2500m

The first Red-fronteds imported into SA in the early eighties were originally wild-caught and the sex ratios were skewed in favour of females. For many years this imbalance persisted but more recently the ratio has almost balanced out. These wild-caught birds took many years to settle down but a few breeders including Macaw specialist Gill Duvenage, managed to get them going and captive bred pairs gradually became available. These were not too fussed about being in aviaries and some of these F1 progeny are current breeding stock in SA. Although not common in SA, some individual pairs are extremely prolific and are boosting the captive population.

Red-fronteds may be successfully housed in either conventional or suspended aviaries. The length of flight should ideally not be shorter than 3.6 meters. At Amazona we prefer suspended aviaries because of the heat and humidity in KZN which favours dangerous bacterial and fungal growth on aviary floors. In the wild they may spend up to 4 hours per day foraging on the ground. Width and height of our suspended flights are 1.2 meters, which should be seen as a minimum size in my opinion. Wire aperture is 25mm x 25mm x 2mm thick and we have never had any damage to aviaries from wire chewing. An escape-proof, undercover area providing shelter for the nestbox, feeding stations and from exposure to the elements is necessary. We have 1/3 of the aviary undercover and 2/3 open. Micro-sprayers are used in warmer weather as artificial showers for the birds. Plenty of vegetation is planted around the aviaries and this is allowed to grow into and over the outside flights in summer but is pruned back in winter. Fast-growing, non-poisonous, flowering shrubs that handle heavy pruning well are best suited for this purpose. Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria) and Hibiscus are ideal although frost intolerant in colder areas. This vegetation may inadvertently provide a hiding/nesting place for rodents and careful observation is needed to preclude these dangerous opportunists.

There are many thoughts on nutrition and as many different products on the market today that make great claims to nutrition fame. There is definitely much need for continued research into the various fields of avian nutrition. Few of the diets available have been proven over an extended period of time and some of the long-term effects of processed options are possibly still to be observed and discovered. One thing is for sure and that is that greater attention is being paid to the effects of diet on the breeding success of psittacines.

On the whole, birds are being fed better than they were in the past as this knowledge filters down to the breeder but there still seems to be skepticism and confusion in many areas. I believe in sticking to what works and not chopping and changing every time a new fad comes along. Take notice of what successful breeders are feeding their species and develop your own diets accordingly.

At Amazona Farm the Red-fronted Macaws are fed a traditional diet of seeds, fruits and vegetables. Sunflower seed, oats, wheat & barley are soaked overnight, rinsed well and fed as a staple. Boiled, whole maize and soaked beans & peas are added to this staple mix. A large variety of diced fresh fruits and vegetables are also offered daily. Many garden flowers, berries and Palm dates are picked and also added. The fruit/veg mix is fed in the early morning and the seed mix just after midday. Breeding birds are fed unlimited amounts of food but otherwise they are fed only as much as they will consume in one day. Red-fronted Macaws will vocalize and call loudly if they are feeling peckish and want more food.

Maturity & Breeding
Reproductive maturity in this species is 3-5 years in captive-bred birds. Youngsters lack the red-orange colours of the adults except for the flash behind the eye. The red frontal area extending into the crown is gradually attained beginning at the 1st moult. With age, this and the nape become edged with orange. The scapular region and dorsal lesser wing coverts become orange-red and sporadic orange contour feathers appear across the chest. The eye colouration lightens with age.

Red-fronteds are seasonal breeders in SA, breeding only from the early summer months through to Autumn. The onset of breeding condition in these macaws becomes evident through their behavioral changes. They become more vocal and exhibit somewhat aggressive behavior towards the keeper. They will lift their wings in typical macaw archangel display, one bird often stimulating the other to do so. In doing this they reveal the broad band of orange under the wings which probably further visually stimulates the mate. Well established pairs will often advance threateningly towards the keeper if the area near the nest is approached and one or both birds may enter the nest while they both call excitedly. They may then peer from the opening blazing their pupils and with the white facial skin flushed pink. This type of display is typical of a bonded pair (but is also seen in same sex pairs) and can be expected to prelude breeding.

Red-fronted Macaws mate while perched next to each other on the perch. Initially allopreening (reverse or 69 position) and then closer to mating, more head preening is observed. The cock regurgitates food for the hen prior to copulation which itself is not rushed and may take some time. These guys enjoy themselves! Pairs housed in adjacent aviaries seem to stimulate each other into breeding at the same time. I use hollowed natural Syringa logs (400mm ID x 400-500mm high) positioned vertically for this species although they do breed in boxes. In the wild they breed in cliff fissures (often loosely colonially) and for this reason some breeders have preferred to position the nests horizontally. Bee-repellant spray should periodically be applied to the nests to avoid the tragedy of unnecessary loss of life from swarming bees. Our present choice of contact insecticide (flies, cockroaches, lice, mites, mosquitoes, ants etc) is Fendona SC™. It has a good residual effect and being a pyrethroid is safe to use at prescribed dilution with the birds.

The hen spends increasing amounts of time in the box with the cock at this point and the nesting substrate is chewed very fine. The large eucalyptus chips that I use are literally chewed into sawdust. 1-4 pure white eggs are laid at 2-3 day intervals. Incubation is by the female alone and the male usually sits on guard outside the nest.

Incubation period is 26 days and nesting period approx 10 weeks. Pairs will double clutch and occasionally even treble clutch if the first rounds are removed for artificial incubation. Closed stainless steel rings with a 12mm ID are used and chicks are banded when small pin feathers appear on the wings. Brass and aluminium rings are not recommended.

Both parents feed the chicks and development is fast. In large clutches, the nesting substrate may become damp and smell strongly of ammonia and will need to be replaced. Chicks that are handled will immediately defecate and if startled, will throw themselves onto their backs and strike out with their feet in a defensive posture. As with most parent-raised chicks, they will learn to eat faster by being with their parents than hand-raised counterparts take to wean. Adolescents are playful and mischievous and if kept in groups soon nip each other's tails off and often even chew their flight feathers. There is less chance of this happening if they are provided with plenty of distractions like fresh branches and pine-cones etc. to chew on. Irrespective of these measures, mine usually end up looking a bit scruffy until their first moult. It is often only one or two individuals that are the chewing culprits. Because of their very long tails in comparison to their body length it seems to me that the youngsters take some time to learn how to maneuver their tails up and over the perches and the brushing of the feathers over the perches may instigate some investigation which in turn leads to accidental damage. The good news is that they grow out of the habit.

As with all macaws if space permits, it's an excellent idea to allow them to exercise in a large communal aviary out of the breeding season. Careful supervision is necessary upon introducing pairs, as there may be some initial bickering during the determination of a pecking-order status.

Preen Gland
The preen gland is a bi-lobed oil secreting gland located at the upper base of the tail of most macaw species. A dense cluster of four to eight down-like feathers emerge from the gland, and these are referred to as the uropygial wick. The gland varies in size, depending on the species but is in direct proportion to the size of the bird.

During the preening process, most macaw species will frequently stretch back to the base of the tail in an attempt to reach this gland. The gland secretes an oil which is used by the birds when preening to keep their feathers waterproof and supple. It is also believed that the secretions from the preen gland may help prevent the growth of microorganisms and resultant skin infections.

Colours of the wick vary depending on the species and in some species the surrounding feathers have an unusual colour. Red-fronted Macaws have a yellow and white wick with orange and yellow surrounding down.

It should be noted that, other than natal down (which is occasionally coloured) this is the only location where coloured down is found. The reason for this occurrence is unknown, but it may give the macaw a visual reference to find the gland which is hidden under the upper tail coverts. This is also useful for physically examining the bird, as the preen glands are relatively easy to find by locating their colour marker.

Future outlook
The current market value in SA is approx R 12 000 for young pairs, which by European standards is reasonable and for that reason there is a healthy export demand. While the prospects of the wild populations may be decidedly unsure, thankfully the captive populations are increasing. The Red-fronted Macaw is a strikingly attractive, subtle-coloured but often underrated species and deserves increased attention in our country. They are sadly often overlooked for the more spectacular Blue & Golds and Scarlets but in their own right are absolute gems and can be viewed as a prized addition to any collection.

Thomas Arndt (1986) Parrots: Their life in the wild
J.Abramson, B.L.Speer, J.B. Thompson. (1995) The Large Macaws: Their Care, Breeding and Conservation. Raintree Publications
Del Hoyo, J., Elliottt,A. Sargatal,J. eds (1997) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol.4 Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona

World Parrot Trust Cape Parrot Working Group South African Crane Working Group
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