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Yes, Macaws Can Talk (and Say Bad Words!)

A macaw (Ara chloroptera) is photographed at the zoo in Cali, Colombia, on March 6, 2020. Colombia has the highest bird diversity in the world and is home to about 1,934 species, or one-fifth of all known bird species. LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

Macaws are giants among birds, reaching up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) from beak to tail. These spectacularly colorful members of the parrot family, made up of 17 distinct species, are from the rainforest regions of Central and South America. They're intelligent, curious and talkative companions that have been domesticated for centuries.

"Macaws can make wonderful pets in the right household," says Gregory Rich, D.V.M., an avian and exotic pet veterinarian who has a 24-year-old blue and gold macaw, in an email interview. "Like many other pet birds, macaws are playful and seem to enjoy being trained to perform tricks like waving hello or using a skateboard." Here are six cool facts about macaws.

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1. Macaws Can Talk (and Say Bad Words!)

In the wild, macaw couples will live in flocks of 10 to 30 birds, all of them calling, squawking and emitting the macaw "scream" throughout the forest. The variety of sounds are used to communicate within the flock or mark territorial claims. Individual birds even create unique songs so their mates will be able to identify them. Some macaw screams can be deafening when indoors, so the macaw isn't well suited for people who like peace and quiet at home.

Although macaws don't have a larynx like humans use to create speech, they do have a syrinx. The syrinx is at the bottom of its trachea and, when air is passed over the syrinx and through the throat and mouth where it is manipulated by the tongue, a macaw can learn to speak human words — and even sentences. There have even been domesticated macaws that learned to swear, and then taught those swear words to other macaws. In fact, in September 2020, a group of macaws was removed from the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park in England for swearing at patrons.

2. Macaws Mate for Life

Turns out, lovebirds haven't cornered the market on avian life partners after all. Macaws are undeniably romantic, typically selecting a mate for the entirety of their days. The life-long mate chosen by a macaw is a breeding partner, but macaws also will share their food — much like a couple who splits a meal at a restaurant.

Macaws also enjoy mutual grooming, and often ritualize the task by creating specific and personalized routines to follow. And, when it comes time to lay eggs, mother macaws incubate the eggs while father macaws hunt for food over a large area.

At home, macaws require room to roam, which translates into large cages with space to spread their wings. "Some knowledgeable owners dedicate a 'bird room' with tile flooring, with plenty of perch stands or rope perches that can be suspended from the ceiling for their macaws," Rich says.

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A macaw couple playing with each other at the Delhi Zoo in New Delhi, India.
Madhulika Mohan/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

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The macaw's diet in the wild is varied and fresh, with a focus on seeds, nuts, berries, fruits, insects and snails — and sometimes clay soil to aid in digestion. In the wild, macaws will travel long distances — up to 15 miles (24 kilometers) — throughout Central and South America rain forests to forage. At home, these intelligent birds require not only a varied diet, but the stimulation that comes with seeking out food sources.

Some macaw enthusiasts train their birds to "forage" for food. They begin by adding several small foraging bowls to the macaw's cage so that the bird must move around to different areas to find food or treats. Once this is mastered, a small piece of paper can be placed one each bowl, which the macaw can push away to uncover the food. This can progress to taping the paper to the top of the bowls. The idea is to make each stage of the foraging process a little more demanding, both physically and mentally. Some people who live with macaws as pets eventually turn them loose from their cages to forage around their homes for food puzzles.

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4. Macaws Have Super-Strong Beaks

A macaws beak is so strong that it can easily crush the thick, hard 6-inch (15-centimeter) diameter shell that contains Brazil nuts by the dozens.

A macaw uses its large, curved beak in conjunction with its long, agile toes and tongue to position the food for optimal crushing. Its thick, fleshy tongue contains a hyoid bone structure that changes the shape of the tongue, which makes them one of the few types of birds to have intrinsic muscles like humans that control tongue movement.

The good news is that macaws rarely use this powerful weapon on people, but if they did, they could easily crush a person's bony knuckle. For this reason, its often ill-advised to put the bird on one's shoulder, as the close proximity from beak to face could result in injury.

The same goes for allowing a macaw to roam the house unsupervised. "When left out of the cage to roam in the house, they can be very destructive," says Rich. "Like all birds, macaws like to chew, so grandma's rocking chair you so dearly love may be missing a leg when you get home, the wires to the modem may be chewed through or your desk papers may be shredded," he said.

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A pair of scarlet macaws (Ara macao), native to forests of tropical Central and South America, crush walnuts with their powerful beaks.
Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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When macaws hatch from their eggs, they have black eyes. As they reach about 5 months of age, their eyes will begin to lighten in color and this process will continue for up to two years. Ultimately, an adult macaw has a vivid yellow eye color with charcoal pupils. This color usually sticks throughout the macaw's 50- to 70-year lifespan, although there are accounts of variations.

Because macaws are more active during daylight hours, they have a flat and shallow eye construction to allow for maximum light input. The eyes are positioned on the side of the head, which allows macaws to see with each eye independently and have a 360-degree view of the world around them. And, while most birds cannot move their eyes within their eye sockets, macaws can, which only adds to their ability to see their environment without turning their heads.

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6. Macaws Have Complex Emotional Lives

Like most people who share their home with a companion macaw, Dr. Rich has seen his macaw use facial and body language as well as vocalizations to communicate emotional moods.

"She delights visitors with a loud 'hello,'" says Rich, "and will blush when she is held by someone she has a fondness for."

Macaws, with the exception of hyacinth macaws, have the ability to "blush" their cheeks a pink-red hue, just like humans. This involuntary reaction is caused by increased blood flow to the veins and capillaries near the surface of their cheeks, and can be seen because of the absence of feathers on the bird's cheek areas. Macaws also fluff various areas of their feathers to communicate in social contexts.

"When asked to 'show angel wings,' she will raise up both wings straight up in the air as high as she can," he said, "It's always a beautiful sight to behold."

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