The tale of a proud pair of macaws

Print edition : March 16, 2002

Balasubramanian is also known for his serious hobbies. Known for his 'green fingers', he is an expert farmer with a special interest in the cultivation of high-yielding winter crop vegetables. He has also had notable success in breeding high-quality German Shepherd dogs. But the hobby that has made him the leading Indian name in the fancy is the breeding of rare and new mutations of parrots. He is India's most successful and versatile aviculturist.

Recently, Balasubramanian achieved, with a pair of Green-Winged Macaws, a world first on his bird farm on the outskirts of Chennai. Here is the story in his own words:

I AM an ardent aviculturist based in Chennai. I am also a keen reader of books on aviculture. For the past 10 years, I have been subscribing to the weekly, Cage & Aviary Birds, and the monthly magazine, Bird Keeper.

S. Balasubramanian with his clutch of five Green-Winged Macaw chicks.-PHOTOGRAPHS BY PONSEE

I acquired two Green-Winged Macaws (Ara chloroptera) in the year 1991. When they came to me, I knew neither their age nor their sex. I got them DNA-sexed and, fortunately, they turned out to be a true pair.

They were given a large aviary - 18 feet long, 6 feet wide, 16 feet high. In the top portion of this aviary, they were provided a small room, 8 ft long, 6 ft wide, and 6 ft high, and offered a beer barrel for nest box.

Until 1996, the pair did not show any interest in breeding. In July 1996, however, the female laid two eggs but these were infertile. After this, she would play with the male but never seemed busy with the beer barrel.

In 2000, the Green-Winged pair started showing an interest in preparing the nest box. By May 2000, two eggs were laid. This time too, the eggs were found to be infertile.

Fertility, challenges and response

I was so disappointed that I thought of getting another adult male for my female macaw. But she surprised us by laying three eggs on June 4, 7 and 10. I was extremely happy to see that one of the three eggs was fertile and I immediately corrected my thinking about the suitability of this male. What was even better, the hen proved extremely good in brooding.

The egg hatched on June 30, 2000. The chick was removed for hand feeding on July 27.

The proud parents.-PHOTOGRAPHS BY PONSEE

Within 20 days, the hen started again. As in the previous instance, she laid three eggs - on August 16, 19 and 22, 2000. This time, all three eggs were fertile and all three hatched.

The pair fed the first two chicks well, but the third chick looked weak and emaciated. To remove the third chick for hand feeding, we had no choice but to disturb the pair in the nest box. The parents were emotionally upset but we could not help it. We removed the third chick and found that it weighed only 42 grams when seven days old. Normally it should have weighed about 100 grams at this stage. The second chick was clearly not getting proper nourishment from the parents, so it was removed for hand feeding on its 15th day. Only the first chick was under the parent macaws' care.

On the first chick's 55th day, we noticed a parental bad habit. The pair was pulling the new blood feathers from the chick and chewing them. The chick looked bald and pathetic. So the first chick too was removed for hand feeding.

Another clutch of three eggs was laid 48 days after this event. This time only the first two eggs were fertile; they hatched on January 18 and 22, 2001. Three days after the second chick emerged from its shell, we could see that the male was not in proper form and health. So we had to catch him, put him in an 8 ft long hospital cage, and medicate him. The female got tremendously upset and refused to feed the chicks. The first chick was seven days old and the second was a three-day baby. Both were then taken out of the nest box for incubation and hand feeding.

We also placed the female in another 8 ft long cage by the side of the male, so that she could have a full view of her partner under medical treatment.

When the male was found to have completely recovered and healthy, the pair was re-introduced to their aviary. This happened on February 5, 2001. But the separation had angered the female and she fought with her partner for a few days. Mercifully, the fight was not severe - it seemed akin to a petty quarrel between husband and wife. The female did not allow the male to caress her; she was trying to sit by herself without seeming to care for her partner. At that point, I worried whether I had ruined their compatibility.

A Clutch of Five

Yet, within a week, the pair became extremely attached to each other - just like old times!

By February 23, the female started laying another clutch of eggs. To my utter amazement, she laid five eggs! The fifth egg, which was a bit smaller than the rest, was laid on March 8, 2001. I thrilled to the knowledge that every one of the five was fertile.

My Blue and Yellow Macaw (Ara ararauna), which has been breeding regularly over the past five years, did not at any time lay more than three eggs. No book I have come across on macaws mentions a clutch of more than four eggs by a larger macaw. So I was all the more anxious to see that the eggs were properly brooded by the female.

On March 21, the first chick broke through its shell. The second and third followed two and five days later. After hatching three eggs, the female, who had been sitting over the eggs for more than 30 days now, seemed to be losing her brooding instinct. We could see her often come out of the nest box and play with her male. So the fourth and fifth eggs were removed and placed in an incubator.

The fourth egg hatched on March 30 and the chick weighed 21 grams on its birthday. The fifth egg hatched on April 3 and the chick weighed merely 18 grams. This was not unexpected, as the fifth egg was slightly smaller than the rest.

At this juncture, the female started preparing the nest box for another clutch and did not seem to be feeding well the first three chicks left with her. So we had to remove them for hand feeding on April 3, 2001.

All the five chicks grew well. We photographed the lot together every ten days - from Day 1 to Day 64 of the fifth chick, to be precise - meticulously weighing them on empty crop to register their growth.

Within 19 days of removing the three chicks for hand feeding, the indefatigable pair had another clutch in the beer barrel. Beginning on April 22, 2001, the Green-Winged hen laid four eggs. This time the first egg broke, possibly because it was soft-shelled. The three other eggs were found fertile and hatched.

These three chicks have also been removed for hand feeding. The pair of macaws has now been housed in an 8 ft long cage, sans nest box, of course, and given an involuntary rest from breeding for some time.

Thus, in a span of exactly a year, between May 2000 and April 2001, this pair of Green-Winged Macaws has laid a total of 20 eggs - out of which 14 chicks are growing well.

S. Balasubramanian

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