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Winterizing with the blue-throated macaws

As the cold weather settles in across the state, we are firmly reminded that winter is coming and will be here before we know it. While preparations for the colder weather started weeks ago across the Bird Department, some plans started months ago. One such being training the blue-throated macaws to shift inside their indoor area.

Blue-throated macaws are one of several South American birds we have here at Zoo Atlanta. Endemic to Bolivia, this species would experience year-round weather which is cool to mild with summers being warm and wet, while winters are typically cold and dry. Even in the highest region of the country, however, the average temperature in winters sits somewhere around 59°F (15°C). While we do provide them with a nice heat source outside on habitat, sometimes that is just not enough – particularly when we see several day spans of freezing overnight temperatures. Their indoor area is a nice, fully-enclosed, macaw-friendly space where they can safely roost for the night and not have to fight the bitter winds of winter.

Now, some might argue the “easiest” way to get the macaws into this area would be to simply catch them and place them inside. (If you noticed the quotation marks, that’s because catching a bird is never easy. It takes time and multiple team members with some solid hand-eye coordination. Catching birds can also increase signs of stress, which is a reason why we are always trying to reduce the number of times to as few as possible. And, with a bird such as a macaw, there is always the added factor of safety for both birds and care team members).

Here at Zoo Atlanta, we are always striving to find more ways to allow for choice and control, to give the animals as much of a decision as possible in their care and the control they have over their lives. So how do we ask a bird to come into this area for their well-being? We use positive reinforcement training.  

In its simplest form, training is teaching the macaws to complete a task. While I could simultaneously bore and/or impress some of you with the nitty-gritty details of how we do this, I will just skip forward to the highlight reel, since the blue-throated macaws have been seeing quite a bit of success lately.

The first challenge with any training plan is determining what the macaws find reinforcing (i.e. what will they work for). Thankfully, both Tulio and Miguel are incredibly smart and eager to train for items from their diet – specifically their grain and any nuts.

Patience was required for the next big challenge, which was getting them comfortable sharing a small space with me. This came through bonding with the boys. Offering them those favorite food items and basically proving to them that I wasn’t going to try and make them my lunch.

The hardest challenge of all, however, came to closing the doors. They’re large (compared to the birds), they move, they keep you in the area, and they make a lot of noise. Pretty scary things. Macaws are smart birds. Many days, I feel as though they’re smarter than myself. They watch you carefully and learn very quickly. Just as they learned if they come into the indoor area, they get easy access to their favorite food, they learned that if I turned even just slightly to the left, I might try to close them in.

There was a lot of problem solving that had to take place. But just as they were learning, so was I. I learned that if Miguel comes in first, he will stand in front of the doorway to block Tulio from getting the reinforcement. That Tulio does his best if you offer him precisely two pieces of grain at a time. And that both boys prefer sitting next to the small Plexiglas door over the large metal one. It’s from these observations that I was able to adapt the initial plan I wrote back in June to learn the ins and outs on how to make the macaw boys the most comfortable in this space.

Now, we have started observing the macaws inside on their own, something we had not witnessed last year. As winter continues to draw near, I hope to officially declare the behavior trained. But, if you wander down to the Ford Aviary and do not see the macaws in their habitat, peek in the upper window. Hopefully they chose to be in there on their own.

Cynthia B.
Keeper II, Birds

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