Observations of Interactive Behaviors in a Group of Ninety-three Macaws in a Free-flight Natural Habitat Situation

By Bob and Liz Johnson

A close examination of birds' natural behaviors is difficult as tracking in the wild is fragmented and in captivity most birds are not in a natural setting. Thus many theories abound and assumptions often become generally accepted as fact. Our situation of a quarter-acre natural habitat attached to our house containing 93 free-flighted macaws has given us a unique opportunity to observe firsthand many natural interactive behaviors not generally seen. Many currently held theories are not supported by our observation. There is often a resistance to confront and modify or change popularly held theories, even when empirical evidence negates their validity.

We have never observed any sign of a flock leader nor organized structure within the large group. There is the occasional aggressive or assertive bird, but none in all situations nor to all individuals. These birds are not followed in any way, but rather are avoided by the others. When a bird defers to one of these individuals, it is not out of acknowledgement of his position, but rather avoidance of bodily harm.

Within what appears to be a flock are duos and small groups, which are dynamic and periodically changing. For example, one group of four Hyacinths, whom we affectionately refer to as "The Fearsome Foursome" daily reconfirm their alliance by clasping beaks while nodding their heads in turn, much as we humans shake hands. They defend what they perceive as their territory and seldom do they accept another member into their group.

Within such a small group there often can be found a most popular member. These birds are often the most gentle and do not appear to dominate in any way. The others defer to them voluntarily out of what appears to be admiration and respect. They did not acquire their status through dominance over the others nor do they assume the highest post. In fact, the birds at the highest areas vary from moment to moment. The shyest birds are more often seen up high, probably because this is where they feel more secure. Birds perched high in the trees or on a human head or shoulder have never in any way shown any inclination to dominate us or any other bird. Since the tendency is to fly up when anything frightens them, such as a hawk flying overhead, height seems to signify security rather than dominance.

Our observations of these macaws show quite an astonishing similarity to the flock behavior of Homo Sapiens at a restaurant or a rock concert. An alien observer would conclude that humans are flock animals and therefore there surely must be a flock leader. But is there? On closer scrutiny, one would see that within this teaming mass of humans there are small groups, probably most containing an assertive, shy, popular, or even nerdy individual, but each group is basically uninvolved with adjacent groups. Should someone yell "Fire!" they would all run out as a "flock", and our observer would now feel certain that his assumptions were correct — these are definitely flock animals. What he wouldn't see is that each unit would proceed to its own territory, in this case a house or apartment. In other words, adult humans have a territory, which they fiercely defend, but they flock together for feeding or entertainment. We see this same behavior in our macaws.

The juvenile macaws seem to be more flock oriented. They cohabit in larger groups than the older birds, much as teenagers in a malt shop. They interact with each other interchangeably. At this stage, mutual preening or feeding does not imply bonding, as partners can change within a short time, this time the counterpart of dating in humans! Once they really bond, however, the others seem to recognize it immediately, and they must be separated from the group and especially from other true pairs or serious fights can ensue. When adult males fight, it appears to be a matter of territoriality or occasionally a choice of mate, rather than over flock leadership or dominance. They attempt to drive the other pairs away, but do not seem to bother the others who are immature or unattached.

Even though there appears to be no organized pecking order or dominance hierarchy, there is sometimes a very shy bird that also must be kept separated from the group. The others often sense its fear and take full advantage.

These findings are based on observations of macaws only, as the five or six members of each of our other species do not constitute a large enough sampling from which to generalize. Extrapolation to all species is not implied.

This entire controversy is merely a matter of rationale. In actuality, birds living in captivity do need to have limits and boundaries set and must be taught certain behavior modifications, much as would a child, in order to function harmoniously in our environment. The rationale for training a child, however, is not that he would otherwise think he was the group leader and thus attempt to dominate us. Instead, we attempt to enhance a child's self-image and encourage self-direction while still setting limits on his behavior. Pet birds need direction as well, but perhaps the reasons why they behave as they do need to be reexamined in order to more fully understand them and thus better direct their behavior.

From: Bird Talk, March, 1999, published as a Letter to the Editor

"...and once you have tasted flight
you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward,
for there you have been and there you long to return."
-- Leonardo da Vinci