Love is in the Air

By Liz and Bob Johnson

The alarm cry sounds. Instantly the, air explodes in a rainbow of flying colors and the cacophony of a dozen different species, each seeking safety in the air. Soon, however, the perceived danger passes and the group settles down to resume munching on seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, veggies, and sprouts. No pellets here, for this is a rainforest. Well, not exactly a real rainforest, but a 1/4 acre, 16' high simulated rainforest, where 130 birds are in free-flight, enjoying the trees, the ground, the wind, rain, and sunshine. These are tropical birds and they are enjoying the subtropical ambiance of South Florida.

The alarm cry, at least this time was from one of the birds perched under the shelter of the patio, with a very limited view of the sky above. Some birds display a sense of humor by sounding the alarm cry and then watching everyone else fly around frantically. Other false alarms are often elicited by an Umbrella Cockatoo who wants to avoid the competition at the food dishes. As he watches everyone else fly away, he nonchalantly takes full advantage of his temporary monopoly.

Occasionally however, a hawk does fly overhead. These birds seem instinctively to fear hawks (or other "strange-looking" birds, such as egrets or cranes) and respond to this natural fear by flying up. This leads us to believe that height signifies safety, not dominance. Birds perched highest in the trees vary from time to time, but usually they are the most timid and shy birds, not the aggressive ones. We have never seen any sign of a "flock" leader or dominant bird among them. The group that appears to be a flock of 93 macaws as they fly together or feed, on closer examination, is really comprised of a number of small groups which are dynamic and ever-changing. There are aggressive birds (much as bullies in a classroom), but these are avoided, not followed. No one bird ever stands out as a "leader" of the entire group nor is it always the same bird who sounds the alarm cry.

One interesting feature we have observed is that safety in numbers to them means the security of being a small group member. It appears to be all-important to a macaw (the sub-family group of which we have the most and of which we are the most able to observe flock behavior) to have a buddy or be a part of a small group, as loners are often targets for the bullies. Establishment of friendships seems to be of primary importance to each of them.

These birds become highly territorial as they mature and newcomers must be introduced most gradually and carefully. Flock behavior is more prominently seen among the juveniles. As they mature and bond with a mate, even previous friendships are abruptly ended.

Interestingly, these birds do not lose their desire for human companionship even though they are allowed to express themselves as birds. Contrarily, a different, less co-dependent relationship develops. We seem to view each other as co-inhabitants rather than as captor and captive. We are able to share each otherís space and do not interfere with the activities of one another. We must admit, however, that they do somewhat interfere with our activities as we try to feed them, as they always want to play and they attach themselves to every available body part. On entering the habitat, even visitors are almost immediately inundated with macaws. Amazingly, even untamed macaws that have never been pets will, a short time after arriving at our sanctuary and with no specific training by us, adopt the same attitudes and behaviors towards people as all of the other birds. We feel that, just like people, given a sense of freedom and self-determination they will develop the feeling of self-worth that is so necessary for a well-balanced personality.

There is continual debate about whether birds should remain clipped or fly free inside a home or be allowed to fly free outdoors. Each side has a compelling argument, but the rationale that birds have both a physiological and psychological need to fly cannot be denied. They were designed this way and to see the exhilaration and health benefits that the freedom of flight brings is even more convincing. The dilemma of course, is the danger that flight in a house presents vs. the dangers that lurk outdoors. A third alternative that is almost never addressed is the construction of large outdoor enclosures set up as natural habitats, where birds can fly safely. Space and funds do limit this in many cases. There are, however, many possibilities in a limited budget or space situation. Consider a mini or micro habitat, which creates at least psychological space as opposed to a steel bar prison.

In colder climates, of course, outdoor habitats must have an enclosed area. Indoor habitats can consist of wiring off one end of a room and if the room has a window access to the outside, a similar enclosure can be attached to the wall outside the window so your birds can fly inside and outside and the window can be closed at night and in bad weather. Also, an entire spare room can be utilized in the same manner. There are unlimited possibilities.

Precautions must be taken to prevent theft, predators, or escape. It is wise not to have any birds in view of passersby, nor to allow noise levels to announce that you have birds or to disturb neighbors. All species of parrots do not have the same group dynamics. For example, Quakers are obviously colony breeders and live in flocks. The late Richard Schubot found that Rose Breasted, Goffins and Bare-eyed Cockatoos are colony breeders and these did well together in a large flight with individual nestboxes. When he tried putting bonded pairs of Hyacinth Macaws together in a large flight, disaster occurred.

Our observations of group dynamics are mainly about macaws, (although our 18 adult amazons exhibit the same territorial behaviors toward one another.) They appear to "flock" together in neutral territory as when feeding or flying, but there is no organized group behavior among them, any more than humans who "flock" together at a restaurant or grocery store. The interactions remain within the pairs or small groups except for occasional bickering between groups. They, however, fiercely defend what they perceive as their own personal territory and will drive away all intruders. We find we must keep bonded pairs of macaws separated from other macaws or serious fights can ensue. Juveniles, however, hang out together as a group, much like kids at a playground. We do not have sufficient of any other one species to make valid observations from which to generalize.

This behavior has been observed in the wild as reported by Charles Munn in "National Geographic" (January, 1994) Munn writes, "Macaws seem to mate for life, so most arrive at the (clay) lick in pairs. Some are shepherding offspring Macaws play and interact with each other in ways most other birds don't. They don't usually socialize with macaws outside their nuclear family, but they talk to each other constantly."

In our days of rehabilitating wild birds, we learned that different species of native birds have different group dynamics. For example, sparrows live in flocks, but mockingbirds and cardinals are highly territorial and will aggressively drive out any other of the same species from their territory. Since various species of parrots have evolved different flock dynamics in the wild as well, maybe we would do well to re-think the treating of all species the same in captivity.

By recreating a natural habitat for birds, they will express and thus preserve their natural behaviors. We can then observe these natural behaviors at close range and thus better understand the social and emotional dynamics of these free-flying spirits of the rainforest.

One more thing we have learned from living with parrots in a natural setting is that amid the chorus of squawks we live with all day, each call has its own special meaning. They obviously communicate with each other and in the multiplicity of their many vocalizations they attempt to communicate with us their various wants and needs. It seems they learn our language faster than we learn theirs but we are attempting to tune in. We know that the alarm cry, for one, has its own special sound and when we hear it we know, even without looking up, that our loves are in the air.

From: Original Flying Machine, July, 2001

"...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