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Unique Parrots: Hyacinth Macaws, Black Palm Cockatoos & Hawk-Headed Parrots

Learn why the hyacinth macaw, black palm cockatoo and the hawk-headed parrot are so rare and unique.

By Kashmir Csaky

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The hyacinth macaw, black palm cockatoo and hawk-headed parrot are three birds that turn the heads of bird enthusiasts and nonbird owners alike. They are all beautiful, exotic, uniquely charming and uncommon in aviculture. No wonder each commands a high price.

Hyacinth Macaw
By Gina Cioli/BowTie/Courtesy Omar's Exotic Birds
The hyacinth macaw is the largest parrot in the world.

Hyacinth Macaws
I share my life with hyacinth macaws. I breed them, and I have observed them in their native habitat. They are without a doubt one of my favorite birds.

Hyacinth macaws are incredibly big, gregarious, loud, outgoing and social parrots. The people who love them share many of these characteristics. Although often beautiful, cuddly and entertaining, hyacinth macaws require more work than some other pet birds.

Hyacinth Macaws Can Be High-Maintenance
Everything about a hyacinth is expensive. They go through toys very quickly so they need large strong cages. It is not uncommon for a hyacinth to destroy several cages before a desperate owner finds one sturdy enough to hold the bird.

Hyacinths require a diet rich in saturated vegetable fats. In the wild, they eat palm nuts that are more than 50-percent fat and more than 30 percent of that is saturated fat. The protein levels in these nuts are low, under 12 percent. In captivity, hyacinths can thrive on a diet rich in macadamia nuts. Add red palm oil to their fresh food or pellets to provide them with fatty acids found in their natural foods.

With proper care, hyacinths can live to be a ripe old age. I heard of hyacinths living into their 80s. They stay active all their lives unless they develop restrictive conditions such as cataracts or arthritis. 

Hyacinth Macaws In The Wild
At one time, hyacinths’ habitat covered most of Brazil and included Bolivia and possibly Paraguay. (There is some speculation that hyacinths were exported from Paraguay in great numbers. I spoke to a former bird smuggler from Brazil, now a ranger who protects hyacinths, and he told me that he smuggled more than 1,000 hyacinths into Paraguay.)

Four areas still support hyacinth macaws —  the Pantanal, Piaui, Tocantins and Amazona. These populations are separated by hundreds and even thousands of miles. In the early 1990s, only about 1,500 hyacinths remained in the wild. Today, with the efforts of Projeto Arara Azul and Bio Brasilia, the estimated number has risen to 5,000.

Experts link the earlier decline of hyacinth macaws to habitat destruction and the pet trade. Today, you will find more hyacinths in captivity than in the wild. About 10,000 hyacinths were legally brought into this country before the 1992 importation ban.

Because they are difficult to produce in captivity, smuggling hyacinths is a lucrative profession, one in which some still consider worth the risk of getting caught. One successfully smuggled bird can provide a sizeable income. If we do not want to see the species disappear in the wild, it is vital that we continue to breed it in captivity to feed the demand.

Why Are Hyacinth Macaws So Uncommon? 
1) These birds pair easily, but egg and chick mortality is high.

2) The weaning period is long, often seven to 12 months, and a responsible breeder observes the chicks for an additional two months after weaning before sending them to a new home.

3)  The only psittacine bird that is more difficult to raise in captivity is the black palm cockatoo.

When you buy something for a hyacinth macaw, ask if the item is hyacinth-resistant. Not all hyacinths are destructive, but they all have the potential and the strength to do a great deal of damage.

Black Palm Cockatoos
There are three subspecies of black palm cockatoos. Yet, even black palm experts have difficulty distinguishing between them. The nominate form of the black palm cockatoo is Probosciger aterrimus aterrimus, usually referred to as aterrimus or aterrimus aterrimus. Aterrimus is the most commonly found subspecies in the U.S. The most sought-after subspecies is Probosciger aterrimus goliath. The Goliaths can be considerably larger than aterrimus aterrimus.

The third subspecies, Probosciger aterrimus stenolophus, is similar to the Goliaths but with thinner crest feathers. There is considerable speculation about the stenolophus and whether there are any in the United States. Many aviculturists did not know the difference between the subspecies and cross-bred them without knowing what they had done. Many captive-raised birds might be a mix of the three subspecies. 

Black Palm Cockatoo
Black palm cockatoos are difficult to breed.

The most difficult of the psittacine birds to breed, black palms lay one egg per clutch. The babies hatch easily, but chick mortality is high. They often die around 1 year old, just as they finish weaning. These deaths are often labeled “black palm syndrome.” The chicks appear healthy but suddenly show signs of illness. Results from diagnostic tests and necropsies come back inconclusive — illness unknown. Black palm syndrome also occurs in weaned juveniles and adults.

In recent years, breeders saw greater success when they added broccoli, apples and sunflower seeds to their hand-feeding formulas.

Adding exposure to natural sunlight might help, too. Black palm cockatoos and hyacinth macaws have photosensitive skin that reacts only minimally to artificial full-spectrum lighting. Palm cockatoos that receive natural sunlight typically have bright red faces, while birds that live indoors and have little access to natural light often have faded pink facial patches.

Like most large birds, black palms have the potential to live more than 50 years. Until we learn more about their proper care, however, most will not live a full life.

Captive black palms are often skinny birds with thin, bony legs, which can be an indication of a dietary deficiency. Their dietary fat requirement may be even higher than that of hyacinth macaws.

Although, they are not endangered in the wild, black palm cockatoos did not arrive in the U.S. in large numbers, so there are fewer of them in the pet trade.

In the wild, they are found in dense humid savannas and rain forests of the Cape York Peninsula in Australia, New Guinea and some of the surrounding small islands, which did not allow exportation and made smuggling into the U.S. difficult.

Black palm cockatoo aficionados might be mysterious and guarded, but their birds are flashy and each one is a celebrity at heart. During a visit to Aviculture Breeding and Research Center, John Dunbar enjoyed the company of seven black palm cockatoos. They all decided to claim him as their property. In true black palm fashion they perched on his head, shoulders and arms. Then these red-faced giants began screaming and stomping on him like Japanese Takio drummers. In the wild, they use small sticks held firmly in their feet to drum on hollow trees to claim territory, so these captive cockatoos improvise

Why Are Black Palm Cockatoos So Uncommon?
1) They are one of the most difficult psittacine birds to breed in captivity
.
2) They lay one egg per clutch.

3) Chick mortality is very high.

4) Many die from “black palm syndrome” when they are around 1 year old, and the cause is still unknown.

5) They have a specialized diet.

6) Fewer numbers of black palms were imported into the U.S. before the importation ban.

Black palm cockatoos develop overgrown beaks if they do not have pandanus nuts to hull. A natural part of their diet, pandanus nuts are thick and fibrous. This delicacy contains two tiny seeds, which resemble pine nuts. Breeders and pet owners of black palms consider this nut so important that some in northern areas have purchased small lots in Florida just to grow the nuts for their birds.

Hawk-Headed Parrots
Another stunning exotic bird, the hawk-headed parrot also arrived in the U.S. in only small numbers. They came from the dense jungles of northern South America, including parts of Guyana, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

Smaller than both hyacinths and palm cockatoos, hawk heads measure about 14 inches in length including their long, blunt tails. A hawk head’s multi-colored crest surrounds its face like an open fan when it is angered or threatened.

Hawk-Headed Parrot
By Gina Cioli/BowTie/Courtesy Omar's Exotic Birds
In the wild, hawk-headed parrots live in small flocks.

This is not a bird for the inexperienced. They are fast and reactive. The species becomes increasingly difficult to keep as it matures, so some caution against as a pet for the inexperienced, too. Its natural survival instinct must be well managed and respected for the bird to be an enjoyable companion.

“Even young hawk heads are as quick as a flash, full of macho and temper, high-strung in eye movement and head posture, fierce in competition and powerful of bite,” said Eb Cravens, a noted aviculturist.

People who adore hawk heads defend them as ferociously as a mother protecting her child. They point out the birds playful and acrobatic nature and note the species’ talking ability. They argue that problems encountered with hawk heads are often the result of environmental problems. There is immense passion on both sides of this debate.

If you think you are capable of handling a spirited bird and are looking for a challenge, do not rush out and find a baby hawk head. Instead, find someone who already has a hawk head as a companion and get to know the bird, or volunteer with an avian rescue center that has a hawk-headed parrot. You could also locate a breeder with babies who will permit you to come to their aviary and help out.

Why Are Hawk-Headed Parrots So Uncommon?
1)  Fewer numbers of hawk heads were imported into the U.S. before the importation ban.

2)  Hawk heads are difficult to breed in captivity. They are territorial, which means they need a lot of privacy and space to separate them from other birds and people.

Hawk-head parrots lust after fruit and are not picky eaters. Yet, their craving for fruits and a diet that is high in sugar may contribute to their over exuberance.


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Unique Parrots: Hyacinth Macaws, Black Palm Cockatoos & Hawk-Headed Parrots

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Reader Comments
Right on about the Hawk Heads. I love my guy, but do not recommend them as pets, in fact. I don't even think they should be bred. If you really really want one. As the article says visit one and adopt, if you can take it.
You will get bitten! Not for the faint hearted, but the best companion bird, I have ever had.
Susan, Egg Harbor Township, NJ
Posted: 2/6/2014 3:54:52 PM
i want a hawk-headed!
Gabby, San Diego, CA
Posted: 2/3/2013 6:44:13 PM
I eventually want a hyacinth macaw! They are sooooo beautiful!
Gabby, San Diego, CA
Posted: 12/10/2012 6:57:08 PM
I held a baby hyacinth once - so heavy already! Beautiful, but I'm for smaller species for me.
Wendy, Phoenix, AZ
Posted: 10/21/2012 3:14:05 AM
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