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Magical Macaws

By Heather Shirley I March 02, 2021

Macaws are a group of New World parrots that are long-tailed and often colorful.

Let’s face it. Sometimes, when challenges like the current pandemic loom over our lives, a little escapism can be a balm.

Recently, I indulged in some escapes to my neighboring towns—Palm Beach and Miami—to view the fantastic and exotic locals. While the local human inhabitants of these cities make for fabulous people-watching, I, of course, was birdwatching.

It may be hard to fathom, but brilliantly colored communities of parrots—and their cousins, parakeets and macaws—thrive all over south Florida. Magic seems real when you look up at the Miami skyline and see a flock of 3-foot long brilliantly colored macaws stream past.

Florida is well known for several things: a tropical climate, plenty of tourists and hurricanes. People come for the weather and want to be entertained. Zoos are built and filled with exotic creatures. Inevitable hurricanes destroy the zoos. Animals escape and run amok all over the state. It’s why we have a horrendous problem with invasive lizards and snakes—but there is enough trouble in the world right now, and we all need more happy in our lives, right?

So, let’s focus on the more spectacular exotic escapees: the parrots.

About 10 different species live in south Florida. Many of the flocks have been around since the 1920s. They don’t harm our local environment’s native flora and fauna. In fact, I rather think they improve them.

Daria Feinstein lives in a spectacular mansion on a canal in Coral Gables. For years, she has been feeding the local population of blue and yellow macaws.

One early morning, I joined Daria as she walked through her yard. Winding past the pool to the edge of her dock, she called the macaws by mimicking their raucous screech. The birds had been waiting nearby and flew in. They were rewarded with a feast in the form of garbage can lids Daria had set out that were filled with walnuts.

The resplendent birds grabbed the nuts and flew up to perch on palm fronds. Nimbly, they used their dexterous, zygodactyl feet—meaning they have two toes in front and two in back, like an X—and their powerful hooked beaks—they have a bite force roughly equivalent to a large dog—to crack open the nuts.

I stared in awe, laughing with delight. They occasionally squawked to each other, flew down to get more nuts and cattily watched us watching them. When they finally finished feasting, they hung out.

They bounced up and down on the palm fronds like they were a carnival ride. They flew from one tree to another, playing tag with each other, showing off their sulfur underwing coloring. Occasionally, as they climbed from one perch to another, they flipped upside down to investigate a nook or cranny. They squabbled, nuzzled and preened each other.

It’s no wonder humans have associated with parrots for thousands of years. They are recorded in ancient texts of Buddhists and Rumi, they were revered as gods in Latin America, and they’ve proudly perched on the shoulders of pirates and Jimmy Buffet concert-goers. They are among the most intelligent birds. They mimic our speech and have proven problem-solving skills. Tempted to get one as a pet? They can be wonderful companions, but think long and hard about that, my friend.

For one thing, parrots live up to 50 years in the wild and about 80 years in captivity. For another, many parrots sold as pets are poached. Your innocent desire to have a colorful (and very, very loud) pet could be supporting poachers in Latin America and even in the United States. Here, because they are considered escapees and not native, they are not protected as wild birds. Thieves trap these magnificent free parrots and doom them to life in a cage.

But I am determined to stay upbeat and keep this column happy, so moving on.

Are you craving a fantastic escape to the tropics but unable to leave Jersey? Never fear. Monk parakeets live all around you. These darling birds are green overall with a grayish face and breast. They have a pale pink bill and turquoise on their wings.

They are the only parrot that nests colonially, constructing massive nests of twigs. The entire colony roosts in this nest each night, and every member of the flock contributes to helping build and maintain it. The theory is that these large nests provide insulation, enabling the birds to survive winter. Highly social and acrobatic, they clamber along to greet and preen each other and talk over their days. They are simply marvelous to observe.

Head out on a day trip of your own to watch their antics. Check Johnson Park, near the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus in Edison. Go to the Meadowlands Important Bird Area, a wonderful expanse that is lovely to walk around.

To see a monk parakeet colony, Google “NJ-55/CR-505” and check out the result. The best time to catch them is early morning or evening, before or just after they return to their nest after a day foraging. Enjoy watching the glorious parrots and enjoy some happy in your day.


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