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  • Writer's pictureChristina Swaan

Friendship - It's complicated.

At the chime of the 2024 New Year bell, I made a resolution to make all efforts to further improve the needs of the animals that I care for. Animals with complex emotions, high intellect, and natural inclinations towards social groups become a priority when considering improvements in their captive needs.

Wild macaws form large social

groups. They may choose the same mate every breeding season and their young often stick around for years after weaned. These birds will spend hours at a time playing and preening each other and can travel hundreds of miles a day together in search of food and resources. When separated from their family groups their loud calls help them to find each other over miles of forest canopy.

A macaw's instinct to form strong ties with their flockmates is one of the things makes them attractive pets, but sadly this also causes a great deal of hardship in the confines of human homes. Often deprived of companionship with other birds from the moment of hatching, captive parrots imprint on people and become reliant on their caretakers. Usually sold as individual pets they may never see another of their own kind, thus reinforcing that people (and not parrots) are the bird's companions. To add to the confusion and distress of these animals, many of them are abandoned or sold numerous times within their first few years of life, making it difficult for them to form trusting relationships with the humans that care for them.

Chica is approximately 27 years old and has been living with me for the past 12 years. In her history she had been kept solitary for the majority of her life even prior to her arrival to me. For personal and logistical reasons I had not been able to introduce another macaw in our home on a permanent basis. I have temporarily housed a few that arrived through my former rescue that she was largely indifferent to, but it's been at least 8 years since the last time Chica has shared space with another large bird. As an "only child" Chica sees me as her primary companion and seems to relish in the status of being the sole recipient of attention. But, despite the strong bond she has with me there is a level of sadness that comes with knowing that she is unable to act out her true nature like she would with her own kind.

On paper, adopting a large parrot such as a macaw is no problem for our household - We have the space, the time to commit to socialization and training, a few years of experience with their care, and the financial means to afford an appropriate setup and ongoing veterinary care. Simply getting another bird is the easy part - but what would the outcome be? Parrot social structures can be very complex. In the wild they have the flexibility to choose their friends or get away from those they don't like. They can become fiercely protective of their chosen mates, and intense squabbles over resources between opposing flocks can occur. Because of this nature, introducing a new macaw to a household with one who has already established hierarchy can become much more complicated than even the most prepared caretakers would anticipate.

Although Chica is missing a connection with another of her kind, she still benefits through the interactions with the humans around her, and while we may speak different languages, we manage to find ways to communicate our affection towards each other. Chica seems to be thriving and displays all the signs of a healthy, happy bird. When I look at the possibility of adding another bird to "Chica's Flock" I also have to acknowledge that there is no evidence to suggest she even wants the companionship of another bird. To disrupt her life by introducing a newcomer one to compete for time and space would very likely cause a significant amount of stress for her and the rest of our family. In extreme cases, the competition between the two could result in injuries, excess screaming, and feather-destructive behaviors as means to gain attention. In the opposite scenario the birds could bond so strongly with each other that they end up rejecting human companionship entirely, resulting in territorial aggression that could pose a danger to the humans in the household who have to provide for them. There is of course a chance that things could "work out" and a second bird would settle into our home as other family members and pets of different species in our household have - but this can't be guaranteed no matter how careful we are with integration.

Animals, unlike humans, do not long for things they never had. Although I may see the missing piece in Chica's life as being a companion bird, I also have to recognize that she has no concept of missing out and adding a second macaw in the mix may very well hold undesirable outcomes for all. For now, perhaps it's best to focus on continuing to improve Chica's life through enriching activities, building her connection with the younger members of her household, and ensuring she has the best possible life that I can give HER regardless of whether she eventually shares it with another of her own kind.

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