Macaws are probably the most widely recognized parrots. They can be huge, beautiful, intelligent, affectionate and sensitive with a flamboyant personality that is only rivaled by their brilliant colors. Macaws are rapidly distinguished from most other species of parrot by their body shape - they have large heads with extra large beaks, slender bodies and long pointed tails. Most macaws have a bare facial patch, often decorated with lines of tiny feathers.
Macaws are fairly shy and tend to form strong ties with a small "flock" or family circle. They have large personal spaces into which they will allow their flock members. Macaws are loyal to their flocks. Outsiders are not allowed intimate contact with a macaw until they are formally introduced and they have been familiars for a while and are accepted by the macaw as additional flock members. This introduction can take some time to accomplish, especially with mature macaws. Macaws are not birds that can be handed casually to people they don't know. If you don't use caution when approaching macaws that don't know you, you could get a significant bite.
Most macaws love physical affection from people they trust, and love to be petted and "skritched". Many macaws like to wrestle gently. Rolling over to have their tummies and wing webs gently rubbed is another favorite activity. Once they really know you, macaws can become affectionate. They may try to "French kiss" their people, seeking to touch you with their tongues. This is an honored greeting for friends. It is fine to kiss your bird back, just don't let your macaw touch the inside of your mouth or your tongue as there are bacteria that are normally in your mouth that could make your bird ill. If you are concerned about the beak, you can make yourself safer by gently holding the macaw's beak while gently kissing the tongue from the side.
Most people are intimidated by the overwhelming size of a macaw's beak. The large macaws can exert quite a bit of pressure with their beaks, so it is important to respect the power of that beak. A macaw can use its beak like another foot to maintain balance when climbing onto a potentially unstable surface. When it does, it might reach out with the beak without any intention of biting. A macaw will also use its beak affectionately; when with their mates, touching beaks is an intimate expression of tenderness and bonding. A macaw may also use its beak as a defensive weapon, or to scare away a potential threat. It is important to read the bird's body language and context to tell if a macaw is being aggressive or wants to climb onto an unstable surface.
If you are afraid or lack confidence when handling a large macaw, the bird can often sense your fear. Birds are sensitive to the emotions and moods of the people in their vicinity. If you are afraid, a macaw will conclude that there is something to be afraid of and will be especially alert for potential danger. This uncertainty can lead to nippiness, and the nippiness can exacerbate your fear. Thus, an unworkable, potentially dangerous relationship can develop. When you approach a macaw, do so with confidence and authority, but not with aggression. If you are perceived as being aggressive by a macaw (loud voice, sudden movements, grabbing the bird or grabbing its beak, striking or thrusting at the bird) the bird will respond by escalating that aggression.
It is important to handle macaws with "nurturing guidance." In simple terms, this means gently but firmly setting boundaries and reinforcing those boundaries for the bird the same as you would for a child. Having boundaries helps a macaw know what appropriate behavior is, and helps you maintain a positive relationship with the bird. Simple things to do include asking a macaw to step up in order to come out of its cage, not just letting it come out on its own. Always praise a macaw when it does something good, or for just being wonderful. Macaws are vocally oriented and respond well to praise. Occasionally, when a macaw does something exceptional, food rewards can be offered as an added reinforcement. Macaws are extremely intelligent birds who are responsive to vocal tone, both praise and reprimands. Always end an interaction on a positive note.
I consider the macaw to be a more dependent species than most other parrots. Nevertheless, they are more independent than most cockatoos. Macaws are dependent in that they have intense social needs. These social needs are satisfied through handling, companionship, playful interactions, explaining things to them, extended eye contact, recognition and praise. Leaving macaws alone while the family is busy in a nearby room during the day is not an appropriate way to treat these highly social creatures. Macaws want to participate and feel they are flock members. Macaws consequently are more demanding of time and attention than many other species. If they aren't getting what they need they will express their desires with their very loud voices. It is important that macaws have some consistency in the amount of attention they receive to set their expectations correctly. For example, with the exception of the first few days a new bird is in your home, don't spend hours a day with a new bird and then a few months later spend only 10 minutes per day. The bird will feel abandoned and will scream. Macaws are prey animals, after all, and abandonment by the flock means certain death. Fortunately, properly raised macaws are quite capable of entertaining themselves when no one is at home.
While some macaws are exceptional talkers, generally they are not noted for their talking abilities. They are noted for their very loud squawks, so are not suitable for apartment dwellers. Most macaws will vocalize at breakfast time and in the late afternoon; a few species (blue and gold macaws and red fronted macaws) tend to vocalize more frequently than the others.
Macaws are large birds that love to cuddle, play, tease and interact curiously with their world. Tearing up destructible wood toys is one of their favorite past times. It is important that macaws have things to destroy, and keeping them supplied with destructible toys can make them expensive to keep. Large macaws aren’t for everyone; they need large cages and lots of large toys to tear up. Large macaws have enormous intimidating beaks and very loud screams. Large macaws are also big, bold and beautiful, loving, interactive companions who love to cuddle with their people without having to be touching them all the time. They can make a good family bird for those with older children.