Macaw training part of exhibit at Indianapolis Zoo


The blur of red, yellow, green and blue shot out over the Indianapolis Zoo, swooping in a wide arc and rising above the treeline.

Two trainers stood on a lift 50 feet above the ground, waving and signalling to the flock of macaws as they left the aviary. Wasting no time, the birds made a straight line towards them.

In a flurry of feathers and squawking, a dozen macaws landed on the makeshift perch. This was only their second time making this far of a journey, and trainers rewarded them with peanuts.

“One of the most exhilarating things about training birds is that they are capable of going wherever they want. They’re free-flighted, and can do whatever they want. We just hope they have the same goals in mind as us,” said Monica Poirier, avian trainer at the zoo.

Macaws, with their brilliant plumage of yellow, red, blue and green, have come to the skies around downtown Indianapolis. In preparation for the opening of Magnificent Macaws on May 27 at the zoo, the stunning tropical birds have been exploring their new habitat and flying freely around the zoo grounds.

Trainers have been teaching flocks of macaws to traverse their airspace, as the birds will be released at select times during the day to fly above guests.

Officials want people to know: if you see a brightly colored bird overhead at the zoo, or even throughout downtown Indianapolis, don’t be alarmed.

“Enjoy it, and understand that it’s a normal and very positive part of the bird’s learning experience. The birds are going off in different patterns to figure out their surroundings,” said Carla Knapp, spokesperson for the Indianapolis Zoo. “It’s not just here at the zoo; people can expect to see these birds in the general area.”

Macaws are highly intelligent and social birds typically found in the tropical rain forests of Mexico, Central and South America. The zoo will feature 51 of birds, with seven species, including the scarlet macaw, great green macaw and hyacinth macaw, represented.

Magnificent Macaws is a chance for the zoo to balance its mission of conversation and education, while capturing visitors’ imaginations, Knapp said.

“We’re always looking for new and exciting things, that people have never seen before. Most people in their lifetimes will never be able to go to see these birds flying through rainforest,” she said. “Being able to bring this experience to Indiana is a really important way to engage people in the process of conservation.”

The zoo will include information about the threats macaws face in the natural world, particularly as more and more rainforest is being cut down. Loss of habitat is a danger than many species face, and macaws are no exception, Knapp said.

The birds also are being harmed by the international pet trade, which collects the birds to be captive.

At the Indianapolis Zoo, the macaws will be kept in a permanent exhibit being built in the Forest section of the zoo. But multiple times throughout the day, flocks will be set loose to fly around the zoo.

Timed flights and presentations will occur during the day, so guests know what to expect. They’ll be called to the new Bicentennial Pavilion being built nearby, but be free to move through the trees and buildings on the zoo grounds.

“Seeing it, understanding how amazing it is to see them flying over your head, seeing them maneuvering, is such an inspiring and incredible thing,” Knapp said. “Once people see it in person, they’re going to want to learn more about how to save these birds in the wild.”

The training process has been ongoing for more than a month now, starting first in Florida when the birds were newborn before moving them up to Indianapolis to go with their handlers.

Trainers built relationships with each bird, identifying them as individuals and earning their trust.

“We wanted to learn each bird as an individual, and use positive reinforcement to always ask them to do a behavior, then letting them know that it was the correct behavior,” Poirier said. “Treats, food, affection when they’re young. It depends on what the birds like.”

The other trainers know each bird by name, and they use identifying marks to keep the birds separate. Cupid, a military macaw, has yellow feathers on her head and a large lower mandible, so her beak shape is very unique, Poirier said.

“We learn those little small details. As we work with them every day, they really start to stand out and we can recognize them from a distance,” she said.

Slowly, the trainers have moved their training perch closer and closer to the eventual exhibition home, a process that will continue until Magnificent Macaws open later this month.

“They can go wherever they want. They have that free will. But using that positive reinforcement, we know a little more about them and what their goals are,” Poirier said. “Each day is a risk, letting them know, but using that positive reinforcement, we usually can keep them in the zoo. But they do like to explore a certain area sometime. It’s exciting that way.”

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