The macaw parrots are large, lively, and inquisitive birds, which can make them quite a handful for some.
It undoubtedly takes a patient and dedicated handler to bring out the best in these creatures and give them some grace for their wild instincts.
After all, understanding your macaw will foster the most positive relationship with them.
Are macaws easy to train? Macaws are relatively easy to train due to their intelligence and willingness to interact. However, their progress will be dependent on the comfort of their surroundings and the level of trust they have in their caregiver. A patient, consistent approach will often yield the best results with macaws.
At the end of the day, trainers will have the greatest success when they implement techniques that build on – not weaken – the trust their macaws extend them, as bonding with your bird is an essential part of training.
Let’s look into the dos and don’ts of training your macaw, teaching them to talk, and more.
Macaw Training Basics: Guidelines To Follow
While no two birds are exactly alike, the following guidelines provide universal advice for training purposes.
Have Patience & Respect for Your Macaw’s Natural Behavior
Because of the sacrifices your macaw makes by living in captivity, it is immensely conducive to training if owners remember this and work with their nature, not against it.
He won’t chew your furniture if he has chew toys, and he may not feather-pluck or scream if he has a daily chance to spread his wings etc.
Accommodating their wild side as much as possible gives them a greater feeling of control and contentment.
Establish a Simple Behavior-Reward Pattern Before Introducing Complicated Techniques
Macaws have the intelligence to pick up crowd-pleasing tricks and performances, but every show-stopper needs to start somewhere.
So don’t forget the power of simplicity and repetition to help lessons stick.
Rewarding good behavior with food or affection/praise should be trialed and exhausted before throwing other techniques into the mix.
Ensure a Home Environment That Will Help – Not Hinder – Training
Macaws that seem harder to train and generally “difficult” are commonly the result of a poor home environment – a poorly sized cage, limited free-flying time, loud disruptive pets, etc.
These all create an unsuitable atmosphere for learning, so prioritize your macaw’s training as if you were tutoring a paying customer.
Find a place in your home life that is relatively free of distraction and discomfort and schedule a time for training when no interference is expected.
Memo: Training Should Be a Joyful Bonding Opportunity, Not a Dutiful Chore
Remember that you are training your macaw so that you can enjoy a better, more symbiotic relationship with them for many years, not so they obey commands with military precision.
Training should always have a friendly aspect to it.
For this reason, praise should continue long after a specific behavior has been learned because this gives your bird a sense of accomplishment and motivates them to continue.
If Training Them To Talk, Consider How It Will Benefit Your Bird
Talking macaws provide entertainment for owners and guests, but this should be rock bottom in your list of reasons for teaching them to talk.
Speech training should exist to help your macaw expand their arsenal of communication with you, which enriches their daily lives because they feel better understood and less powerless in their captive existence.
How To Train a Macaw
1. Start With the “Step-Up” Command
This is the basic instruction for your macaw to “step up” onto your hand or arm, but for your safety (as macaws can be territorial and nippy at first) you’ll want to begin with a stick as a makeshift perch for them to learn on.
From either inside their cage or while they are on a free-standing perch outside it, begin by gently placing the training stick near them at lower-stomach level and say “Step up”.
If they are fearful, offer a treat beforehand to build positive associations with the stick.
2. Celebrate Small Wins
Repeat the step-up command with stick training and praise your macaw for each small achievement to let them know they’re getting warmer, such as when they place one claw (however hesitantly) on the stick.
After a few sessions, they should be comfortably perched on the stick and you can move them from place to place.
3. Begin the Translation From Stick to Hand
When they are perched inside or outside their cage, gently bring your hand near the perch and continue the “step-up”-praise-treat process.
Parrot care expert and author Dorothy Schwarz recommends trialing one of two hand positions to see what works best: the palm vertical “so your macaw steps onto your forefinger like a branch” or the palm horizontal.
Whichever position you choose, Schwarz urges that your hand always be “directly in front of the bird and higher than the level of the perch.”
To accommodate large macaw claws, she adds “the distance should be wide but no more than a few centimeters.”
4. Repeat Commands Daily and Keep Sessions Short
Keep these initial step-up training sessions short and sweet (no more than 15-20 minutes twice daily) and if you get no response, simply try again later or the following day.
Pleasant and consistent interaction is better than dull, repetitive actions that lead to burnout.
Lifelong parrot owner and CEO/product developer of Bird Supplies Diane Burroughs shares that, “most birds can learn to step up in 1-3 training sessions,” though don’t be discouraged if your macaw takes longer.
Burrough adds: “consider your voice tone, how quickly you deliver treats, or how long each session is.”
5. Keep Calm and Don’t Punish Your Macaw
As your hand or arm replaces the training stick, your macaw may naturally nip or “beak” at your skin, but this should not hurt and is usually only done to help them balance.
It’s imperative that you remain calm and not flinch as this may upset them and cause them to bite in confusion and stress.
If they do bite, responding with verbal or physical anger is a massive no-no as this will only break the trust you’ve been trying to forge for weeks or months.
Your macaw is only responding naturally, and you must be patient.
6. Capture Spontaneous Behaviors & Reward Them
Once you have your macaw stepping on and off your hand with ease, you’ll have gained their trust enough to attempt to teach them other tricks.
One of the easiest ways to start is by using the “capture” technique.
This involves waiting until your macaw performs a desired behavior spontaneously, such as raising their wing or bobbing their head, and praising them immediately afterward.
By using your praise phrase of choice such as “clever boy” followed by a treat or a head scratch, they will begin to associate the action with reward, and this can be a stepping stone for more complicated tricks in future.
How To Train a Macaw To Talk: 5 Steps
1. Talk to Them All Day
Chat to them throughout the day about what you are doing or what they are doing, sing to them, say “Good morning” and “Good night,” and give them as much face-to-face time as possible.
2. Make Use of Additional Sources of Voices
Put the radio or TV on while you cook dinner or while you’re out running errands. Chances are their first word could be part of a song lyric or commercial jingle.
3. Pick a Target Word and Repeat It Often
Stick to one word at a time such as “Hi!” or “Yum!” when feeding them.
You may notice they have a stronger response to some words or vocal cues more than others so focus on that and repeat, repeat!
4. Praise Them for Half-Sounds and Words
Encourage their attempts at forming similar sounds with vocal praise and a treat since echoing just one word of a long phrase is a milestone to celebrate.
5. Consider Using a Clicker To Signal Their Reward
Once your macaw is consistently delivering a word, use a handheld training device known as a clicker to quickly reward their efforts.
This lets them know that praise, head rubs, or a food treat is on the way and reinforces the behavior.
How To Train a Macaw Not To Bite
A positive thing to remember is that biting does not come naturally to macaws but is a learned behavior in captivity.
This can be addressed by knowing the possible causes (you’ll find them here) and practicing the following steps:
- Remain calm and still when bites occur – Fight the urge to flinch or curse as this may anger your macaw and cause them to pick up on your fear, increasing the likelihood of future bites.
- Give a gentle but firm “No!” command – Follow up this vocal reprimand by walking away from them and ignoring them for several minutes to teach them that biting will not get any further attention from you.
- Teach them to step-up in a neutral location – Some macaws view the step-up command as a breach of their territory and may bite to protect their home, so try training away from the cage if this is the case.
- Provide them with plenty of chewing material – Chewing on things provides mental stimulation for your bird, keeps their beak trim, and helps them channel their destructive wild tendencies so make sure they have enough rawhides and chew toys in their cage.
How To Discipline a Macaw
You should never punish your macaw for its in-built response to the challenges faced in captivity.
Instead, avian health specialist and author Patty Jourgensen suggests “deterring unwanted behaviors by using distraction and avoidance” techniques.
Here are a few examples you can put into practice with your macaw.
Macaws are very much “in the moment” birds and will quickly turn their focus to something else if it is in their interest.
The next time your macaw bites or screams, try following up your No! command with a step-up or trick request, and if they comply, reinforce their positive behavior with a click and a treat.
This teaches them the value of collaborating with you and benefiting from it.
If your macaw is headed to an inconvenient spot, such as your kitchen while your cooking dinner or near your kid’s bedroom while they’re trying to study, distract them with aural and visual stimuli.
Jourgensen recommends shredding and wadding paper and dropping your paper ball creation at their feet so they “no longer remember the mischief they were about to get into.”
Don’t leave your favorite shirt or book around for your macaw to tear holes in, and refrain from wearing that shiny watch or other pieces of jewelry if you know your bird can’t help but peck at it.
Training Mistakes To Avoid
Newbie macaw owners will inevitably run into mistakes throughout their well-meaning training attempts, and it may be a case of trial and error for the first few weeks depending on your macaw’s personality.
As above-mentioned, training should not be conflated with punishment, which is why parrot experts strongly discourage the following training methods.
Sending Them to Their Cage for Long “Time-Outs”
In response to ongoing screams and other aggressive behaviors, some macaw owners return the bird to its cage for a “time-out” (often with a covering placed on top to keep them in darkness).
The problem with this technique is the assumption that your macaw lives to spend time outside their cage when they may be acting out because they are hungry or bored and wish to return to their food bowl and toys.
“Time-outs are only effective,” avian behavior consultant Kristi Flemming suggests, “when they are of short duration (a few minutes, maximum) and when birds are given the opportunity to perform more appropriate behaviors to receive reinforcement.”
Longer time-outs risk macaws forgetting why they were shut away in the first place and puts all the emphasis on what NOT to do.
Deterring Bad Behavior With a Spray Bottle
Spray bottles should only be used by parrot owners to occasionally mist their cage, as this imitates their rain forest habitat and soothes their feathers.
But this should NEVER be used as a corrective tool whenever they misbehave.
Spraying your macaw with a forceful spritz of water will not only condition them to build negative associations with bathing – it can increase the very behavior you’re attempting to deter.
Flemming warns that: “parrots are boisterous, out-going creatures and view dramatic responses from us as a wonderful game.”
Adopting methods of distraction (positive reinforcement) and avoidance (briefly ignoring, walking away from the behavior) will be more impactful in the long term.
Can You Train an Old Macaw?
Older macaws can be trained as long as you have established trust with the bird and they are motivated by an incentive.
Co-founder of BirdTricks Jamieleigh Womach reveals that she has trained “85-year-old macaws to be quiet on cue” and taught “trick training to 25-year-old macaws for the first time.”
How Long Does It Take To Bond With a Macaw?
Forming bonds can take 6-8 weeks, though this could be longer with re-homed macaws.
Re-homed birds tend to be more fearful and distrusting in a new environment due to a lack of socialization or poor previous training.
Bonding is difficult with birds that have little experience with being handled.
Owners should expect their macaws to take up to a few months to grasp the training basics and expect even longer for complex tricks and speech to come into effect.
It’s important to note that some macaws may never talk, so it’s wise to focus on your bird’s unique strengths and how this will benefit them.
Rewarding your macaw’s accomplishments and talents (however limited) will make for a healthy, trusting, and contented relationship.