12 January 2024

Beware the jaw of a macaw before acquiring highly prized parrots

| John Thistleton
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Macaw enthusiast John Stephenson.

Macaw enthusiast John Stephenson has spent many years learning from breeders and his own experience about the needs of large birds like his three pet macaws. Photo: John Thistleton.

In the aftermath of Christmas each year, Goulburn pet shop owner John Stephenson sees exotic and native parrots attacked by other birds and killed. Beautiful macaw parrots – originating from South America and highly prized, princess, ringneck and eclectus parrots are all sought-after pets.

Bred in captivity and subsequently bought for presents, or on a whim by someone who thinks these striking parrots would make the ideal companion, they escape into the wild and are taken by currawongs, butcher birds or other meat-eating species.

John has a young macaw called ‘Marshall’ for sale for $5000 but has rejected a previous offer because of the buyer’s inexperience. The birds need attention and care.

“If you have had no experience with birds, or you want to buy a kid a bird, get them a budgie or a finch, something that won’t bite them,” he said. “A budgie will bite, but it’s not that big.”

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He cannot understand why someone would outlay $5000 for a magnificent macaw, and perhaps a few thousand dollars more for a large cage, only to quickly lose interest in the parrot and give it and the cage away.

John grew up with budgies. Only in more recent years has his attention turned to parrots. At one stage he had seven macaws. Aside from Marshall, he has ‘Baby Girl’, ‘Storm’ and ‘Aldo’, which he has owned for several years, taking them on after previous owners either could not or did not want to continue caring for them. He bought Marshall 10 months ago when it was only 12 days old.

“I like to get a bird before it has opened its eyes,” he said. “When it does open its eyes and sees you feeding it, it thinks you are its mother.”

He takes Marshall out of its cage and lies it on its back on the counter of his pet shop, the Dog Spot in Grafton Street, Goulburn. Marshall will lie still enough and allow John to cut its nails.

Mashall, a 10-month-old macaw, lies on its back while playing with John Stephenson.

Marshall, a 10-month-old macaw, lies on its back while playing with John Stephenson, who is happy spending many hours observing, caring for and training his pets. Photo: John Thistleton.

Back on its feet and nibbling a carrot, Marshall stretches its big head over to John’s face when he says, “Give us a kiss.” Opening its beak that is almost as powerful as a dog’s jaw, the macaw gives John a peck on the cheek.

He would love to own a macaw hyacinth, the most sought-after yet rarest of the macaw species, but says they cost about $50,000. “If I had the money I would buy one,” he said.

Three times a week he cuts up a delicious mix of fresh fruit and vegetables for the macaws: broccolini, asparagus, chickpeas, yellow capsicum, cucumber, green apple, pear, snow peas, fruit and carrots. To this he will add several varieties of canned beans.

Acknowledging their exceptional intelligence, John says parrots nonetheless like their routines, and cannot be left on their own. He says they are like a five-year-old child with attention deficit and if let loose in his shop would trash the place in minutes.

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He once used a blue Chux wipe to clean a macaw’s face, then one day after the material had worn out, he tried using a red Chux. The bird would not have a bar of it and he had to get a blue one.

Taking one of his macaws to an avian specialist at Cannon and Ball Vets of Wollongong alerted him to the species’ awareness of their surroundings.

“As soon as I turned off at Mount Keira and entered a rainforest area, the parrot, hatched and incubated in captivity and hand-raised, responded brightly to its new surroundings,” he said. “I was so impressed to see how happy it made it feel in a rainforest area,” John said. “Their understanding of where they belong, it never leaves their DNA.”


Bred in Bungendore and raised in Goulburn, Marshall has grown accustomed to lots of attention while on outings with its owner John Stephenson. Photo: John Thistleton.

He says people should never bring an exotic or native bird from the north to Goulburn during winter. “Buy them in the warmer weather and give them time to adapt to our climate,” he said.

Once a successful baker at Appin, John moved to Goulburn about 20 years ago. His dog-grooming and pet shop business has evolved over the years to a point where birds – Amazon and princess parrots, peach-faced love birds and aviaries with budgerigars and finches – are a prime focus. His large parrots attract curious people.

“I enjoy answering their questions; I convince people they shouldn’t have them for a pet,” he said.

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