Birds are a common and often comforting wildlife sighting, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where visitors and residents alike are frequently awed by bald eagles, annoyed by noisy seagulls or charmed by various native songbirds.
While these native birds contribute to the backdrop of natural life in Western Washington, visitors to Gig Harbor and Fox Island might be surprised to notice a colorful addition to the local population.
Free-flying from the Fox Island home of Kim Rioux and Dave Fremont are four macaws — two scarlet, Ricky and Lucy, and two green, Butch and Kate — who are released daily by the couple to stretch their wings and explore the area.
“The reason we picked macaws is because they meet all the criteria,” Rioux explained. “If you’re going to free-fly a bird, you want them to be large, loud and colorful.”
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The reason for this criteria is both for protection against predators and to easily locate the birds when they’re out and about.
There’s a lot of species differences in their personalities and similarities in the macaws. The green ones think they’re house birds. They’re all really affectionate.
Rioux, a local dentist and owner of Harbor Hill Dentistry, earned her falconry license at age 15 and has spent several years training her parrots to free-fly, raising the two green macaws from babies.
“There’s a lot of species differences in their personalities and similarities in the macaws,” she explained. “The green ones think they’re house birds. They’re all really affectionate.”
Some of the challenges of training the macaws to free-fly come from the birds themselves and others are from the surrounding location. One of the difficulties in training lies in teaching the birds how to descend and decelerate, skills typically taught to baby birds in the wild by their parents.
“They have to learn all these different skills,” Rioux said. “Baby birds crash all the time.”
These skills have to be learned before a certain age, she added, or the birds will outgrow their learning stage and willingness to take a few bumps to learn a new skill.
Rioux has several stories of mishaps while teaching the macaws to fly. Once, a professional tree climber was recruited to rescue a parrot stuck in a tree. Another time a macaw with more experience and confidence in flying was sent to show the way down through the trees to a less experienced macaw.
We live in a predator-dense area. Though, we’re no more predator dense than their natural environment. They’d give a predator a run for their money.
“This is a super advanced location for flying,” Rioux said. “It’s a very, very complex flying environment.”
The complexities for the local environment include the natural cliffs and towering trees around the area, which the birds must learn to navigate. While teaching the basic free-flying descent and deceleration skills, Rioux brought her birds to Utah, a level one flying area that’s easier for the macaws to navigate because it’s very flat.
Another challenge for the macaws are the natural predators present in the Pacific Northwest.
“We live in a predator-dense area,” Rioux said. “Though, we’re no more predator dense than their natural environment. They’d give a predator a run for their money.”
Because of her background in falconry, Rioux has an understanding of how predator birds — such as hawks and eagles — hunt. Over the years she’s had a few close calls with different hawks, though she theorizes that the predator birds are simply messing with her macaws and not actually hunting them.
Local bald eagles have not shown any interest in the parrots — aside from a curious baby eagle who followed a macaw back home one day — but Rioux noted that the macaws are not fans of the eagles, refusing to fly and muttering as the eagles soar fly overhead.
These guys are wild animals. There’s nothing domestic about them.
“If (the macaws) are in a flock they can keep an eye out for predators. Kind of a safety in numbers,” she said. “It’s a balance of being aware of what the predators are what (the macaws) do to keep each other safe.”
Along with the four macaws, Rioux and Fremont have two caiques — a smaller species of parrots — a fostered African grey parrot and 12 songbirds, which Rioux plans to have a flock free-flying in the future.
As the macaws free-fly through the area, one of the other concerns for Rioux and Fremont are curious residents and visitors who might be looking for a closer interaction with the parrots.
“These guys are wild animals,” Rioux said. “There’s nothing domestic about them.”
Fremont added that they ask people to admire the birds from afar and not try to tempt them closer. He also noted that a common, and unfounded, concern is that the birds are lost or have escaped.
“They know where home is,” he said. “We encourage people to leave them be.”