Visitors to the National Aquarium in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor expect their experience to be fun, immersive and interactive, but some are surprised to find their time at this legendary facility is educational, too. In fact, conservation education is at the very heart of the Aquarium’s mission. The organization strives to ensure that guests learn about the important role that water plays in supporting all life on the planet – and how even little acts of conservation can make a big impact.
More than 400 employees and 800 volunteers serve as the Aquarium’s human ambassadors, but one of the unsung heroes of the Aquarium’s outreach efforts is 28 years old and bright blue. She’s a hyacinth macaw named Margaret, and this clever, colorful bird has been a member of the Aquarium family since February 2006. Today she’s an integral member of the Aquarium’s Animal Programs team, which introduces guests to a variety of animals in a more personal atmosphere.
Hyacinth macaws, the largest type of flying parrot, are an endangered species found in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. Their biggest threats in the wild include habitat destruction and hunting for the pet trade. In fact, Margaret herself came from a private breeder in Florida and is the former beloved pet of a Baltimore resident. While pets don’t often make their way to the Aquarium, when the former owner passed away, it was determined that the Aquarium was best equipped to care for her. To make the transition as easy on her as possible, Aquarium staff spent time with Margaret in her home over the course of about six months before moving her to the Aquarium. Then she settled right in, quickly earning a reputation for being social, intelligent and gentle.
Hyacinth macaws live in groups and tend to be very social creatures. So, at the Aquarium, Margaret thinks of humans as her “flock.” She’s incredibly confident and willing to accept new people, which makes her an ideal member of the Animal Programs group. She’s a regular participant in morning encounters, greeting guests as they enter the Aquarium, often the first animal they see. Margaret enjoys going on walks through the Aquarium and meeting guests, actively soliciting attention. She even shows excited behaviors when guests hold up their cameras or phones to snap her picture, and she has a particular affinity for men—especially those with gray hair and glasses, like that of her former owner.
At the Aquarium, she plays a part in a variety of other education programs, from the Aquarium’s “Grade A Student Night” to homeschool classes. Margaret’s social nature also makes her a favorite with the media. She’s been on several television segments and even traveled to the offices of the National Geographic Society for a TEDx talk and the chance to meet the Society’s explorer-in-residence, Sylvia Earle.
Margaret’s favorite enrichment activity is using her strong beak to shred items made out of cardboard or wood and to crack open a beloved treat, coconut. Her regular diet consists of a pelleted parrot food designed to simulate the foods she’d find in the wild, but she also eats a variety of nuts, seeds, fruits and fresh vegetables. She’s also a fan of grapes, hazelnuts, walnuts and macadamia nuts.
Like many other Aquarium residents, Margaret has been trained to assist with “husbandry behaviors” that allow her to participate in her own veterinary care. She can stand on a scale so the staff gets accurate weights each week (she’s about 2.5 pounds), and she cooperates as the Aquarium team trims her nails, files her beak and clips her wing feathers. She’s also learned more advanced behaviors that can help the Aquarium’s veterinary team if they ever need to listen to her heart and lungs, extract blood or even give her general anesthesia. This incredible training was conducted using positive reinforcement techniques, so it’s less stressful for this very confident and social bird. And maybe we could all learn a little something from that!