Link #165: Macaws Eat Clay!

Macaw Clay Lick
Image credit: Eric Gropp/CC BY 2.0


Chain of Facts - A Connection of Facts

Link #165: Macaws Eat Clay!

Macaw Clay Lick
Image credit: Eric Gropp/CC BY 2.0

In our last post, we spoke about the brilliant invention of the electric heart sleeve that could one day end up fixing heart problems like rhythm disorders. As innovative and unique the electric heart sleeve is there are things in nature that are equally innovative and unique.

Take for example, the habit of macaws and many other parrot species to eat clay. That’s right. Those beautiful and colourful birds from South America actually eat clay as a regular part of their life? This most probably makes you wonder why they’re doing it.

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Do Macaws Lick Clay To Neutralise Toxins In Their Bodies?

The most common explanation for why macaws lick or eat clay is to neutralise toxins in their body. The story goes that macaws’ diet consists of items that can contain toxic substances. Typical food that macaws have been known to eat is diverse too.

For example, a macaw will be willing to eat stems, flowers, leaves, fruits, nuts, and even seeds. When they eat something with toxic substances inside it, the toxic substance enters their stomach. Many of the items that macaws eat have, over the ages, evolved toxic substances as a form of defence against animals and birds that eat them.

Effectively, the macaws are said to eat clay because it contains chemicals that can combine with the toxins in their stomach to neutralise them. As much sense as this explanation makes, it isn’t entirely true.

Why Do Macaws Eat Clay Then?

Researchers have found evidence that contradicts the explanation that macaws eat clay to neutralise toxins in their stomachs. They found this evidence when they observed them at a location where they’re known to come for clay regularly.

What they found was that macaws had no special preference for sections of clay that contained the substances that neutralised toxins. Instead, they found that macaws tended to prefer those sections that were high in sodium.

Furthermore, the researchers also found macaws eating palm trees but still behaving like they were actually eating clay. Palm trees are also known for being high in sodium.

Sodium is usually not available in regions which are more than hundred kilometres away from the coast. In fact, the further a person moves inland from coastal regions, the lesser the quantity of naturally available sodium.

Moreover, since sodium is crucial to bodily processes, the idea that macaws eat clay to get their required dosage of sodium isn’t all that far fetched. While the reason why macaws eat clay may be their need for sodium, other factors affect this habit too.

What Other Factors Affect Macaws’ Eating Clay?

Blue-and-yellow Macaws at the clay lick
Image credit: Bird Brian/CC BY 2.0

A lot of research has been done to figure out what drives macaws to eat clay. For instance, observers at key clay licking locations have found that climate and season have a distinct bearing on clay licking habits of macaws.

During wet days, the number of macaws at a clay eating site is low. The same is true in seasons when the macaws migrate elsewhere. Similarly, the breeding habits of macaws have also been known to influence their clay eating habits.

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