Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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A reader, Natasha, asked a question in response to a recent blog entry I made that is probably no doubt on the minds of at least a few others of my readers;

Hi, Please don’t take this badly, I really don’t mean to troll. But I’ve noticed that a few Science bloggers, Jonah, Shelley and you, have parrots. I was wondering where you get them from, what their provenance is? Are they bred in the US? Or are they from the fairly huge amount of wildlife trade? If it is the second, does it make you in the least uncomfortable? Most of you are fairly intelligent left liberal types with I think a fair amount of sensitivity to issue like this, which is why I ask. It’s been bothering me for sometime…


The wild bird trade has received a lot of negative attention (deservedly so!), throughout previous decades. The reason for this attention was because the wild bird trade caused (and still causes) the excruciating deaths of approximately half of all imported wild-caught birds before they reach their first home. These unfortunate wild birds die due to the combined effects of brutal handling, hunger, thirst, overcrowding and stress-caused diseases. Because the United States was a huge “consumer” of wild imported birds, this country was a major source of the problem — until 1993, that is.

In response to increasing pressure from the public and from animal welfare groups (and even from some aviculturists, such as myself), the U.S. Wild Bird Conservation Act was enacted in 1992, and became effective in October 1993. In short, the U.S. Wild Bird Conservation Act prohibits the importation for retail sale of all birds that are on the CITES list (basically all parrot species are on the CITES list). But according to this law, wild exotic birds can still be imported by zoos, for scientific research and for some captive breeding programs, but this requires the birds be quarantined in an approved facility for 30 days, and also a fair amount of paperwork must be in place prior to importation.

Even though a captive breeding program is a lot of work to set up, it is not impossible to accomplish. I was a member of one such captive breeding consortium where a group of yellow-bibbed lories, Lorius chlorocercus, were imported from the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, where they are quite common. To import exotic birds for a domestic breeding program, a scientific census must be conducted (and the birds must be common) and the data, along with the relevant paperwork and governmental permissions, must be submitted to the proper authorities before any birds can be imported — a process that takes years to complete. And even then, only a small number of birds (on the order of dozens) can be humanely captured and imported.

Anyway, despite my small NYC apartment, I still live with some of my beloved yellow-bibbed lories, even to this day. They all are first generation domestically-bred and raised birds.

Even though the United States no longer relies on wild-caught birds to satisfy the cravings of its pet market, other countries, such as Japan, China and even much of Europe, have unfortunately filled the gap, demanding hundreds and thousands of legally and illegally trapped, exported and imported parrots and other birds for their own pet trades. It is my sincere hope that these countries will actively enforce their own prohibitions against the importation of wild-caught birds, and instead, will support and encourage the captive breeding of parrots and other birds that are already popular and established in the pet bird trade.

But despite the many problems associated with the wild bird pet trade, some people justify the importation of wild-caught birds by saying that these unfortunate wild birds would have died due to the accelerating wholesale destruction of the environment to make way for farming, ranching and housing, that these birds are better off living in captivity than dying prematurely or ending up in someone’s soup pot. Indeed, many of these imported wild birds are captured just as their forest home is logged right out from under them, leaving them with nowhere to go — because other birds already occupy the intact portions of the remaining forest, these displaced birds would otherwise end up dying from starvation, thirst or predation. Hopefully, we can someday encourage people in other countries to establish wildlife refuges such as those in the United States where birds and other endemic species can live unmolested.

Given the tragic reality of the current scenario, it seems reasonable to humanely capture and import wild-caught birds (many of which are already rare), whose habitat has been destroyed and sell them to breeders and zoos instead of allowing them to perish. But there are several dilemmas associated with this scenario; first, how to distinguish those birds that are legitimately displaced due to habitat destruction from those that are being poached? Second; will the demand for wild birds further accelerate the destruction of their habitat? Third; how can these birds’ health and welfare be safeguarded as they are captured, imported and quarantined prior to sale? Fourth, given the avicultural world’s notorious desire for secrecy, how can one ensure that these newly imported wild birds will be going into the care of reputable breeding facilities?

In view of the 1993 law, you might have guessed that most people in the United States purchase domestically-bred parrots from pet shops. Those pet shops, in turn, purchase their birds from parrot breeders or they breed the birds themselves, usually off-site. In practice, domestically-bred parrots in the United States are typically removed from the nest when they are between two weeks to one month old and then are hand-fed around the clock by a very devoted human (or two) so they will bond to people as they would to their own parents. Most species of parrots are handfed until they are between six weeks to eight months of age, depending upon the species — a big investment of time and energy! (In situations where the parent birds refuse to incubate their eggs or to feed their young, the eggs are collected and incubated until hatching and the new chicks are hand-fed from the very first day they hatch). Nevertheless, handfeeding is worth the investment: handfed parrots are very affectionate, intelligent and trusting pets — they are far superior pets to the wild-caught birds that experienced the traumas of capture and importation!

Unfortunately, because handfed parrots tend to become tighly bonded to humans, they are not often good avicultural subjects, so some parrot breeders allow their birds to raise a few chicks on their own until fledging so those young parent-raised birds can be put back into the domestic breeding population. Other species of parrots that are handfed can be sufficiently re-socialized to behave as parrots so they will develop into good breeding birds if they are kept in the company of others of their own kind after they wean (this is the method I used to develop my own breeding flock of birds).

Most captive and pet parrots in the United States are the product of parent birds that themselves were domestically bred, and possibly handfed, too. Some aviculturists (bird breeders) have kept and bred flocks of birds for three or four or five generations, or even longer. I bred parrots myself for quite a few years, and kept back some of my birds’ offspring for breeding purposes so that I had three generations of my own birds on the premises. Sadly, I sold my entire flock of birds when I relocated to NYC to accept a postdoctoral research fellowship, studying the evolution of parrots on the islands in the South Pacific Ocean. To say the least, I still miss my birds terribly (I guess there are some things that you just don’t really recover from).

I cannot speak for Shelley or Jonah, but to answer your question, I have gotten all of my parrots from one of two sources; either from my fellow aviculturists or I bred and raised them myself.

Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    November 5, 2007

    I think your response was much too long. All those parrots come from eggs.

  2. #2 Heidi
    November 5, 2007

    Such a good point to raise – also, for such high maintenance pets, there’s a terrible rate of birds ending up in rescue places due to their humans not having fully thought out 70 years of parrot ownership. As for importation, http://www.birdsareforwatching.org has great importation statistics.

  3. #3 Shelley Batts
    November 5, 2007

    My african grey (Pepper) was purchased from a breeder in Florida, and all her birds were captive bred. In fact, she was involved in some academic breeding programs. She was a highly experienced breeder and became involved in a few projects aimed at bolstering the numbers of endagered species of parrots though captive breeding.

  4. #4 Anne-Marie
    November 5, 2007

    Thanks so much for the thorough coverage of this issue! I was always aware to some degree of the problem with trade in wild birds, but it really hit home with me when I read ‘The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill’ recently. I know that most responsible, serious bird owners are also people concerned about the welfare of the species they love so much, I’m glad people like you are working to create ethical sources for pets.

  5. #5 Natasha
    November 5, 2007

    GrrlScientist, thank you so much for that very thorough response. And I am glad to hear that the US has well-enforced legislation to prevent trade-birds. I can also see from your response why you are as attached to you birds as you are.
    Good luck with your new bird!

    Shelley, thanks for your response as well.

  6. #6 Neal Dolphin
    November 8, 2007

    Thank you for your very well thought out post. I am with a Parrot rescue and appreciate people who understand the dilemmas of what to do about parrots in the wild. With 170 of over 350 Psittaciformes either endangered, threatened or extinct, its a hard call whether to grab species and try to preserve them with a domestic breeding program or to leave them alone and hope we can preserve the environment they are in.
    The other delima is the curse of human association.
    Many species have been saved because we humans thought them fit for companions. The species may be preserved, but so many pet animals are routinely neglected or abused in horrifying numbers. Just today I had to pick up two doves and two Tiels who are all suffering from malnutrition and/or lung damage from second hand smoke. The sad part is this person really loved them, and thought she was giving good care.

    So my question is this, is it better to be extinct as a species or be saved by humans and suffer?

    I would hope neither one would be the correct answer, but that seems that is the only options we as humans give.

  7. #7 "GrrlScientist"
    November 8, 2007

    as a zoologist, i think it is absolutely unacceptable to allow a species to go extinct, but as a parrot lover and breeder, i recognize the fact that the public is more likely to protect those species that they have some personal experience with and affinity for. as a result, i think it is essential for people to have parrots as pets in captivity while simultaneously safeguarding parrots living in the wild.

    you, as a parrot rescuer, have seen one side of people’s relationship with their pet birds, while i, as a pet sitter here in manhattan, have seen a completely different side of this relationship. because of that, i don’t think that your two listed options are the only options available. it’s true that people can cause harm to their pets, but there are a lot of people out there who are very knowledgeable about their pet’s health and and are quite capable of ensuring their pet’s welfare.

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