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Captive Birds: A Hidden Crisis
Wild at Heart

Whether captive bred or wild caught, exotic birds are not domesticated animals. Domestic animals are animals that have been bred for hundreds of years to live in the care of humans and are distinct from their wild ancestors. Birds commonly kept as pets are no different than their wild relatives -- they are the native species of other countries.

Those who acquire birds as companion animals soon discover that parrots, including lovebirds, budgerigars/budgies (parakeets), and cockatiels, are noisy (vocalizing -- squawking, chirping, talking -- is an important part of any parrot's social communication), messy (birds eat continually throughout the day, dropping and discarding bits of food everywhere), and can be destructive (birds are instinctively programmed to chew and shred wood, whether it is a perch, toy, picture frame, or furniture; birds will also chew electrical cords, paper, and curtains).

While parrots are also sociable and extremely intelligent -- they have been compared to human toddlers in the needs of their emotional and social lives but, unlike children, they never progress beyond the "toddler" level -- confinement in cages can lead to neurotic behavior, excessive screaming, feather plucking, self-mutilation, and other destructive habits. Birds are meant to fly and to be with other birds. Very few people can provide for the special needs of exotic birds or comprehend the seriousness of a commitment for the life span of the birds, which depending on the species can be 20 to 70 years or even more.

Indeed, most of the thousands of birds sold each year by the pet trade go to buyers who do not have accurate expectations about living with a bird. Frustration, disinterest, or concern lead many people to minimize or abandon their responsibility of caring for their birds. Many birds spend their days isolated and confined to their cages. Others bounce from home to home as "owners" tire of them, and some are abandoned at local shelters and bird rescues, or set free to fend for themselves.

Most humane societies do not accept birds. Unlike abandoned cats and dogs, abandoned birds generally do not roam the streets as strays or establish feral colonies. Although unwanted exotic birds is a growing problem, it remains a hidden crisis.

How Many Caged Birds?

A 1998 article appearing in the Journal of the American Veterinarian Medical Association, regarded as the most extensive demographic study of pet birds conducted to that date, estimated the U.S. pet bird population at 35-40 million. While this estimate of "pet" birds is lower than estimates for companion dogs and cats, the population of dogs and cats has remained relatively stable over time while "pet" bird populations have skyrocketed in recent years. According to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), there were 60.8 million cats and 52.1 million dogs in 1990, and 66.15 million cats and 58.2 million dogs in 1996. In 1990, there were 11.6 million "pet" birds and 40 million by 1996 -- an increase of 244.8%!

Captive Breeding

One of the most common assertions made by breeders is that captive breeding is necessary to keep parrots from becoming endangered. Breeding parrots in captivity is not going to save the species in the wild. Most birds are bred outside any official conservation program, and the vast majority of birds bred in captivity are bred for purely commercial purposes. Captive breeding fails to address the leading causes of wild bird population decline -- habitat loss, pollution, and the pet trade. Moreover, captive release programs are nonexistent for most species and are largely unsuccessful in practice.

Breeding contributes to overpopulation since it results in breeding more baby birds for the pet trade. Breeding facilities often resemble nothing more than warehouses of birds for production purposes. Breeder birds are routinely placed with a mate in small cages with nothing more than water, food, and a nest box.

Many breeders and stores will sell unweaned baby birds, claiming that finishing the weaning process by the purchaser will "guarantee" a hand-tame bird. Nothing could be further from the truth. Building a nurturing relationship with a parrot begins when the bird, no matter what his or her age, learns to trust. The reality is that many birds who have not successfully completed weaning may not learn to eat on their own and can actually starve to death. Many baby birds suffer or die from physical injuries such as burned or punctured crops (stomachs) and infections from inexperienced hand-feeders. Unweaned chicks are sold because hand-feeding is labor-intensive; it is far more profitable to sell the chicks quickly despite the risks to the young bird.

Giving Up a Bird

Since finding a qualified caretaker can be difficult and many bird rescues are overburdened with an influx of unwanted birds, people who wish to give up their birds are encouraged to consider other alternatives before making a final decision. An avian behaviorist or specialist, local bird club or avian rescues can be helpful in providing educational materials, advice, and referrals on bird care, housing, diet, behavior, and veterinary services. Sometimes a change in environment, diet or behavior modification can make all the difference in creating a happier living situation for a bird and his or her caretaker.

If the reality is that care can no longer be provided, it is imperative that the bird be placed in a stable, responsible, and loving home. A hasty decision can result in the bird ending up in the wrong hands, or being bounced from home to home, or being neglected, abused or abandoned. If you must find a new home for a bird:

    Do not place an ad in the newspaper or on the Internet. Many unscrupulous people look to buy or adopt free birds so they can turn around and sell them.

    Write an agreement for the adopter to sign. If for any reason they don't live up to their obligation, include a provision that the bird will be returned to you.

    Never place a bird with a breeder or anyone who wants to breed birds.

    Ask for the assistance of an avian adoption service, local bird club, or avian rescue organization.

What You Can Do

    Never buy a bird from a pet store or breeder. If you feel you are qualified and prepared to provide lifetime care for a bird or birds, adopt from a bird rescue group or contact a local bird club or humane society to find a bird in need.

    Don't patronize any store that sells birds or uses them for display. Let them know why you are taking your business elsewhere.

    If you see a bird who is being neglected or abused, report it to your local humane organization or animal control agency; or contact the local law enforcement office or nearest humane agency.

    If you know of someone who has lost interest in their bird and/or is no longer providing good care, give them a copy of this fact sheet and help them to find a suitable home for their bird.

For more information on captive birds and bird rescues see Exotic Birds.


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