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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
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%!
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
- 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.