Why Birdkeeping?

Article by Tony Silva

Bird keeping is under attack and some would want aviculture banned. This end would make them feel accomplished; the birds, in their utopian mind, would be saved. They have, after all, stopped the trade in wild birds and they think they are continuing to make a significant impact to save the birds in the wild by attacking aviculture and pet bird keeping and trying to stop both. In their mind, they can sleep at night feeling satisfied that they have saved the planet´s avian species. But is this a realistic view? Can they be sincere with themselves and feel accomplished? I do not believe so. Allow me to explain.

Tropical rainforests once covered 14% of the earth’s land surface. Today such forests cover a mere 6% and experts from various fields estimate that the remaining rainforests could disappear in less than 40 years. The United Nation´s Food and Agriculture Organization, commonly referred to as FAO, notes in their tenth edition of State of the World´s Forests:

Deforestation – the clearing of forests to use the land for other purposes, or to leave it as unused wasteland – is one of the most widespread and important changes that people have made to the surface of the earth. Over a period of 5000 years, the cumulative loss of forest land worldwide is estimated at 1.8 billion hectares – an average net loss of 360 000 hectares per year…. Population growth and the burgeoning demand for food, fibre and fuel have accelerated the pace of forest clearance, and the average annual net loss of forest has reached about 5.2 million hectares in the past ten years.

In Latin America, there was a net loss of 88 million hectares of forest (9 percent of the total forest area) during the 20 years from 1990 to 2010…. The leading cause of deforestation was conversion of forests to grazing and cropland. For the first time in history, the region’s forest area fell to less than 50 percent of the total land area.

In Africa, forests currently cover about 23 percent of the land; African countries reported that 75 million hectares of forest land (10 percent of the total forest area) was converted to other uses between 1990 and 2010.

The situation is the same in every other tropical area.

Lets ask ourselves a key question: Why are forests being cleared? The answer may be simpler than one may think. The trees are converted to wood for construction or used for cooking; in Africa 80% of the energy for cooking comes from wood. Consider that most households cook at least one meal daily and you will understand the significance of this forest loss. The land is also converted to crops, often for export. I have visited vast stretches of land in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Brazil and Sumatra, for example, where African palms were grown to supply a cheap source of fat that is found in about half of the goods consumed in the world: palm oil, olein, palm kernel oil or simply vegetable oil. Look through the pantry in your home or the goods in your refrigerator and you will find a reference to one of these oils. If you do not find enough there, look at cosmetics, lotions and even soap.

The World Wildlife Fund notes thatMany vast monocrop oil palm plantations have displaced tropical forests across Asia, Latin America and West Africa. Around 90% of the world’s oil palm trees are grown on a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia – islands with the most biodiverse tropical forests found on Earth. In these places, there is a direct relationship between the growth of oil palm estates and deforestation.”

So you may argue that you do not buy any goods with palm oil—and this eliminates a vast amount of items on a grocery store shelf and ostensibly your daily diet—and this can be accepted. Do you then use soybean oil or soy protein in one form of another? Let us then examine its impact according to a World Information Transfer report:

Brazil is one of the world’s top producers of soybean crop. In the nine states of the Brazilian Amazon, the area under intensive mechanized agriculture grew by more than 3.6 million hectares from 2001 to 2004. Forces driving the expansion of soybean production include lower transportation cost as a result of improved local infrastructure, higher international demands for soybean prices, and rapid economic growth in China (9% per year), which consumes great quantities of soybean products.

While soybean offers great economic opportunities for Brazil, huge mechanized, soy monocultures destroy tropical ecosystems, accelerate climate change, and cause human rights abuses primarily to produce agrofuel and livestock feed. The soya industry wipes out biodiversity, destroys soil fertility, pollutes freshwater and displaces communities. Soybean production expands the agricultural frontier not only through fire and deforestation to clear ancient rainforests, but more importantly by pushing cattle ranches and displacing forest peoples further into natural rainforest ecosystems. 

If you reject the use of palm or soybean products, then where and how do you think the foodstuffs you consume are grown? They require land (almost invariably once inhabited by some animal species), water and fertilizers. The crops require mechanization for harvesting, processing and then transportation to your grocer. (Imagine the manpower needed to harvest crops if we displaced mechanization and then the vast amounts of fuel needed to transport the workforce to the fields to harvest the crops.) The electricity needed to stay comfortable in your homes, the fuel placed in your vehicle to get to work or buy goods at your local store, or the power needed to read an article on your laptop will all have impacted the habitat of parrots somewhere on this planet. Petroleum extracted in the Ecuadorian or African rainforests, electricity generated by the great hydrodams in the Amazon, or the pollution caused by burning of fossil fuel all impact the habitats occupied by parrots.

So pointing one finger at aviculture is easy, but these people should not ignore the fact that the three other fingers on the hand are pointing back.

Do not take my words as gospel. Research the facts or better yet travel to an area where parrots one existed. Now can you sleep at night feeling that your vocal opposition to keeping birds in cages has saved them? If you are honest with yourself, you will recognize that you are also part of the problem. If you are open minded, you will understand that captivity offers the means for saving many species. (If this were not the case, then why has the fate of the Orange-bellied Parrot in Australia and the Puerto Rican Amazon been reversed by captive breeding, or why is science trying to bring back from extinction the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and other species?)

The most lauded accomplishment for many opposed to aviculture was the cessation of the bird trade. This may have diminished a pressure on some populations—trapping is a secondary pressure at best, with habitat loss being the primary threat—by allowing the birds to remain in their habitat. But that ecosystem everyone across all scientific fields will agree is under attack. Stopping the trade also did not consider the person whose livelihood arose from trapping the birds. In their case, they will continue to trap the birds, selling them in the local market, or they will eat them or kill them to sell the flesh. Visit any market in Africa and you will find bushmeat openly for sale. Look at any esoteric stall in the same market and you will likely see the heads, dried bodies or feathers of many of the parrots that come from the region. The trade is so extensive that Ebola is believed to have transferred to humans through the bushmeat trade.

If we are to be realistic, wild parrot populations cannot be considered secure. Their habitat is under attack and realistic protectionist measures—training the local population to find an alternative means of surviving and also educating them about the potential that sound parrot populations have as ecotourism attractions—have not been in the main implemented. No one bothered to look at or understand how the people that live in contact with the birds will survive. This is why CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) believes that wild populations should be managed and that trade is neither anathema to conservation nor the sole cause of endangerment. The CITES Secretariat voiced this in a communiqué in 1997 after the EU banned the import of wild birds:

A recent analysis by Birdlife International showed that just 0.5% of the world’s bird species appear to be significantly threatened by international trade. Virtually all of these threatened species are subject to stringent controls by CITES. (The main threat to wild birds is habitat destruction and degradation.)

“While CITES itself does impose trade bans on international trade in specimens of highly endangered species such as sea turtles and the tiger, it recognizes that bans risk creating black markets. By ending legal and tightly managed imports, the EU risks driving the market underground and making it less transparent. It also risks undermining the impoverished communities who depend on the environmentally sustainable trade in birds and removing their economic incentives for protecting bird habitat.”

There are clear benefits (apart from conservation) for having viable captive populations. Captive birds play an important role by providing data that would otherwise be impossible to collect in the wild. We know the incubation period, average clutch size, color of natal down and development of chicks of most parrot species from birds reared in captivity. Details such as age of maturity can be used to assess the survival of wild populations. This data is easily gathered in captivity.

Aviculturists (and in this sense I include both the pet keeper and breeder) can use captive birds to raise awareness and to spark an interest in nature. This interest can range from reducing consumption of certain food products, whose production likely occurred on land that was once clothed in rainforest, to ecotourism—the visiting of the wild habitat where parrots occur to observe them, an act that leaves much needed money with the local communities. Ecotourism can work if the locally community benefits directly; hiring guides from a city and not leaving a financial benefit with the local people who are in contact with the parrots will do little to instill a protectionist attitude. Funding field research is another means where captive parrots can prove instrumental. I know of several individuals whose contact with captive parrots sparked on interest in conserving the species in the wild and learning more about their wild biology. These individuals then contributed funds to field research.

We regularly host groups that visit to learn about nature and wildlife. The close contact imparts far more on these individuals than reading something about them. They can handle the birds, ask questions and then photograph themselves with the birds. In almost every case the person leaves with a better understanding and appreciation for the wildlife and the environment.

I constantly hear about the vast amounts of parrots in rescues and that these birds are sufficient argument to stop captive breeding. If we review the species in rescues, most are those that we have scant understanding of their wild biology. This includes cockatoos, particularly males whose hormonally induced aggression has forced some to give up their pets. Noise, dander and an inability to care for the birds are also reasons for the individuals being passed along. Macaws, many of which can be difficult to control as they age, are also commonly rehomed. When one examined the number of parrot species traded (about 270 out of some 350 species) or in aviculture, those in rescues represent but a fragment of those species. This fact can be interpreted several ways: that those species are commonly traded or easily bred or that they are poorly understood and thus prone to problems that result in them being rehomed. I know of no Red-vented Cockatoos, Yellow-billed Amazons, Tanygnayhus parrots or Grey-cheeked Parakeets in rescues, though these species was once traded in impressive numbers. Very few lories are held in rescues, though they were freely traded. The same can be said for many of the Australian parrots, species that were the first parrots to be captive bred in numbers. The Rosellas and Australian broadtails and Australian ringnecks were bred commercially long before the Sun Conure were even imported into aviculture and yet they are scarce in rescues.

My 40 plus years´ experience with parrots suggests that many of the problems seen in unwanted parrots stems from their owners being poorly instructed on proper care, did not understand the undertaking or their household situation has changed. In some cases impulse purchases can be blamed, though how many people are prepared to spend more than $1,000 on an impulse purchase without giving it much thought? Everyone is likely to purchase gum, soda or chips on impulse. This is why stores place these items near the cash register. How many stores do you know place an item worth several hundred dollars near the cash register to spark an impulse purchase? When the expense is significant the buyer tends to take a step back and reflect: can they honestly afford the purchase and do they really need the item under consideration?

When I owned a pet store in the 1980s, we sold birds. I can probably count the number of buyers who decided to buy a parrot on impulse. Most thought about the purchase, visited the bird several times or asked a lot of questions. We never allowed a purchase to proceed unless the buyer understood that the bird was like adopting a child—a child that would never grow old and which could ostensibly have a long life, though often not nearly as long as is claimed. (Stories of the large macaws or cockatoos living a century normally collapse under scrutiny.)

At my store, buyers were instructed on proper handling. We imparted the concept that the bird, like a child, needed to understand parameters. We recommended that the bird not be overwhelmed with a level of attention that could not be sustained long term, encouraged variable play sessions so that the bird would not adapt to a set routine and encouraged teaching the bird to play on its own and time out when the bird misbehaved. Like a child, the bird would be allowed to develop as a family member whose independence was key to success.

We always discouraged allowing the bird to perch on the shoulder or head, where it would see itself as superior to their owners. We always demonstrated how the bird should be held on the hand, with the elbow held near the ribcage; parrots always want to sit on the highest spot—they dislike walking down. We explained about the importance of time out, of avoiding histrionics and of praising good behavior. We discouraged clipping the wings and taught the owners how to tape a few primaries together to reduce the flight ability. We discussed placement of the cage and explained the perils of a kitchen and open windows, and discussed how they should the bird should introduced to other pets if these already existed in the home. Simply placing the bird in a box or carrier and selling it with a cage was not even remotely considered. I wanted that particular customer to be very pleased with their pet and to return to purchase food, toys and other items that long term sustained the store. Many of those customers became friends. Over decades the birds have remained content.

Rescues in my opinion receive birds because the seller did not properly inform the owner of what to expect or took the time to educate the new owner as to proper conduct. This is a shortcoming of the hobby and one that must be addressed. The issue is then the source of the information. The internet is full of self professed experts that have not a modicum of understanding of parrot behavior, training or problem solving. There are exceptional behavioral consultants and trainers that can make parrot ownership enjoyable and rewarding. It is people with experience—and they should prove their experience with references—that should be consulted and not simply someone with superfluous hours to spew information with no sound basis. As an example, I have spoken to individuals who were told to grasp the beak of their macaw and move it from side to side while stating “no” to stop chewing that is part of a teething stage normal is young macaws. In every case the bird felt tormented and turned to striking a hand was brought up to their head. Instead the bird´s chewing should have been reflected to a branch or toy.

The thought that breeders are becoming rich and churning out huge numbers of all species is not a correct analysis of the situation. If we look at Moluccan and the Sulphur-crested (Triton, Medium or Eleonora, Greater, Lesser and Citron-crested) Cockatoos, the level of new, captive bred recruits is on a rapid downward spiral. The same can be said of Yellow-collared Macaws, Yellow-naped Amazons, and a whole array of other species. This is because these birds are not easily bred and the original wild imports have aged. Should breeders stop producing the aforementioned cockatoos because there are many in rescues? I do not believe so, but do feel that the young produced should primarily be used as future breeders and not pets.

Properly housing birds is not cheap. The time needed to daily manage an aviary must be divided between feeding and cleaning, replacing perches and nesting boxes, collecting and offering enrichment, preparing the birds for breeding and then incubating the eggs or rearing the young, and finally record keeping. The routine for a rescue includes many of these elements but also others, including adopting the bird into a proper home and raising fund to operate.

I believe that everyone involved with aviculture in its broad sense should work within a framework that establishes minimum husbandry standards. Several avicultural groups provide these. In Florida licensed breeders are subjected to inspections and ostensibly citations if they fail to provide proper conditions for their birds.

Established standards and education of pet owners is paramount to moving forward. In contrast to what many believe, bird breeding is not on a downward spiral. As aviculturists from Europe, Australia, the USA and Mexico saw during a recent visit to India, the passion for birds is growing. The hobby may be changing. In Europe where birds were acquired less for pets and more for breeding, the interest in having a companion bird is growing. In much of Asia and Latin America breeding and pet ownership is skyrocketing. In the USA the hobby is changing and people are now looking at adopting a bird that had a previous owner.

The evolution of bird keeping is healthy: all facets of life evolve—just look at the size of your current cellphone and television compared to some decades ago for an example. This evolution demands that future owners be well informed and educated across many areas (housing, diet, hygiene, proper care, handling, etc), and that the teacher have the necessary experience. Breeders and rescues should work together to insure that bird ownership is a pleasant experience. Doing so can only result in a more fulfilling life for the birds.