Life Behind Bars: The Exploitation of Caged Birds

While many people are familiar with the inhumane nature of puppy mills—dog breeding operations where animals are overbred, overcrowded and often poorly cared for—most are unaware of mass-breeding bird facilities. The lack of consumer education, coupled with inadequate law enforcement measures to protect captive birds, has perpetuated their popularity in the pet trade. Parrots and other caged birds represent the largest group of captive wild animals in the U.S., and they are the fourth most popular animal kept as pets in the nation, after dogs, cats and fish.

Birds currently receive no protection under the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is drafting regulations that are expected to include welfare enforcement provisions for birds in breeding facilities and during transport, but they will apply only to birds sold at wholesale. Given the large number of birds in captivity and the inability to accurately track their numbers, it is questionable whether the USDA will have the resources to even enforce these standards, or if this massive additional workload will dilute its ability to enforce the AWA. Since the AWA does not apply to retail pet stores, there is no federal oversight of pet stores or direct-to-customer "bird mills."

Wild-Caught Birds
The trade in parrots and other exotic birds once contributed greatly to the devastation of wild bird populations. Before the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA) in 1992, which instituted a ban on exotic bird imports into the U.S., except under strictly regulated circumstances, there were no restrictions on the practice of capturing birds for the pet market. The U.S. was annually importing an estimated 800,000 wild-caught birds to be sold as pets, and this staggering number did not include the countless birds who died during capture and export. Today, because of groups such as Animal Welfare Institute that led the charge to implement these import restrictions, the number of birds taken from the wild has dramatically decreased.

In 2007, the European Union also banned the import of wild-caught birds because of fears about the transmission of bird flu, indirectly saving millions of wild birds from capture and trade. More recently, Mexico passed a law prohibiting the capture, export and import of 22 Mexican parrot species after it was uncovered that an estimated 70,000 wild parrots and macaws were being captured in Mexico each year. However, many other countries continue to allow the trapping, export and/or import of wild-caught birds for the domestic and international market, and numerous parrot species continue to suffer irrevocable population depletion because of wild captures.

The Rise of Breeding Facilities
While the WBCA effectively stemmed availability of wild-caught birds for the U.S. pet trade, the demand for exotic birds as pets did not diminish. Domestic bird breeders accelerated their operations to meet the continuing demand, with some parrot species garnering thousands of dollars each. These industrialized operations often house hundreds of birds in rows of barren cages, depriving these social and intelligent creatures of enrichment or interaction. Even some hobby breeders are cause for concern, due to their often limited knowledge about birds' needs and their interest in profiting from a sale, overriding considerations for bird welfare. Furthermore, with the convenience of the internet as a means to buy and sell birds, badly managed breeding facilities masked by an online venue can proliferate unchecked.

To increase productivity, breeders sometimes remove eggs or newly hatched birds from their parents, which encourages those parents to produce more offspring. The unweaned hatchlings are hand-reared by humans and, to reduce breeders' costs, are often sold to pet stores, where they are frequently fed by inexperienced staff. Though stores may provide some training for prospective owners on the hand-feeding process, birds can suffer serious injuries, such as crop burns, infections, drowning and starvation, if it is done improperly.

Breeders and pet stores falsely market these hand-reared birds as friendlier and better able to bond with humans as a result of early exposure. However, removing a fledgling from his or her parents is inhumane; in the wild, baby parrots stay with their parents for months. It can also lead to many physical and behavioral problems, such as feather plucking and aggression. California is currently the only state that regulates the sale of unweaned parrots in retail venues, allowing the problem to persist in the other 49 states.

Homeless Parrots
Many consumers purchase parrots when the birds are very young and are often given inadequate information on their care. Consequently, owners are seldom able to provide the considerable time, attention and financial resources that these birds require. Owners may find themselves unwilling or ill-prepared to give lifetime care for a bird who can live up to 60 years. Furthermore, unlike dogs and cats, parrots are not domesticated; they therefore retain their wild needs and instincts. This can pose a problem for both the bird and his or her unwitting owner.

"What people often describe as a 'parrot behavior problem' is actually the result of a bird's natural behavior taking place in an unnatural environment," explains Denise Kelly, president of the Avian Welfare Coalition. "Flying miles a day, loud vocalizations, foraging for food, chewing and destroying wood and trees, and defending territories are perfectly normal bird behaviors in the wild, but unwelcome in the average home. So it's actually a 'people problem,' fueled by people's unrealistic expectations of a parrot's basic nature."

Additionally, though some species are marketed for their ability to speak, the novelty can wear off after purchase, or the bird may not perform as expected and becomes a "nuisance." Unwanted birds suffer neglect, relinquishment to shelters, or in some cases, a short-lived freedom after being released to face unsuitable weather conditions, starvation and predation. Even when birds that are released survive on their own, they can threaten the environment and native wildlife.

Take Action:
Only consumer education and better enforcement provisions will reduce the suffering of captive birds. Please contact the Secretary of Agriculture at the below address and express your concern for the plight of captive birds, encouraging the USDA to publish regulations that will provide the strongest possible protections for birds in the pet trade.
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
Secretary of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250