Although wild birds in the US may be protected under the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA), Endangered Species Act, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, millions of wild birds are still smuggled illegally and traded on the black market to meet the demand for the pet trade, collectors and bird fighting. Parrots and other caged birds represent the largest group of captive wild animals in the United States, and they are the fourth most popular animal kept as pets—after dogs, cats and fish. The impact of the global trade on wild bird populations, particularly parrots, has been devastating. Today, nearly one-third of all parrot species are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss and collection.
In the US before the passage of the WBCA in 1992—which instituted a ban on exotic bird imports into the country, except under strictly regulated circumstances—there were no restrictions on the practice of capturing birds for the pet market. An estimated 800,000 wild-caught birds were imported annually into the US to be sold as pets, and this staggering number did not include the countless birds who died during capture and transport. In 2007, the European Union also banned the import of wild-caught birds because of fears about the transmission of bird flu, incidentally saving millions of wild birds from capture and trade. However, many other countries still allow the trapping, export and/or import of wild-caught birds for the domestic and international market. The global bird trade is driven not only by the popularity of birds as pets, but also by poor regulation and enforcement, as well as poverty in many of the countries where desired species live.
The Rise of Breeding Facilities
While the WBCA effectively curtailed the flow of wild-caught birds into the US 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. 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. Lack of awareness on the part of consumers, coupled with inadequate law enforcement measures to protect captive birds, have allowed low welfare bird breeding facilities to become firmly established.
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, which can override 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 online venues 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 feeding 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.
Myth of “Domesticated” Birds?
Exotic birds are not “domesticated” even when they are bred in captivity. Unlike dogs and cats, parrots retain their wild needs and instincts. 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 60 years and beyond.
Although some bird 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 who are intentionally or accidentally released survive on their own, they can threaten the environment and native wildlife.