Parrots and People….A Relationship of Conflict
by Tami Myers and Mary Margison, The Beak Retreat
We have all seen the baby parrots in pet stores. They are so darn adorable — helpless, cuddly creatures who crave our attention. They tug at our heartstrings as they beg for warm foods and snuggle up to us. We have read numerous articles on their intelligence and are in awe of their ability to converse in our languages. We are well-aware of how breathtakingly beautiful they are when they are fully-feathered adults.
But are you aware that the hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars you are spending on this delightful "pet" may likely be a waste of your money? You are only gambling your hard-earned cash in the hopes that your new purchase will retain those cuddly baby attributes.
Parrots are wild animals, even if they were hatched in captivity. Their natural desires to fly and live in conspecific flocks (flocks with other birds of the same species) remain intact. As a wild animal, they do indeed grow up.
A Wild Parrot
A wild parrot is naturally hatched in a quiet dark tree cavity. This parrot chick is almost never alone. A parent and siblings are there in this safe quiet place to feed and nurture each other. As time goes by, this chick grows flight feathers, practices short hops in the cavity with siblings, and eventually learns to leave the nest and fly on his own.
He does not leave his family at a young age — rather the fledgling will live safely with the parents for months or even years, depending on the species.
One day his hormones kick in. He is eating and surviving quite well on his own, and now the time has come to leave the flock and start a new family. And so off he flies.
A Captive Parrot
Parrots bred in captivity are removed from their parents at a very early age. If they are lucky enough to have even met their parents, they are typically taken — or "pulled" — well before weaning. Many times, parrots are taken as eggs before they are hatched and artificially incubated. The chick is then "handfed," a term used by breeders to give the impression of a gentle, nurturing experience. The reality is that baby parrots are rarely fed with loving hands, the babies are fed by a syringe. In large-scale breeding operations, they are often gavage fed (tube fed) with little or no conspecific, or even human, contact.
Instead of the constant warmth and safety of a parent always nearby in the warm dark tree cavity, the captive-bred chick is typically placed in small, brightly-lit plastic enclosures alone. Rather than the reassurance of a parent and siblings, he only receives contact with a warm body briefly when he is fed. When he tries to fly, his wings are clipped to prevent further attempts. Now he is a prey animal who is deprived of the only defense he once had. Since he can no longer fly, his only defense now is his beak. Humans inadvertently teach birds to bite. Shouldn't we expect a prey animal being raised by predators to have impaired behavioral and/or psychological development? And we wonder why captive birds pluck their feathers?
This confused and emotionally deprived chick is then sold to a person who undoubtedly loves this baby bird. This person, who we will name Sally, raises this baby parrot with the best of intentions. In the beginning the relationship thrives.
Time goes by and soon, months or years later, this baby parrot becomes sexually mature. He says to Sally in his own parrot way, "Thanks Mom. I love ya but it's time for me to hit the road and find me a cute little Rosalita." And off he flies.
Only to slam into the cage bars.
Stunned, he attempts this over and over. Surging through his veins is the instinct to leave the nest and reestablish himself in a flock, yet he cannot. Frustrated and angry, he tries to make Sally understand that he needs to leave the nest and screams and bites her. Had Sally taken the time to learn a parrot's natural body language, she would have understood this request. Sally had taught her bird to speak English, but did not have the ability to understand his own language.
The language of a wild parrot involves such subtleties as slight fluffs of the plumage, variation in pitch of vocalization beyond our hearing abilities, tail fanning, various bodily postures or pupil dilation. Humans cannot possibly understand or even notice each of these subtleties and accurately decode them. After months, or even years, of frustration, Sally is at her wit's end and does not see any other option than giving up her precious "baby" bird.
Off he goes to live with Joan, John, or Carmine. The individual doesn't matter — all that matters to him is that he has found a new flock. From the bird's point of view, he has left his parents and has found a mate at last! Woo-hoo! Life is bliss for awhile until the bird becomes frustrated yet again, and the search for a suitable mate continues. So off he flies.
Only to slam into the cage bars.
And the cycle begins again.
This scenario is typical of the vast majority of parrots in captivity. This results in tens of thousands of unwanted, psychologically damaged, and/or physically aggressive parrots. These birds typically end up being "stored" in people's closets, basements, or garages in an effort to deal with the incessant screaming and aggressive behavior that goes along with psychosis from a captive existence. Many of these birds often end up being sold to breeders — perpetuating the problem — by their loving guardians who simple lost their confidence with the bird. Bird breeders jump at the chance to take any free bird with which to make a profit.
Michael Schindlinger, an Ethologist at Harvard University, is quoted from The Fire and The Wings,* a documentary video outlining problems with parrots and the pet trade. He explains how he counsels people with screaming birds:
"Behaviors in an ecological context [are] often the only way to understand, for example, why your parrot is screaming. Let's look at the environment from which this species of parrot has come — turns out, large individual home ranges with long distance communication between neighbors. They're not usually calling to the bird three feet away, they're calling to the bird three hundred yards, or half a mile away…In that context we can see screaming not as inappropriate behavior, but appropriate behavior in the wrong habitat."
Many of these birds suffer for many, many years without ever receiving solace. They are hidden from the public's eyes and slowly degenerate, losing the very characteristics that draw our species to theirs — freedom, dignity, beauty, loyalty, and gracefulness. Their spirits have been broken. The majestic creatures are cursed with an average captive lifespan of fifty to seventy-five years, sometimes longer.
Greg Glendell, one of the world's leading avian behaviorists, has this to say of parrots in captivity:
"That Amazon…that Grey, in the PETsMART store, or the breeders garage, born and raised by some alien mammal whose own legitimacy on this planet is suspect itself, still flies over the rainforests it evolved in 130 million years ago.
Every feather on its body, every last cell in its being has evolved to allow the bird to fly at high speed through a pristine world we have already degraded. A birds dedication to flight is as utter and entire as it is possible to imagine. In the four-and-a-half billion years of this planet's existence, nothing has come close to birds and their flying lifestyle. The shape, the streamlining, the breathing, the air sacs, the massive chest muscles, the nucleated red blood cells, the paper-thin skin, even the air in its very bones and those 170-images-a-second eyes that scan the world at a speed we cannot fathom, these things are that Blue-fronted Amazon, that Grey which sits grimly with mutilated wings in some shopping-trolley sized cage. A thousand years of grim 'domestication' will not take away that bird's dedication to its 130 million years of evolution, just as a thousand years of domestication hasn't stopped one chicken from scratching the Earth if it ever gets the chance to do so before its throat is cut for the KFC bucks it generates."
He goes on to say of caging birds:
"It's all very well saying people should not feel guilty about disabling birds, but does that mean it's OK for us to be guilt-free while the birds have to suffer the unnecessary indignities of deprived motility, or to use another euphemism, if you have fish, they have to have water. Iif you keep horses, they need space and time to run and gallop. If you keep kids, do you prevent them from ever running? Put them in a pushchair for all their lives because it's 'safer for them'? Why do birds, and particularly parrots, always get the worst accommodation in captivity?"
The birds who make it out of the closets often end up at local "humane" shelters. These shelters are already so overburdened with unwanted dogs and cats that they simply don't have the room to accommodate parrots, let alone the staff necessary to care for them properly.
The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) has admitted to euthanizing birds at their facility. Carter Luke, the MSPCA's Vice President for Animal Protection, has this to say of parrots in captivity:
"Over the last ten years, there has really been an explosion in bird ownership. I know a lot of bird rescue groups have cropped up and boy, they're all full! They're really packed tightly. The problem is that people acquire birds without thinking."
The Animal Rescue League of Boston recently requested help in determining which of their birds should be euthanized (i.e., killed) due to behavioral issues, and which should be adopted out. Considering the natural instincts that so strongly drive a bird, combined with the lack of proper early socialization of chicks in production mills, it is not far-fetched to speculate that most birds who wind up in shelter situations will exhibit certain behaviors. Staff will probably consider these behaviors to be aggressive, when in fact they are simply an exhibition of normal tendencies of a wild animal in captivity. The end result for these displaced birds who wind up at these shelters is that they enter the building, but are never even given the chance to become adopted.
The lucky birds finally make it to a no-kill avian rescue facility. It is estimated that there are currently 200 of these shelters nationwide. Many of these organizations demonstrate a strong knowledge of the needs and desires of typical wild parrots and strive to incorporate those needs into a captive situation whenever possible. This includes, but is not limited to: free flight, varied diet including fresh foods, trees and plants that are safe to chew on, and most importantly, social conspecifics with whom they can form a close-knit flock.
Michael Schindlinger urges the public to spend their money more wisely:
"Instead of spending $1,200 and buying a parrot, why don't you spend that money on a plane ticket and have a vacation that you will never forget, spending a week or two with those wild parrots? And the value of that, not only in terms of your own experience and bringing that experience home to share with other people, but the value of showing the local people — who live where the parrots are — that those birds are worth a lot to them economically as wild parrots."
To make a local effect on captive parrot overpopulation, monthly donations to avian rescues are always appreciated as well as time spent volunteering with the birds in these facilities. Another way you can help these misunderstood captive parrots is to simply act with compassion. Marc Johnson, founder and director of Foster Parrots, Ltd., offers the following thoughts:
"Most people who wish to acquire a parrot as a pet do so for all the wrong reasons. People are looking for another possession, a status symbol, a bird that talks, performs tricks, or sings "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Rather, they should be acting out of the humanitarian desire to help a wild animal, one who never asked or chose to be a pet, one who deserves a dignified life, no strings or expectations attached."
Unfortunately for the birds, avian rescue facilities are costly to operate and maintain. Please help your local avian rescue facility and get involved to urge adoption. This problem can only be remedied through a public awareness campaign. And it all begins with you.
* For a copy of the documentary film, The Fire and The Wings, e-mail email@example.com for ordering information.
Copyright © 2004 Tami Myers and Mary Margison, The Beak Retreat
All material Copyright © 2002–2010 Avian Welfare Coalition, unless otherwise noted. Contact us to request reprint permission.
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