Captive Breeding of Exotic Birds

by Monica Engebretson

One of the most common assertions made by breeders of exotic birds is that captive breeding is necessary to keep the birds from becoming endangered. In reality, breeding birds in captivity is not going to save species in the wild because most captive breeding is done outside of official conservation plans and because captive breeding fails to address the leading causes of wild bird population decline — habitat loss, pollution, and the pet trade.

Contrary to popular belief, the breeding of exotic birds in captivity can actually have a negative impact on the species in the wild. History has shown that the increased popularity of exotic animals as pets, whether wild caught or captive bred, often leads to a subsequent increase in the illegal trafficking of their wild counterparts within the U.S. and abroad. The reduction in the importation of wild-caught birds for the exotic pet trade is largely attributable to the Endangered Species Act, Lacey Act, and Wild Bird Conservation Act — not captive breeding.

Since most birds are bred outside of official conservation programs, the vast majority are bred for purely commercial or entertainment purposes. The fact that many breeders are interested in breeding and maintaining color mutations (which generally fetch higher prices among bird fanciers) indicates that maintaining the natural integrity of the species is not paramount in their breeding endeavors. The characteristics selected for have nothing to do with the survival needs of the species in the wild and everything to do with personal whim and market demand. Some endangered bird species held and bred in captivity such as Scarlet-chested Parakeets (Neophema splendida) Turquoise Parakeets (Neophema pulchella) have even been removed from the Captive Bred Wildlife (CBW) permitting regulations under the Endangered Species Act because the captive bred populations are not considered to be of any value to survival of the species. This illustrates the concern that captive breeding only serves to change once unique and genetically diverse species into "generic" commodities.

Even if mutations are not specifically selected for, the moment the first generation is produced (F1 generation) a breeder has been involved, to one degree or another, in a process whereby "natural selection" no longer applies, thus the birds are diverging from whatever they were (are) in the wild. Invariably, selection factors begin to shift from factors that enable a bird to survive in the wild to factors that enable a bird to survive in captivity.

Of course it is theoretically possible for aviculturists with rare or endangered birds to contribute to species survival plans. However, in practice it requires that the birds are registered and that the keepers of the birds be willing to move them to other facilities as required. Such an attempt has been made with the critically endangered Spix's Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), which was down to a single wild bird. In theory, there are enough in various private hands to form a "founder group" from which healthy populations might be produced with the goal of introduction, but some people holding one or more of these birds have been simply unwilling to cooperate. Apart from that, it's feared that most captive birds who exist are related to each other. It is now feared that the last wild Spix's Macaw has been poached or has died.

Another problem with using captive animals to replenish wild populations is that mental illness in captive animals is rampant due to deprivation of their natural environment, social structures and outlets for using naturally evolved skills. Such individuals are incapable of surviving in the wild themselves or even raising capable young because for many species there appears to be a strong cultural aspect associated with survival, with information passed from generation to generation. A recent study of wild Yellow-naped Amazon parrots (Amazona auropalliata) in Costa Rica illustrates the importance of behavior learned in the wild. The study revealed that wild Yellow-naped Amazons develop different vocal dialects within different regions and that the birds roosting on the borders of dialect regions are bilingual. Parrots who enter a new area must acquire all of the vocalizations of the new region to successfully integrate into the population. Another example of the importance of parrot "culture" has been demonstrated by the problems with the Thick-billed Parrot release program; the effort has marked by the fact that the released birds seem unable to react appropriately to birds of prey, as all have all been killed by hawks.

Official captive propagation and reintroduction programs are usually undertaken as a last resort at a cost of millions of dollars spread over many decades of effort. Most serious captive breeding of endangered wildlife species, to be successful, must be done away from any direct human contact. Predator avoidance, foraging, and social interaction skills must be acquired, usually at a young age, in order to ensure a good chance of survival in the wild. Captive breeding for conservation purposes involves setting of target populations, definition of genetic and demographic objectives, allocation of habitat and coordination with field conservation projects. Most animals bred in captivity including those bred in zoos are not involved in captive breeding and release programs. The truth is captive breeding can work to protect some species from extinction if done carefully in conjunction with numerous other endeavors related to the task. However, of the vast majority of exotic wildlife including birds kept in captivity probably less than one percent of one percent have anything to do with survival of endangered species.

Copyright © 2001 Monica Engebretson