DENISE KELLY FOR BUZZFLASH
December 14th marks the beginning of the 111th Annual Christmas Bird Count, a highlight for the nearly 48 million bird-watchers in the U.S. This is their chance to participate in the world's biggest citizen science project to count, watch, and celebrate our North American birds in their natural habitats. This is clearly, birders' heaven.
The Christmas Bird Count dates back to 1900, when concerned conservationists, including renowned ornithologist Frank Chapman, recognized that over hunting was fueling declines in bird populations. Chapman proposed that the "side hunt," a holiday tradition that rewarded hunters for killing the largest number of birds, be replaced with a Christmas Bird Count to help save them.
But today, what if U.S. bird-watchers encountered groups of men climbing trees with nets in their hands, hunting down and snaring large flocks of North American blue jays or cardinals. What if they witnessed baby Red-Tailed Hawks being robbed from their nests and stuffed into knapsacks? Worst of all, what if they learned that these beautiful creatures were being shipped to foreign countries to be peddled in storefronts and marketed as ‘caged birds’ from America. Surely, they would be outraged. It would be birders' hell.
Yet this scene plays out every day for the birds of South America, Africa, and Indonesia, as countless thousands are hunted down and ripped from their families in the wild, only to suffer at the hands of poachers and animal traffickers for the illegal and legal global trade in parrots and other exotic birds.
A paper by the Worldwatch Institute, Winged Messengers: the Decline of Birds revealed that, “almost a third of the world’s 330 parrot species are threatened with extinction due to pressures from collecting for the pet trade, combined with habitat loss.” Most birds don’t even survive the shock of capture and transport. Experts estimate that 60% of birds die before reaching international destinations. To compensate for mortalities, up to four times as many birds are captured than make it to market.
The question is why aren’t we watching?
It seems we develop a blind spot when it comes to non-native birds. Each year, millions of the birds of other countries, such as parrots, finches, and canaries, are sold as “caged birds” in the U.S.—descendants of birds that were captured from the wild.
There is an irony in the fact that U.S. birders often see the birds of other countries behind bars in exhibits, pet shops, and homes--places where they rarely know the freedoms enjoyed by our native birds.
Keeping a bird as a "pet" requires that he or she be somehow restrained and/or physically disabled. Most captive birds spend their lives confined to cages; they may never experience the companionship of birds of their own kind or the joy of free flight. The practice of clipping wings to prevent them from injury and to keep them under control is common, thereby stopping what 100 million years of evolution prepared them to do---to fly.
If captive birds are prone to captivity-related stress, neurotic behavior, excessive screaming, feather plucking, self-mutilation, and other destructive behaviors, can you blame them?
You can take the bird out of the jungle, but taking the jungle out of the bird is another story. Whether captured in the wild or bred in captivity, parrots and other exotic birds cannot be considered domesticated animals, and all their inherent behaviors (to fly and flock, for example) remain intact.
Despite a desire to own exotic birds, very few people are capable of coping with their special needs. When the novelty of keeping an exotic “pet” wears off, many birds become victims of neglect or abuse; they are isolated to basements, passed from home to home, relinquished to shelters, or simply abandoned. Others end up in breeding facilities that resemble little more than warehouses in which birds are held in barren cages for mass production. There are no legal standards to govern bird production facilities.
While breeding birds for the pet trade adds to their swelling numbers in captivity, it contributes nothing to their dwindling numbers in the wild. The vast majority of captive breeding is done outside of official species survival plans or directed conservation efforts. Parrots may be endangered in their homelands but there's a surplus of them in ours. Exotic bird sanctuaries and animal shelters across the country are filled with the victims of the legal and illegal trade.
Captive birds cannot be returned to the wild, since they do not possess the learned skills necessary to survive; nor can they be set free to fend for themselves. We have an ethical responsibility to provide the best care possible for those already in captivity.
Surely, it's time we break the tradition of regarding parrots and other exotic birds as mere commodities; instead, we must step up legal protections and conservation efforts that will keep them flying in the skies of their native homelands as freely as our own native birds do in theirs. The birds have no one but us to count on.