Friday, January 31, 2014

Shifting Baseline Syndrome and White Geese

How Questionable Wildlife Management Devours Tax Dollars

In Canada, we have a federal government infamously downloading or cutting off a myriad of valid environmental research programs—inconvenient facts being an impediment to what’s really important to the right-wing ideologues now in power—while ignoring one area of waste that is quite disposable, but oh, ever so convenient if you don’t mind a total, absurdly wasteful sham.

The Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) has come out with its latest “Population Status of Migratory Birds in Canada” and is now vilifying a species that is, I’d guess, unknown to 99 percent plus of federal politicians, or other Canadians. The Ross’s goose is nearly identical to a somewhat better known species (although I suspect still unfamiliar to most Canadians): the snow goose. These are both white geese with black wing tips. The snow goose actually comes in two color patterns, called morphs. A minority are dark brownish-grey with white heads and light blue-grey wing patches, and are known colloquially as “blue geese.” They were once thought to be a separate species. The Ross’s shows this “blue” version only very rarely. Otherwise, the Ross’s resembles the snow but is smaller, with a much shorter, stubbier beak with a kind of blue-grey, warty-looking patch around the nostrils. Even the geese can get confused and hybrids occur.

The snow geese are also divided into “lesser snow geese” which breed in the central to western Arctic, and the wee bit larger “greater snow geese” of the eastern Arctic. The tendency is to “lump” them all as “white geese” for the sake of “management.”

The snow goose was already thoroughly vilified by employment of something called the “shifting baseline syndrome.” That phrase was coined by fishery biologist Daniel Pauly, who used it in 1995 in reference to fish management (another tax-funded wildlife management disaster; remember the northern cod?) but applicable to a wide range of wildlife management policies. “Essentially,” Pauly wrote, “this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes.”

Around the same time, I said the same thing, only about waterfowl biologists with regard to snow geese. A tight group of (mostly) men raised shrill alarm that the white goose population had increased startlingly—there being so many that they were damaging the environment by pulling out plants by the roots, thus altering salt levels in the soil of coastal areas, to the detriment of numerous other Arctic and subarctic species. The northern ecosystem was, they said, “in peril.”

In 1998, I visited the primary research site, near Churchill, Manitoba, in company with Dr. Vernon Thomas, Department of Zoology at the University of Guelph. True, there were mud-flats where geese had eaten the vegetation, but the subarctic ecosystem seemed in no way imperiled, and the desert-like conditions suggested by the lurid prose were restricted and rarely bigger than, say, a football field. We viewed the area from the air, and then landed, and on the ground found rhizomes under even the most barren patches of soil criss-crossed with goose footprints. The region is under something called “isostatic rebound,” whereby the ground is not-so-slowly rising, adding more land as Hudson Bay retreats, in a state of continued, natural change.

I found that the original 1997 report, used to justify a massive increase in hunters’ ability to kill large numbers of “lesser” snow geese, contained a glaring error by giving an incorrect publication date for a life history study that clearly showed something that was being ignored by these waterfowl “biologists,” as surely as the fishery biologists referenced by Dr. Pauly ignored historical data about the size of fisheries (with disastrous results).

There is nothing “scientific” about ignoring data that don’t fit your theory, and this cluster of waterfowl managers wanted us all to believe that the Arctic ecosystem was in peril, only to be relieved by culling (or “harvesting”) vastly more snow geese. Goose numbers were presented as being higher than ever. Classically displaying the avian version of the shifting base syndrome, they had assumed that the conditions they had seen on their first visits to the north as young men, when the white geese were at or close to all-time lowest numbers, were the “norm;” thus, the changes they had seen as white goose numbers increased were seen as abnormal. And, as has been said of a suite of other species, the change was attributed to anthropogenic (human-caused) changes—in this case, the planting of crops that provided wintering geese in the southern U.S. more food than they had ever had before. It was called an “agricultural subsidy.” So, how much food did geese have before, say, the industrial revolution? No one even asked.

This differs from the fisheries’ version of shifting base syndrome only because so many fish species never got a chance to recover, while the snow geese did. But, in both circumstances, management decisions are based on faulty estimates of what “should” be there based on the historic record—and would be, had they been left alone.

I know this is all sort of technical, thus boring, which is why it’s so easy to waste Canadian tax money… But stay with me on this, because it is also not very hard to understand.

If these “biologists,” on government payrolls and/or various government grants or funding from NGOs in the business of supporting the entire sham, flying about the Arctic and subarctic garnering “data” to prove their point, were right, then surely early records would show low numbers of white geese. The exact opposite was true.

Most of the killing off of snow geese occurred before there was much effort or ability to count them, and long before aerial photography and other technologies for producing accurate estimates were available. But, read this quote from pioneering ornithologist Herbert W. Brandt, describing an experience in Texas, where, on March 23, 1919, he and his companions visited a marsh on the plains. “As we approached it looked as if it was covered with snow, but it proved to be thousands upon thousands of snow geese and other wild geese. Here is their winter home, coming into the great pastures at night to feed on the abundant grass. Last year for the first time known a couple of large flocks remained the entire summer.” Indeed, like small numbers of other such first-hand accounts that survive from that era, it suggests abundance comparable to, and possibly greater than, what we experience today. Brandt continues that the owner of the ranch “told us that the geese we saw were just a few left from the great winter flocks, most of them having now departed for the northland. He has seen 500 acres of solid geese, he said, just one snow bank…”

There are other such accounts, even photographs, all dutifully ignored or dismissed as “anecdotal” by the CWS. It’s important, because assuming that the various accounts were right, huge numbers of snow geese have naturally occurred before, and left no permanent damage. Indeed, in a private moment at a waterfowl conference in Memphis some years ago, a CWS waterfowl manager said to me, “Barry, it will take a good fifty years for some of that vegetation to recover.” I just looked at him. He blinked, and then said, “But that’s your point, isn’t it?”


Politicians would far, far rather scapegoat wild animals than address serious and real environmental threats. I mean, yes, the Arctic is in peril, but from a wide range of anthropogenic forces culminating in rising temperatures on average—not from a native species who has been there since the retreat of the glaciers.

Which brings us back to Ross’s geese. When I was a young child in the 1950s, it was, to me, a mystery bird: a small version of the snow geese, whose nest had not been discovered until 1938. In one of my childhood reference books, it stated, “They winter entirely in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys of California, where they are known to gunners by the name ‘China geese’ and now enjoy absolute protection under the game laws.”

No longer. They made the mistake of trying to recover to former numbers. Those stubby little beaks of theirs are now implicated in the increased “peril” we are supposed to believe the Arctic endures at the hands, or beaks, of the white geese—even the little, once endangered Ross’s goose. The CWS has issued its “notice of intent” to designate these small geese as “overabundant.” Well… They were rare back when I was ten years old, and now they aren’t… Wow… Maybe their current numbers are unprecedented.

Well, no, not according to the always easy-to-ignore historic record. It is a fragmented record because, apart from a handful of ornithologists, no one in the 19th and early 20th centuries could identify them as anything other than, at most, puny snow geese. And yet, a knowledgeable chronicler wrote in 1928, shortly before the bird became endangered, that on its wintering ground in central California, it was “often quite common. It seems to be tamer than other species of geese which visit that region; hence many are shot for the market…” Remember, we are talking about an era that saw the elimination “for the market” or otherwise, of vast herds of bison; the extinction of our most common bird, the passenger pigeon; the elimination of huge flocks of Eskimo curlews, now extinct; the elimination of our only native parrot, the Carolina parakeet; the extinction of our only flightless birds, the spectacled cormorant and the great auk; the extinction of the Labrador duck; the extinction of the Atlantic gray whale; the extinction of the heath hen; and on and on… It was an era of mass wildlife destruction, and a small white goose who came from a place where few or no humans lived—and we thus had not learned to fear them—wouldn’t have had a chance.

Based on what happened with the snow geese when they were designated as “over abundant,” what will be wanted when the designation is given (and it will be) is absurdly extended bag limits, use of recorded calls and baits, a spring hunting season, and anything else that replaces the concept of “fair chase” or “sport” with permission to slaughter. There is the added advantage that hunters who enjoy this sort of thing (and I emphasize that many don’t) will be able to bang away at any white birds with black wing tips (hoping they exclude whooping cranes and white pelicans) without the nuisance of having to tell the Ross’s goose from the snow goose. They will be able to kill large numbers of them using bait and electronic calls, all with federal blessings.

At the time this all began, we predicted it wouldn’t work. First, there was no way hunters would or could slaughter enough snow geese to reduce their continental population to a number satisfactory to the wildlife managers: a number where their feeding showed virtually no “impact” on vegetation. In fact, many hunters were quite disgusted with the idea, and with the inevitable waste of meat if one meets the bag limits. Snow geese are not generally tasty, and we taxpayers unwittingly funded a government cook book on how to make them more palatable. A guy who shoots twenty a day is hardly going to eat all twenty! Also, Arctic wildlife populations typically display “boom-bust” increases followed by population crashes; think lemmings, for example, and the predators who eat them. But, by knocking the top off the growth curve, one assures that the “bust” part does not happen… They don’t peak, there is no subsequent crash, and numbers stay high.

Two decades later, we have been proven to be right. As the CWS puts it, “Despite recent efforts to reduce the numbers of mid-continent Lesser Snow Geese, the population continues to grow.” But, paradoxically, that’s good news for wildlife biologists whose ineptitudes are so seldom challenged; their work, their grants, are assured into the future.

And, even if a government infamous for cutting funding to work that raises alarms about the environment figures it all out – which is highly unlikely – well, they will happily keep signing the cheques so they can say they are funding conservation. I mean, hey; you could address, say, climate change, but that might mean limiting, say, the Alberta oil sands, or proposed pipelines, or Arctic resource exploration… So, you can see the dilemma. It’s easier to kill geese.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA

Originally published

Monday, January 13, 2014

Wildlife (Mis)Management Myths Prevail

This Too Shall Pass (Or Will It?): What Animal Advocates Should Know!

One of my favorite lines from the Bible does not, according to those who actually read the Bible, occur in it. The line is “This too shall pass,” and, Biblical or not, I have often thought about it, and the concept has given me strength. But three recent events (and many others like them) challenge the notion.

First, a reporter for an Ohio newspaper called me to discuss cormorants. Fine; since I saw my first double-crested cormorant in 1958, I have been intensely fascinated by, and defensive of, this most maligned and misunderstood species, and learned all I could about it. But…he had talked to a wildlife management “expert marksman” who had shot many cormorants during culls at Lake Erie, and as “a scientist,” his word meant so much more than mine. As well, the reporter could not get his head around the fact that our “duty” to “control” nature is neither a given nor necessarily effective—the view being that, since nothing much is natural, we should be out there deciding on behalf of nature who should live, who should die, and what the environment should really look like. I’ve heard it all before.

And then there was the decision, referred to in my last blog, to reinstall, albeit on a limited “test” basis, the spring bear hunt here in Ontario to reduce the number of complaints. But I had just read, among other such documents, a New Jersey study that clearly showed two things: as the number of bears “harvested” increases, so do complaints about bears, AND, non-lethal bear management has the opposite effect (sometimes dramatically so). Ontario data show the same thing, but facts don’t matter… As I said in my blog, our provincial prime minister, Kathleen Wynne, is embracing cruelty to bear cubs in the interest of earning votes. I suspect that the number of spring bear hunt proponents who have read the same studies and reports that I have read hovers around zero.

And then there was yet another hideously patronizing article, this one in The New York Times, telling us that we may not like it, but look, folks: since we’ve removed deer predators, deer numbers have to be controlled. They don’t mention how much more “game” we kill (or, in their language, “harvest”) than the predators we supposedly replace. Oh, we who don’t like it no doubt mean well, but we are just na├»ve Bambi-lovers who are unable to appreciate cold facts.

I've heard all of this so many times, regarding so many species, with but minor variations.

Here is some information for the animals' side to think about. But before I go on, one thing I strongly, strongly, strongly urge of everyone fighting to protect wildlife: challenge EVERY single premise. Take nothing as factual without first doing your own deep research. NEVER, please, mistake wildlife managers for scientists, or wildlife management for science. Be clear, concise, and factual. We have truth on our side, which is a good foundation to build upon.

The basic idea driving this continent-wide trend toward culling, again with allowances for regional- or species-specific variations, goes something like this:

Humanity has eliminated the "controls," such as predators, that in pre-Columbian (hereafter "primal") North America, kept the species "in check."

Humanity has enhanced carrying capacity (the amount of food available to the species in question) of the environment beyond what existed in primal times, thus leading to a population "explosion" that is "out of control," or has led to "hyper-abundance."

Because of the first two situations, the people who support culling blame the species in question for harming “the environment” (forgetting that those species ARE the environment, or part of it), impacting agriculture, and putting human safety at risk. Culling “controls” the population, restoring a balance toward normalcy – a concept that is either not defined, vaguely defined, or given a very specific number (there should be "X" number of deer [or whatever species is targeted] per hectare, based on what the habitat can withstand).

In reality, though "X," when identified at all, is the number (derived through computer models whose accuracy depends on the amount and quality of data entered) at or below which complaints to politicians cease to be made. We often hear dire predictions, like those of deer starving—and yet starvation in deer is largely a function of snow conditions, and happens in populations whether hunted or not. If you look at the deer targeted, you’ll see that they are typically healthy. We begin to understand that wildlife management is driven by politics, not science.

For some species, such as wolves or cormorants, "X" is often very close to zero. Literally, it can be a number that renders the species in question threatened or endangered, if not extirpated or even extinct, but of course that won't be admitted... It will always be a figure above zero, at least for native species.

There are other factors in play:

Lethal culling, as opposed to non-lethal conflict resolution and thoughtful, compassion-based management, has a huge psychological appeal. Not everyone has the same values or thinks the same way, and a percentage of the population has no, or very selective, empathy toward other species (or other humans, for that matter), and to them, "punishment" is important—and killing appeals to their need to demonstrate dominance and control. It is not necessarily that they are looking for an excuse to kill, but rather, killing fulfills an atavistic need to dominate and to punish: a characteristic that I believe was selected for through evolution, but is no longer valid. We have “won.” The world of other species is shriveling in the wake of our technologically driven power.

It is also true that the majority of people NOT bothered by the presence of an animal species tend to keep quiet about it. How often do you write to your elected representative to say something like, "Hey, I just saw a cardinal at my feeder, a chipmunk in the garden, and a cottontail in the front yard, and I want you to know that I enjoyed them very much and am very glad that they are there?" I mean, why would you? Decision and policy makers almost exclusively hear from the whiners and complainers.

Another factor is fear. I am currently dealing with communities in British Columbia where the "bogeyman" is the Mule Deer (not the White-tailed Deer, which also occurs there, but is far less likely to hang around people than are Mule Deer... but no matter...they've killed them, too). The fear is based on a few actions by defensive deer – most notoriously a doe whose fawn was beset by a cat, a group of human bystanders, and finally a distant dog, which was the final straw for her, and she attacked the poor dog. From that, the concern has become that a child will be seriously hurt or killed.

There have been countless thousands, tens of thousands, of interactions between children and deer... millions, if we count kids in petting zoos featuring deer... including Mule Deer... and, so far, the number of such incidents appears to stand at... zero. It does not matter; ignorance rules.

Zoonotic disease is always a popular bogeyman with wildlife managers. No matter that studies show that the presence of White-tailed Deer in the east may LOWER the probability of transmission of Lyme Disease to people and pets (that's right... the opposite of what you are told by wildlife managers); the fear is enough to warrant the killing. It is a well-known fact that people tend to be very poor at risk-assessment, and so it is easy to convince them to be disproportionately afraid... or to take unnecessary risks, for that matter... or to fear economic damage, ecological damage, or whatever. It is not that all such concerns are totally invalid; it is just that they must never be assumed to be valid, or as valid as presented.

Remember, too, that hunting is generally in decline. Wildlife managers are fighting to promote lethal animal control, especially in the United States, where special taxes on guns and ammo go toward paying for wildlife managers.

It is increasingly understood that hunting just for "sport" is no longer as socially acceptable as it once was; thus, a social need has to be served, and scapegoating animals fulfills this need. This is less true in Canada, where culling is more likely to be done at government expense, but there are exceptions—like the newly reinstated spring bear hunt in Ontario, as purely a political move as anything I've ever seen. The government had a good "Bear Smart" programme, but simply didn't want to fund it.

Regarding deer, the idea that they are more common now than in primal times (not that it should matter; we can never return to primal conditions) is based on outdated assumptions about the primal population size of first nations people. It is now understood that there were far more people here than was originally assumed, and thus, if you extrapolate from the newer figure, it means far more deer.

The elimination of deer predators such as wolves and eastern cougars is factual, but how do we measure that against the impact of the human predator, the enhanced mortality from automobiles, fence entanglements, hunting and poaching, the eastern range expansion of coyotes (evolving within our lifetimes into a larger subspecies to better fill the ecological niche left vacant by the elimination of the wolf), and various other anthropogenic impacts such as pollution or climate change? Certainly, what we can glean from earliest accounts suggests that there could well have been far more deer in primal North America, although such accounts are scarce, and many historical records that are presented as reflecting primal conditions do not do so, given the incredible rapidity with which disease reduced first nations citizens immediately after European contact.

Similarly, the enhanced carrying capacity from what is sometimes called the "agricultural subsidy" (there is far more nutriment per acre in, say, a corn field than in a primal forest) does not take into account the other factor that determines carrying capacity: shelter. Vast acreage of a high-nutriment crop does little good without places for the deer to hang out, breed, and gather for winter.

But also be sure to challenge the impact deer or other bogeymen species make to a community, the ways in which those impacts can be resolved, and the cost-effectiveness of such resolutions. Physical removal of deer stimulates compensatory morality: a rebound effect whereby, with less competition for resources, more deer are born and more deer survive... ideal for ammunition and trap manufacturers and the employment of wildlife managers, because the "problems" are never resolved.

That’s the way the wildlife managers and supportive industries like it to be. We don’t have to.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Lies Parrot Keepers Tell

The Timneh Parrot

Ironic. A couple of weeks ago – mid-December – I had decided to do a National Bird Day blog about the Timneh Parrot. You won’t see the blog I nearly completed because, as I was finishing it, I took a brief break to check my e-mails—and in one, there was a link to an online article by Scott Malone entitled “U.S. parrot rescuers struggle to keep up with unwanted birds.” As anyone who has seen the wonderful new film, Parrot Confidential, is well aware, most parrots are extremely ill-suited to be “pets” or “companion animals,” and a huge number are doomed to lifelong imprisonment under cruel conditions. Sanctuaries, as the title of Malone’s article said, can’t keep up with the demand for suitable homes for these birds—especially the largest and noisiest of them, who become unwanted once the novelty of owning them wears out.

In classic journalistic tradition, after quoting the owner of a “wild bird rescue facility” clearly fed up with owners “no longer able or willing to keep their pets,” Malone quoted an apologist for keeping parrots, one Al Decouteau, chairman of the 4,000 member Society of Parrot Breeders and Exhibitors (SPBE), saying, “Of the 350 breeds of parrots, about 12 have become extinct in the wild, but because there are breeders, those breeds have lived on.”

The problem is, that’s simply not true. First of all, the term “breed” refers to a domesticated form of a species that has been, through careful breeding of individuals showing desired mutations over many generations, turned into something that did not ever naturally occur. A breed is not a species. Poodles, pugs, and great Danes are all breeds, but belong to a single species: the dog. Those breeds didn’t evolve naturally in the wild. You could “release” all of the collies, retrievers, and boxers you wanted; it would not lead to there being wolves, the original species.

Decouteau, a veterinarian, presumably meant “species.” There is one species of parrot, the ill-fated Spix’s Macaw, that is currently only known as a captive bird—but what pushed it to the edge of extinction was the demand by the exotic pet industry for parrots. Owners were so zealous about having one of these rarities that it was difficult, if not impossible, to get them to cooperate in an effectively managed captive breeding and release program. The last known wild bird had to be protected from parrot collectors, yet “mysteriously” disappeared.

There have been some international efforts to captive breed and release some endangered parrot species, but they don’t involve pet birds. Conservation successes are disappointingly difficult to achieve. An effort to restore one of the only two parrots native to the U.S., the thick-billed parrot, failed because birds lacked the benefit of teaching from wild parents, and were thus easy prey for predators. (The other species, the Carolina parakeet, is extinct…and yes, they were kept in cages until, sometime early in the 20th century, none were left to cage. SPBE incongruously uses a drawing of one in its online logo.)

Captive breeding, centrally managed to maximize genetic diversity, with very carefully-timed release done “in situ” (within the bird’s native habitat), can enhance a suite of conservation efforts – things like provision of nest-boxes and habitat protection – for some parrot (or other) species, such as the Mauritius parakeet and the Puerto Rican parrot. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the exotic pet trade, which vies with habitat loss as the most significant contributor to the endangerment of parrot species.

But, as I said, I was writing about the Timneh parrot. I had originally thought to make the interesting point that this distinctive African parrot, though well known, had been considered a subspecies, or race, of the more widely distributed and better known African gray parrot. I knew that would require an explanation of how species evolve and how the term “species” is defined. Put very simply, subspecies are forms distinct in some, often very minor, ways from others of their kind, with said distinctions not being enough to prevent them from freely interbreeding where their populations abut, or overlap, and produce viable offspring. For example, adult male American robins who live in Labrador and Newfoundland have black backs and heads, while those living in Michigan or Ohio have black heads and gray backs, and those living where I do in Ontario are in between, but closer to the Michigan birds, while the further east you go, the darker, on average, the backs become. Those are “subspecific” differences. The Newfoundland and Michigan populations belong to two separate subspecies of the same species—the American robin—and most folks would notice no difference between them.

The Timneh parrot is found only in the forests of countries on the African gulf coast – Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, southern Mali, and the Ivory Coast. They are slightly darker than the African gray parrot, with a dark maroon, not red, colored tail, and a light yellowish or pale horn-colored patch on the upper beak, while the beak of the adult African gray is entirely black. The populations of the two species do not overlap.

According to BirdLife International, the Timneh parrot is “vulnerable” to extinction because “population declines have been noted across the range. In all of these declines, trapping for the wild bird trade has been implicated” along with habitat destruction, although the species can use second-growth forest, cultivated areas, and even gardens. But, “during 1994 – 2003, over 359,000 wild caught African gray and Timneh parrots were reportedly exported from the range states.” For both species, the numbers taken from the wild are not sustainable, despite the fact that both are also bred in captivity.

Here is what SPBE (and other folks who see nothing wrong with keeping parrots) fail to mention. Breeding is not the issue. The African gray, Timneh, and all other vulnerable, rare, or endangered parrots actually do know how to breed. They’ve been doing it without our help for millions of years. What they need protection from is the actions that are driving them to extinction: the wild bird trade and habitat destruction. Keeping a pet parrot does not address those problems. Neither does SPBE, the exotic pet trade, or supportive industries making all the paraphernalia, from cages to cuttlefish-holders, that produce profits. None of it addresses the root causes of so many declines in so many species of parrots.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

Monday, January 6, 2014

National Bird Day 2014: Cockamamie, Contrarian Cockatoos

Why You Really Do NOT Want to Have this Group of Parrots for "Pets"

In celebration of National Bird Day 2014, Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiast, is writing a special six-part blog series in December and January where he will describe some of his favorite avian species.

Scientists are a bit at odds: do the 21 species of birds collectively known as “cockatoos” belong in their own family, or are they members of the same family as other parrots?

Answer: it doesn’t matter to anyone but those scientists. To the rest of us, they’re all parrots.

The parrot family has a world-wide distribution concentrated in warm climates. The cockatoos are pretty well restricted to the Australasian region. All have at least some degree of crests and many are mostly white. However, there are six species that are mostly black, one that is dark gray with a red head, one that is mostly pink and gray, and the smallest, the Cockatiel, is predominately gray but with a yellow head and orange-red ear patch and white wing patches.

Because they are loud, conspicuous birds, most cockatoo species tend to be well known to various communities within their range, and many species have a variety of English, or “common,” names. For example, the Pink Cockatoo is also called the Leadbeater’s Cockatoo and the Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo. The Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, or some of its subspecies, are also known as the Yellow-crested Cockatoo, the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, the Timor Cockatoo, and the Citron-crested Cockatoo.

Many have quite limited ranges, restricted to certain islands or island archipelagos. About eleven species naturally occur in the wild only in Australia, with a couple of others found only in Australia and some nearby islands. Some are abundant in the wild, but others are endangered (some critically so). One subspecies of the Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, the so-called “Abbott’s Cockatoo,” found only on Masalembu Islands in the South Java Sea, was rediscovered after being thought to be extinct, and has been called the world’s rarest bird (a claim unfortunately made for several other bird species). A few cockatoo species do breed fairly well in captivity and have self-sustaining captive populations. Arguably the most dissimilar of the group, the Cockatiel, is probably the only one reasonably well suited as a companion animal, and has been essentially domesticated. It now comes in a variety of odd colors and patterns, although I think the wild type is the prettiest of all.

Cockatoos are not only beautiful; as birds go, they are very intelligent, and they tend to appeal to us by virtue of their hand-like use of their feet (a trait they have in common with other parrots, but which is exceptionally well-developed among the larger parrot species, including cockatoos). At least one cockatoo, the Palm Cockatoo (also known as the Cape York Cockatoo, Great Palm Cockatoo, Black Palm Cockatoo, Black Macaw, Great Black Cockatoo, and the Goliath Cockatoo), has been filmed “tool using;” it can take a sturdy stick and beat it against a log, like a primitive form of drumming.

Cockatoos are, by any reasonable definition, intelligent. That makes them inquisitive, restless, and intellectually engaged in their surroundings. They are quite emotional. They naturally occupy huge regions where there are uncountable interactions with a vast multitude of physical complexities. Captivity provides none of that. And so captive cockatoos are easily bored, and when bored, they can literally become psychotic and indulge in unfortunate, often self-destructive, stereotypic behavior. Most notorious is so-called “feather plucking,” a serious form of self-mutilation whereby the birds pull out all the contour (body) feathers within reach. Once this horrific behavior starts, it is extremely difficult, if not almost impossible, to cure. It can lead to bleeding, hypothermia, and infection, and is sadly unsightly.

Cockatoos form strong bonds, and these can cause problems with captive birds when they bond with one human, and become jealous or resentful of others, to the point of biting other people. And, a cockatoo bite is quite powerful and can cause a very serious injury and permanent scarring.

And then there is the noise: loud screeches that developed over millions of years to allow the birds to communicate long distances across mountain valleys and through jungle forest canopies, or over vast desert landscapes. They grate on human nervous systems and exceed safe decibel levels to the point of putting human hearing at risk.

They are also destructive. It is in their nature to chew, and so the well-intentioned cockatoo owner who allows a bird some freedom of the house may incur expensive repair or replacement bills to doors, molding and sills, books, and furniture.

And finally, since captivity is not healthy for them, if they are to be humanely treated, they may generate costly veterinarian bills.

There is a certain irony here. Many owners, thousands of them across the country, finally become fed up each year—or, perhaps the birds, being long-lived, outlast their owners, and it is assumed that the now unwanted birds will easily find a new home. They are valuable, aren’t they? In fact, as a general rule, so many people get rid of them that zoos are soon filled to capacity and will take no more. Sanctuaries and refuges are never guaranteed to be available, and even if they are, they are usually filled to capacity, or beyond, having reached that unfortunate state where they have so many birds that they can no longer provide adequate care for each one.

Sadly, huge numbers of these birds spend years, even decades, huddled in steel cages or chained to perches, unfortunately deprived of the rich stimuli their minds crave, until death finally releases them from miserable existence.

They may look ever so cool when seen in movies or on TV shows, or in properly equipped zoos—but after the initial novelty of having a pet cockatoo is replaced by the frustrations they generate, the results are too often tragically negative, for bird and human both.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

Artwork by Barry Kent MacKay