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