Educational Series: The Illegal Bird Trade is a Wildlife Tragedy

By Nick Engelfried
Birds are among nature’s most beautiful animals, and it’s no wonder countless people are drawn to the idea of having one in their home. The U.S. is believed to be home to more than 40 million pet parrots, alone, and birds are considered the country’s most popular pet after dogs, cats, and fish. Yet, there is a dark side to the pet bird industry that few bird owners are truly aware of. The capture of birds from the wild for sale as pets has led to the near-extinction of many species. Furthermore, while most birds sold in the U.S. are now bred in captivity, unethical breeding facilities raise their own questions about the treatment of these intelligent wild animals.

Perhaps the most alarming negative side effect from the pet bird craze has been its impact on wild bird populations. A case in point is the Spix’s macaw of Brazil, a species that was driven to extinction in the wild due to a combination of habitat loss and the capture of these magnificent parrots for the pet trade. However, this is only one of the most dramatic examples of a species driven to the brink by the bird pet industry. Many other birds–from parrots to cranes to songbirds–are in danger of suffering a similar fate, with some being sold for thousands of dollars to pet owners once taken from the wild. To save these species, it is necessary both that the public understand what is at stake, and that the unethical bird trade be cut off at its source.

When it comes to cracking down on the bird pet industry, one of the most important laws in the U.S. is the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA), passed in 1992. The WBCA outlaws most imports of exotic birds into the country and complements other laws–such as the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act–that already protected the vast majority of native wild birds from harvesting. Still, while these legal reforms have helped, a black market in wild-caught birds continues to flourish today. It is estimated that over 9,000 parrots are smuggled into the U.S. every year from Mexico alone, despite the cruel trade being illegal in both countries. Unfortunately, social media and online sales have only made it more difficult to monitor and dismantle the wild bird industry.

Outside of the United States, efforts to eliminate the trade in birds have also met with mixed results. Mexico banned the trapping, sale, or purchase of wild birds in 2008, yet an estimated 65,000-78,500 parrots are still taken from their habitat in that country every year. In Peru, only seven native bird species can be taken from the wild, with strict quotas enshrined in law for those seven. However, a study published in Bird Conservation International reported researchers finding at least 34 species for sale in Peruvian markets.

In the Eastern Hemisphere, a market in wild birds thrives throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa–even in countries where it is illegal–with the Mediterranean region being a particular hub for bird sales. While the North and South American bird trade tends to focus on parrots, a wide variety of Eurasian and African species are targeted, including songbirds sold not only as pets, but as traditional foods or meat delicacies. Driving this grisly trade are buyers who are willing to pay big money for a caged songbird or a luxury dish. BirdLife International reports that a single Eurasian goldfinch can fetch $50 on the black market.

Despite vast holes in the enforcement of legislation to protect wild birds–both in the U.S. and internationally–laws like the WBCA have made a real difference, and the sale of exotic birds in this country has declined significantly since the act was passed. Unfortunately, this has inadvertently contributed to another problem: the spread of industrial bird breeding facilities, which churn out thousands of captive-bred parrots and other birds to meet the domestic demand for pets.

The Animal Welfare Institute compares industrial bird facilities to puppy mills, whose goal is to maximize profit by producing as many animals as possible with minimal expenditure of resources. Birds at the these breeding operations are typically crowded into small, barren cages, forced to suffer psychological torture in an environment that offers almost no stimulation or enrichment. Juvenile birds are often cruelly removed from their parents’ care at an early age and hand-reared by human caretakers, in an effort to get mother birds to lay more eggs. Deprived of the ability to practice natural behaviors and interact with others of their kind, many birds in this environment resort to self-destructive actions like pulling out their own feathers as a means of coping with stress.

Whether a bird is taken from the wild or bred in captivity, its traumas do not necessarily end once the animal makes it to a permanent home. While most bird owners are well-meaning, many do not understand the needs of a wild bird and are ill-equipped to give these pets the care and stimulation they require. Birds are intelligent animals; for example, African grey parrots–a popular pet species–have been shown to have reasoning abilities comparable to those of a human 5-year-old. Yet, many birds in people’s homes are kept in small cages without being given ample exercise or enrichment. They may also be fed unhealthy foods by owners who do not understand their true dietary needs. The truth is that the best place for a wild bird is in the wild.

So, what can we do to stop the abuses of the bird pet trade? First of all, if you are determined to have a pet bird make sure to buy it ethically. The best option is to purchase from a humane society or shelter that rehomes abandoned parrots and other birds. If buying from a pet store, it is imperative to do thorough research and confirm the birds there are bred in captivity and raised humanely. Note, however, that this information may be difficult to find, which is another reason why a rehomed bird is the most ethical choice. It should go without saying that you should also learn as much as possible about your bird’s dietary, exercise, and enrichment needs before making a purchase.

Educating consumers can help reduce the demand for wild-caught or inhumanely bred captive birds–but it is equally important that government agencies be given the resources to enforce existing laws prohibiting the capture of birds from the wild. True bird lovers everywhere can take meaningful action by letting lawmakers know their constituents care about this issue. If you live in the U.S., write to your members of Congress and let them know you want agencies that enforce wildlife protection laws to be fully funded.

Dismantling the wild bird trade is a tremendous project that will require cooperation from governments, organizations, and ordinary people all over the world. However, one thing is certain: the stakes are too high to let this prevent animal lovers everywhere from uniting behind this cause.

Photo credit: gpyadav1995

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In what year was the Wild Bird Conservation Act passed?
About how many parrots are smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico every year?
Which of these species was driven to extinction in the wild, partly by the bird pet trade?
What U.S. law bans the taking of most native birds from the wild?
True or false: It is not legal to take any bird species from the wild in Peru
Which of these commonly occurs at industrial bird breeding operations?
Which region is considered a major hub of the international bird trade?

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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