This Is The Shocking Way Wild Parrots End Up As Pets
Whenever a group of African grey parrots arrives at a rehabilitation center in the Republic of the Congo, it’s an occasion for both joy and sadness. The joyful part is due to the fact that the birds have been removed from the hands of wildlife traffickers — the people who captured them from the forests and planned to sell them into the pet trade. But for the rehab center workers, it’s always sad to see how sick, injured and absolutely terrified the wild parrots are.
“It’s a shock when they arrive and you’ve got up to 100 parrots in a tiny bamboo cage,” Zanne Labuschagne, tourism and communications advisor for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Congo, told The Dodo. “They’re so squeezed in there that they’re defecating on the ones below them. And you can see that they’re extremely stressed out.”
In many cases, poachers have captured the parrots using glue traps made from natural tree sap. “They make this glue and put it up on palm fronds, and put them up on tall trees in the forest,” Labuschagne said.
Once the parrots sit on the fronds, they’re stuck, making it easy for trappers to collect them. But the glue can be harmful to the birds — their feathers stick together, and they can injure their delicate wings as they try to fly away.
“Some people say that 50 percent [die in transport]; other people say that one in 20 make it all the way from where they’re caught in the wild to the pet trade,” Labuschagne said. “So it’s a really high death rate.”
The Popularity Of African Grey Parrots As Pets
The reason so many wild African grey parrots are being trapped and sold is because of their high popularity as pets, which has a lot to do with their intelligence and ability to “talk” to their owners.
In the 1970s, Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Brandeis University and Harvard University, purchased an African grey parrot named Alex from a pet store and ended up conducting years of research with Alex, demonstrating his high intelligence and cognitive abilities. Alex learned about 150 words in English, and showed that he could add and count numbers and memorize various shapes and colors.
Pepperberg’s research helped showcase African grey parrots as highly intelligent beings, and their popularity soared. However, this may have been to the parrot’s detriment.
“They’ve developed this reputation for being these incredibly intelligent birds,” Rowan Martin, African program director for World Parrot Trust, told The Dodo, explaining that their reputation has turned into a curse that’s fueled the pet trade. “They certainly are, but I don’t think they’re exceptional amongst parrots or even among birds.”
Wild Birds Trafficked For The Pet Trade
Prior to 1992, most African grey parrots sold in pet stores in the U.S. came from the wild. But when the Wild Bird Conservation Act came into effect in 1992, it became illegal to bring wild-caught birds into the U.S., which helped restrict the national demand for wild-caught birds.
However, other countries around the world, including China, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, have continued to import wild African grey parrots and sell them to consumers, which has placed a continual demand on wild populations in Africa.
Both varieties of African grey parrots — Timneh parrots and Congo grey parrots — are endangered, even though they live in different ranges of Africa. Timneh parrots are mainly found in west Africa in countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, while Congo grey parrots have a wider range in countries like the Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda. However, both types of parrots are generally referred to as African grey parrots.
These birds face many threats, including deforestation and the killing of wild parrots for bushmeat, particularly during famine in Uganda in the 1970s. However, a major threat to African grey parrots is still the pet trade.
The trapping of African grey parrots happens in just about every country in which the animals are found, according to Martin. But the majority of trapping occurs in the Congo basin. “That’s where the remaining large populations [of Congo grey parrots] are, and that’s certainly where large volumes of grey parrots have been trapped recently,” Martin said.
In both parts of the Congo, African grey parrots are only partially protected, despite their status as endangered species. You’re technically allowed to trap and sell them, but you need a permit to do so, Emma Stokes, regional director for Central Africa at WCS, told The Dodo. That said, there isn’t a lot of enforcement in the Congo, and poachers tend to be able to capture birds freely without getting permits.
Traffickers who use glue traps may use a decoy bird to attract wild parrots — a sort of live bait that will lead other birds into the trappers’ hands.
“The captures will often put a domesticated parrot up in the trees — what they call a ‘feticheur,’” Labuschagne said. “This parrot has often had its wings dislocated or all its flight feathers chopped off, and it’s just used over and over again to attract wild parrots, who come in to see what the noise is. Then the wild parrots sit down on these glue fronds, and tumble to the ground when they try to take off again.”
In December 2017, the WCS Congo team received a rescued feticheur bird, whom they named Calixte. He was found by a ranger on the eastern side of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park.
“He was tied up when he arrived — he had a little leash,” Labuschagne said. “And he’s much calmer than the wild parrots. If you walk into a cage with the wild parrots in it, there’s a lot of squawking — they really go quite crazy. But when you walk in with him, you get a couple of squawks and then he carries on. He’s quite calm.”
Unfortunately, Calixte’s wings had been deliberately damaged, and he’ll probably never fly again. “It’s a bit sad to see, and to know that this parrot was being used specifically to capture hundreds more wild parrots,” Labuschagne said.
Other trappers may climb trees to pluck baby parrots directly from their nests, Neil D’Cruze, wildlife technical expert for World Animal Protection, told The Dodo. But oftentimes, trappers don’t just take the baby birds — they take any parrot they can get their hands on.
“They’ll just take whatever they find — the chicks and the adults — and there’s usually an element of nest destruction there, which of course has knock-on effects for them,” D’Cruze said.
In other instances, trappers simply go to areas in the forest where African grey parrots congregate, and use nets to catch as many as they can, according to D’Cruze. “These are indiscriminate mass trappings, targeting everything and anything,” he said.
However, if faced with a choice, trappers usually prefer to take older parrots over baby ones, according to D’Cruze. “There’s the belief that those animals are more likely to survive the transport process because the majority of the mortalities happen at the early stages [of life] when the animals are weak,” he said.
Once captured, baby chicks are also more difficult to take care of, according to Martin. “It can be pretty easy and efficient to go around and pull out all of the chicks out of the nests, but there’s a bit [of] a challenge in it — if you take them out of the nests early, you have to feed them, and then there’s a very high mortality rate,” Martin said.
The most valuable parrots are the juveniles, Martin added. “They can be worth a lot more because they’ll grow up to become more accustomed to humans,” Martin said. “They’ll be much tamer and make better pets, rather than a wild-caught adult.”
Transporting Wild African Grey Parrots
After the wild parrots are caught, trappers tend to shove them into small cages or boxes to transport them to traders — this process is long and arduous, and incredibly traumatic for the birds.
“These are wild birds that are used to flying across long distances,” Martin said. “It would be very stressful to be shoved into a cage with a lot of other birds, and often it’s very hot. They’re probably not being fed the right foods and not being given enough water. And being cramped in those conditions is rife for disease.”
Not surprisingly, baby parrots have a particularly hard time surviving the capture and transport process, according to Martin.
“We've heard of chicks being force-fed a diet of maize meal,” he said. “On a typical diet, they’d be receiving a diverse mix including fruit … so it’s no surprise that some don’t survive. There seems to be a lack of knowledge of what the birds actually need.”
“These birds are quite valuable by the time they reach market, but they don’t seem to be valued particularly well by trappers who receive relatively little money per parrot,” Martin added. “They don’t seem to be treated well, and there are high rates of mortality that occur at this stage.”
What many of the local trappers believe, according to Martin, is that the birds who survive are the truly valuable ones.
“There’s this idea that you treat them badly, and you accept that some are going to die,” Martin said. “But the ones that survive are sort of hardened, and they’re the ones that are really worth money. So they undergo this ‘hardening’ process before they’re shipped on.”
D’Cruze estimates that 45 to 90 percent of captured African grey parrots die in the transport process.
Demand For African Grey Parrots As Pets
Many countries and territories currently fuel the demand for wild-caught African greys — including South Africa, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan and Hong Kong.
In South Africa, the last decade saw an increase in captive breeding of African grey parrots, but demand for wild birds has continued, Martin explained.
“In some countries, a lot of the birds used for breeding were trapped in the wild, so the relationship between captive breeding and trapping in the wild is complex,” Martin said. “So they’re bringing in the wild-caught birds, and they’re breeding from them until they can no longer breed, and then they’re just buying more wild-caught birds. So even though people think they’re doing the right thing by buying the captive-bred birds, they’re inadvertently still supporting this demand for wild birds.”
The constant demand for African grey parrots is taking a tremendous toll on wild populations. In Ghana alone, it’s estimated that 90 to 99 percent of African grey parrots have disappeared from the forests since the 1990s, according research published by Ghanian ornithologist Dr. Nathaniel Annorbah. The birds are also extremely rare or locally extinct in places like Benin, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Togo, and populations are dwindling in other countries, too.
“Traffickers are vacuuming up African grey parrots from Africa’s forests,” Stokes said in a statement after WCS released footage of African grey parrots recovering at a rehabilitation center after being rescued from traffickers. “This heartbreaking footage should serve as a wake-up call to any prospective buyers of parrots to avoid them unless they come from a highly reputable dealer and you are absolutely certain they were bred in captivity and not taken from the wild.”
Thankfully, the U.S. doesn’t contribute heavily to the depletion of wild African greys — at least not anymore. In the past, the country used to import a huge number of wild-caught African grey parrots, but this practice was put to a stop with the Wild Bird Conservation Act passed in 1992.
However, D’Cruze explains that the vast majority of African grey parrots that you can purchase as pets are simply the offspring of birds captured and transported from African countries. “All of them are the progeny of those who were taken from the wild,” he said.
In 2006, the European Union implemented a similar ban on the importation of wild-caught birds, although parrots and other wild birds are still being siphoned into Europe through Turkey, according to Martin.
Ethical Issues Of Owning An African Grey
If you’re bent on having an African grey parrot as a pet, it’s crucial to do your research. African grey parrots can live for over 50 years and demand a lot of attention, Martin explained.
“It’s important to think carefully ... given the extreme demands that they have,” Martin said. “As a very social creature that lives for a very long time, they need a huge amount of contact with people and other birds, and it’s a very long-term commitment.”
D’Cruze echoes Martin’s sentiments, asking any potential parrot owner these questions: “Are you prepared physically and mentally to care for such an intelligent, sentient, long-lived wild animal? You should really ask why you’re getting a pet, and is there another companion animal that’s better suited [to you].”
Unfortunately many, if not most, owners aren’t fully committed to owning an African grey, and once they realize this, they abandon them at shelters or even outside. Therefore, there are many African grey parrots who need to be rehomed.
“There’s going to be some people who really, really, really want to own an African grey parrot, and my advice to them would be, ‘Do try and source one that has been rehomed,’” D’Cruze said.
Hope For African Grey Parrots
Despite the enormity of the problem, Martin believes that things can be turned around with the implementation and enforcement of trapping bans and better policing, as well as community education. “There are a lot of reasons to be quite hopeful,” he said.
Another positive development is last year’s decision made by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to place grey parrots on Appendix I, ending the international trade in wild grey parrots for commercial purposes.
“The good news about that CITES up-listing was that it sort of encouraged countries to upgrade their national laws regarding capturing and trafficking parrots,” Stokes said.
WCS Congo is also playing a pivotal role in saving the species with its two rehabilitation centers in the Congo — one is located in Ngombe in Northern Congo, and another has recently opened in Bomassa near Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. WCS team members have rescued, rehabilitated and released over 900 African grey parrots.
“I was there when about 35 parrots were released, and it’s really great to see these birds that have been stuck in cages for so long flying out,” Labuschagne said. “There’s singing all around, and parrots keep coming back to the cage a few days afterwards to check on the rest of the parrots and maybe come look for food as well. But it was very special to see the parrots flying out again.”
Pepperberg, the psychologist who studied the African grey parrot named Alex, told The Dodo that she hopes Alex's demonstrated intelligence will make people more dedicated to saving birds like him in the wild.
"People are more apt to want to conserve creatures that are more like themselves," Pepperberg said.