Plenty to Squawk About

Mira Tweti is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

O any given day, sounds of the jungle can be heard from a number of places in Los Angeles--a large ficus near the Westside Pavilion, or among the trees in Mar Vista, Venice and West Hollywood’s Plummer Park. Many residents are aware of their boisterous avian neighbors: wild flocks of little yellow-chevroned parakeets, large scarlet macaws from South America, cockatoos from Indonesia and Australia, lilac-crowned parrots from Mexico, red-masked parakeets and others--all members of the parrot family. Flying low in the sky, their mega-decibel squawks are unmistakable.

California is now home to at least 10 breeding species of parrots, according to ornithologists Bill Pranty of the Archbold Biological Station in Florida and Kimball Garrett of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. Based on extensive research, they estimate that nearly 7,000 parrots are living wild from San Francisco to San Diego, and 20,000 are flying around cities throughout the country. Florida, in fact, may now boast the most diverse group of exotic parrots in the world.

It’s quite a sight to witness these colorful flocks in flight or roosting in a tree, but there’s a troubling fact behind this phenomenon--all of those wild birds were once pets. Exotic birds were America’s fastest-growing pet choice in the 1990s. Their numbers have grown--according to pet industry research--from an estimated 11.6 million at the decade’s outset to 40 million today, compared with 77.6 million cats and 65 million dogs. The exponential growth might have something to do with the nation’s two largest pet store chains, Petco Animal Supplies Inc. and PetsMart Inc., which started selling birds during the ‘90s.


But once the birds are brought home, owners quickly discover that parrots--though smart and affectionate--make terrible pets. Consequently, they are being set loose at alarming rates, despite the illegality of releasing nonnative birds in the U.S. Parrots now appear to be the fastest-growing group of unwanted pets, as evidenced by the wild flocks and the number of avian rescuers that are cropping up.

Some action is clearly needed. Wild parrots are among the most endangered group of birds on the planet. Now, parrots bred for the pet industry in the U.S.--unable to be repatriated in the wild because their survival skills aren’t developed--could be euthanized in captivity to reduce the number of unwanted birds.

Polly doesn’t need a cracker. Polly needs protection.

Prrot people will tell you there is nothing like them. The birds are loving, caring and can engage in conversation. Parrot caretakers gladly cut up vegetables and fruit, boil beans and pamper their birds with expensive toys. Women who own parrots have been known to break up with longtime boyfriends rather than give up their jealous bird.

But while parrots make great companions, they can be notoriously difficult. The Humane Society of the United States considers parrots wild animals and advocates not keeping them as pets. Breeders say that pet store employees are able to socialize the birds, but few stores encourage workers to play with animals when they could be stocking shelves or helping customers. If constant and consistent socialization is not reinforced, no matter how young birds are taken from their parents, they will revert to wild behavior, some of which never subsides. For example, the majority of parrots will bite the hand that feeds them for their entire lives. It’s not something that can be trained out of them completely.

While parrots have the intelligence of a 5-year-old child, their maturity lags behind. “It wants your attention, is demanding and immature like a 2-year-old for 50 years,” says one bird lover who decided not to get a parrot.

James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, did his PhD dissertation on lorikeet parrots and lived with them in the wild in Australia and Indonesia. “Parrots are the primates of the bird world,” Serpell says. “They aren’t content to sit on a perch and sing. They actively want to go and manipulate objects all the time.”

Great athletes, parrots quickly become frustrated “perch potatoes” in captivity. They do nothing all day but eat, sleep and wait for their human flock to return. Many end up obese and with serious behavioral problems such as screaming, biting and self-mutilation by plucking out their feathers. Some even carve gashes in their chest when their feathers are gone.

Charles Munn, a leading avian conservationist, is considered the foremost authority on macaw parrots. Munn, who has worked extensively in South America, says being alone is the worst thing imaginable for a parrot, like solitary confinement for a person. In fact, veterinarians regularly prescribe Prozac and other drugs to stop abnormal behaviors that develop in parrots as a result of confinement.

Walk into any large chain pet store and you will see why the pet industry is a $30-billion business. You can find things such as oatmeal dog shampoo, perches with suction cups so you can shower with your bird, and battery-operated, sonar-activated water fountains so your pet always has a fresh-flowing drink. Petco, launched in 1965, earned $1.3 billion last year. PetsMart, started in 1987, made $2.7 billion in the same period. The two chains are growing at roughly the same rate, 60 stores each per year, and both now have about 600 outlets. California is home to the largest number of Petco and PetsMart stores. Both companies sell a variety of pet birds, including finches, parakeets, parrots and cockatiels.

The advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, documents complaints about the chains from customers and employees. Petco leads with about 1,000 grievances since 1999, and PETA has become a shareholder in the company so that it can obtain inside information on its practices. PetsMart has had a much smaller number of complaints since 2001, covering similar issues: problems with birds, overcrowding, filthy cages, untreated sick animals, employees who don’t care or are unqualified. But perhaps the thorniest issue is the selling of unweaned birds.

Unlike chickens, which are born precocial--covered in down, sighted, able to walk and eat on their own right out of the shell--parrots, cockatiels and most other birds bred for the pet trade are born altricial--completely helpless, like human babies--and need comparatively long-term care, anywhere from several months up to a year, before they can fend for themselves. Breeders hurry to move unweaned baby birds from their facilities into pet shops because syringe feeding is a delicate and time-consuming process that hurts profits.

Professional aviculturists figured out how to cut the cost: Sell the birds very young for half price to pet stores and let their staffs do the work. An unweaned African gray parrot is $450 wholesale, for instance, compared to $800 to $900 for one that is weaned. Bird breeders make less money, but they no longer have the burden of caring for those babies and can make room for more. Retail pet stores, eager to lower their costs, also like the deal. “It’s never been about the birds,” says Carla Freed, a Kansas breeder and researcher. “It’s always been about the money.”

One longtime justification for selling birds so young is the misconception that hand-fed birds make better pets, and that they have to be taken young to be tamed. But one need only look back before the advent of the captive-breeding industry, when all pet birds were parent-raised, to see the illogic of this idea.

Rebecca Fox, a doctoral student at UC Davis’ Psittacine Research project, has done studies in which baby birds were raised by their parents but handled by humans for 20 minutes a day after becoming cognitive at several weeks old. Fox found that they were as tame as birds that were taken early from their parents and hand-fed. The results clearly demonstrate erroneous breeding practices. “It is absolutely not true that baby parrots need to be hand-fed or hand-weaned by people to make good pets,” Fox says.

Francis Battista of Kanab, Utah-based Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the largest dog and cat rescue facility in the U.S., wrote about the situation last fall in the organization’s magazine: “Bird mills crank out thousands of parrots at a time . . . Point of sale is typically a low-overhead, lightly staffed, self-service pet or pet supply store . . . Syringe feeding, which continues until they’re old enough to eat on their own, is usually done by a rotating staff of well-meaning, low-wage, undertrained, high school-age ‘associates.’ The birds are then sold as ‘hand-reared’ or ‘hand-raised,’ evoking the image of a kindhearted surrogate parent lovingly feeding them. In reality, the unsuspecting buyer is purchasing an emotionally deprived creature whose most intimate contact has been with a plastic syringe. This is not hand-rearing--it’s poultry farming.”

Ross Pittman, manager of sales and procurement for Preferred Birds, a Milton, Fla.-based breeding facility and distributor that supplies all of PetsMart’s birds, denies that there are “factory farms,” though he admits shipping more than 100,000 birds a year to pet stores around the country. He says parrots, which are shipped unweaned, are only a small percentage of the total. But one avian rescuer who discussed supplying PetsMart with adoptable pet birds, from finches to parrots, was told that the 3,000 birds a year she offered would not be enough to supply even three of its stores. Do the math: PetsMart is handling more than 600,000 birds a year.

Lisa Bell, who worked for five years as a bird specialist and assistant manager at Petco stores in Northern California, says: “If a bird came in on two feedings a day, [the breeders] would say, ‘In another three weeks it should be weaned.’ I found typically it needed four or five feedings a day. Usually it was another two months instead of another two weeks.” Bell took unweaned birds home overnight to feed them so they wouldn’t go hungry until the store reopened in the morning.

But not all stores are staffed with conscientious workers. “They starved that baby to death,” says Kathy Buckler, referring to a caique parrot she saw at her local Petco store in Round Rock, Texas. Buckler, a bird owner, discovered the young parrot in extreme distress: “It was screaming from hunger for days, but the breeder told them it was on two feedings a day, and that’s all the food it was getting.” The bird was finally found dead by police in the store’s freezer.

Many complaints about Petco from current and former employees across the country have recounted the same alarming practice: being ordered to put sick animals in the store freezer to kill them rather than have them humanely euthanized, as is the law. “You can check any store at any time and get an accurate count of what has died by just looking in the freezer,” says a former district manager for the chain.

“Their low-wage, poorly trained employees have not been trained to handle exotic animals,” says Matt Dorsey, spokesperson for San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera, who is suing Petco stores to stop selling live animals in San Francisco County. The suit cites scores of animal deaths due to “cruel and illegal treatment.” “We’re asking for money and the practices to stop, permanently,” says Dorsey, adding that complaints have continued to come in since the lawsuit was filed.

“We have pictures of a freezer packed with animals that would blow your mind,” says Vicky Guldbech, captain of animal-control services in San Francisco, who wrote many of the citations against Petco. “There were boxes of animals lined up inside the door. It was disgusting.” Guldbech, who has seen as many as 50 dead birds in a Petco store freezer, says it would have been easy for employees to have gotten an emergency euthanasia for the animals at any one of three places locally, including a hospital near the store that is operated by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“There is certainly a seedy underbelly to American aviculture,” says Phoebe Greene Linden, a widely respected breeder who is a co-owner of Santa Barbara Bird Farm. “It’s thriving, unfortunately, and it spreads disease, heartache and sorrow.”

The growth of commercial domestic bird breeding is due in part to the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, which closed the gates to the majority of the 450,000 exotic birds a year that had been imported for decades. Although hundreds of thousands of wild birds are still trapped aggressively and sold to the pet trade every year, they are no longer coming into the U.S. (though smuggling from Mexico remains a major problem).

California is the No. 1 state for exotic bird breeding for the nation’s pet trade; Florida is next, and Texas and the Southern states are producing more birds every year. But the rapid growth of the domestic pet bird industry in the last decade has produced dire consequences. Never allowed to flock, fly or freely roam trees again, many of the millions of wild parrots brought stateside before 1992 have been living out a bleak existence as captive breeders. Paired off in barren cages, often warehoused without sunlight, each passing year of their many decades-long lives is marked by watching their newly hatched young taken for the pet trade. Unweaned, unfeathered and blind, the baby birds, like other animals, can develop long-term behavioral problems as a result of being rushed through their naturally long weaning process, according to Joy Mench, a professor at UC Davis’ Department of Animal Science.

The babies are taken as their parents fight to stop the breeders, some of whom wear protective gear to bar the parent birds’ onslaught. Lori Rutledge, who runs Cockatoo Rescue and Sanctuary in Stanwood, Wash., once complimented a breeder who kept his birds in large outdoor cages. “I said to him, ‘Your birds must absolutely love you for giving them this much space, fresh air and sunshine.’ He said, ‘They think I am the devil. They hate me. I take their babies. You should hear them scream.’ ”

A bill pending in the California Legislature, AB 202, sponsored by Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), would prevent the sale of unweaned birds in pet shops. If it passes, it will be the first law in the U.S. to protect baby birds. The bill has battled through half of the six hurdles needed to pass, but it is getting pummeled by bird breeders and the pet industry alike. Petco, for instance, opposes it. A letter from a Petco executive to Corbett calls the sale of unweaned baby birds an “alleged problem.”

Eighteen states, including California, already have some kind of law restricting the sale of unweaned kittens or puppies. These laws protect the basic right of a young animal to stay with its mother until it would leave her naturally. Given the fragility of baby birds, the months it takes to wean them and the complexity of feeding them, it is surprising that none of California’s current laws include them--and this is the way professional aviculturists want it.

The American Federation of Aviculture, widely recognized as the organization that represents professional breeders, is opposed to AB 202. Though the Kansas City, Mo.-based federation has a number of education- and conservation-related endeavors, its primary purpose is to ensure that no regulations inhibit its industry. AFA President Benny Gallaway says, “I have no doubt that some unweaned baby birds are killed by people inadvertently, but it is also a matter of economics at the individual level too, and I don’t know [that] it’s a huge problem given the amount of the investment.” Referring to the bill’s primary supporter, the Sacramento-based Animal Protection Institute, he says the bill “is a knee-jerk reaction from a group with suspect motivations.”

Originally written to preclude pet stores from having unweaned birds on the premises, AB 202 has now been heavily amended to allow shops to have them but not sell them until they are weaned. But enforcement could be problematic. For example, both PetsMart and Petco already have policies regarding unweaned baby birds: Petco does not allow them to be sold until they are weaned; PetsMart does sell them, but Barbara Fitzgerald, senior vice president for store operations, says that the company requires a minimum of three visits to the store before customers can take the bird home and wean it themselves.

Even so, of two dozen PetsMart and Petco stores in Los Angeles and Orange counties called randomly for this story, all but three said they would sell their unweaned birds immediately. One PetsMart store in Orange County said an unweaned bird could be taken home the same day, but it was store policy that the 14-day return warranty would be nullified.

Most owners aren’t willing to do what it takes to keep parrots happy. “For every parrot out there with a good and responsible keeper, there are perhaps hundreds that lead miserable lives; largely unloved and unwanted, kept for their curiosity value or because they were just too expensive to throw away,” says Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania. “Most people have no idea what a huge practical and emotional investment these birds demand. They buy them because they look exotic or cute, but have no intention of becoming their partners in life.” Many birds end up abused or neglected when owners try to inhibit their natural, wild behaviors. They are kept under covers (birds will usually stay quiet in the dark), hidden away in garages, closets or back rooms. They are generally passed around to different family members or friends until, finally, they end up in an avian rescue center.

Many rescuers say they predicted five years ago that they would be at maximum capacity now, and they are. From one end of the U.S. to the other, rescue facilities are overflowing with hundreds of unwanted pet birds. Fern Van Sant, an avian veterinarian in San Jose, Calif., says she was forced into the rescue business because pet birds were being left in her waiting room or on her doorstep.

“People surrendering their birds often say the same thing,” says Eileen McCarthy, founder and president of Midwest Avian Adoption & Rescue Services outside Minneapolis: “ ‘If I knew then what I know now, I’d never have bought it in the first place.’ ”

According to the Humane Society, the number of relinquished birds has dramatically increased, but the problem is invisible to the general public. “It’s not on the streets like cats and dogs,” says one rescuer. And as more of the ‘90s bird-boom pets wear out their welcome, they too will be given up or simply let loose. Unfortunately, captive-bred birds cannot be repatriated in the wild. If they’re not at peak performance, fluent in their flock alarm calls and other wild living skills, they can get nailed by predators.

While some in the pet bird industry are denying there is a problem, PetsMart is financing two parallel studies to the tune of $100,000. In progress now, they are examining why bird owners relinquish their birds, how many rescue centers there actually are and how many birds they have taken in. UC Davis’ Mench has been contracted to handle part of the research, which will include a survey of 4,000 bird owners, while the Gabriel Foundation, an avian sanctuary and adoption organization in Colorado, and Cheryl Meehan of OrangeWing Consulting in Davis are handling the rescue end. First results are expected by midsummer.

PetsMart promotes the fact that the company policy is not to sell dogs or cats because of the large numbers that are euthanized, and that the company has helped more than 1 million animals get adopted. Store executive Fitzgerald says they will do the same for birds if their survey shows there is a problem with overpopulation. “I will tell you because of the legacy of this company, that we will do the right thing based on the information that we see. As a company, any pet that doesn’t get placed and remain in a loving home troubles us.”

Shawn Underwood, a communications representative at Petco, agrees. “We’ve had this discussion internally from time to time--’Is it worth carrying birds?’ ” Underwood says it could be financially worthwhile for Petco to offer birds only for adoption, and that they may be forced to do so by consumers. Indeed, a national online petition is being circulated to halt live animal sales at the chain. “If a bird is adopted like a dog or a cat, [owners are] still going to have to buy the supplies and feed,” Underwood says. “If they have a positive view of our store, we’re likely to capture them as a customer, but if they don’t like us because of our policy, in this case because we do [sell] birds, then we don’t capture them. That’s a cost factor to consider. If they boycott us and force us into an economic decision, then that’s the decision we’ll make.”

In last December’s issue of Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, there was a lush home decor layout featuring a Moroccan-style living room adorned with deep jewel-toned silk pillows and palm fronds. The description read: “A few exotic accents add to the enchantment: palms, brass trays, a bird in a gilded cage.” The bird was listed as if it were one more accessory and shown in an otherwise empty Taj Mahal-shaped cage at the back of the room.

But even from its cage a fun-loving bird could do damage to that room: Empty seed husks and flung fruit generally do not go well with silk pillows. Once the bird is let out to play, as it should be a few hours every day, those palm fronds are done for. Bird claws pull on fine fabric and bird poop doesn’t look great on them either. Plus, the numerous toys needed to enrich the bird’s cage would ruin the room’s color scheme.

This illusion is carried into birds’ cages, which are designed to cater to the humans who buy them, rather than the birds that have to live in them. Since there are no minimum requirements, all cages are designed arbitrarily and intended to contain the bird in the least amount of space. Unfortunately, most birds live their entire lives in the cage they were brought home in from the pet shop. “You wouldn’t keep a porpoise in a bathtub,” says one pet bird owner, but the equivalent is done to birds all the time. Most of this is lost on the millions of people who think having a caged bird is a good idea.

At a recent pet adoption fair in Westchester, more than 85 adoption groups were scattered in white tents on a park’s rolling green lawns. The lone bird adoption booth had a steady stream of interested attendees, and many had come to the fair because they had heard there would be birds to adopt.

“Two or three people walked up with empty cages in their hands,” says Parrots First co-founder Frank Levine, “and one couple came with a cage about 18 inches-by-18 inches wanting to take home a macaw”--a bird that can be 3 feet long from head to tail. Levine explained to the couple that the cage was much too small. “The husband says to me, ‘That’s OK, the tail will poke through.’ ”