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Unweaned Birds: Hidden Victims

by Monica Engebretson


The pet shop seemed more like a pawn store, a place where disenchanted caretakers unloaded their birds for quick cash. During my visit, abandoned birds clamored for attention or followed me curiously with their eyes — except for a pair of Amazon parrots who sat motionless, side-by-side, with the most expressionless eyes I have ever seen in another living creature.


The store manager told me that these two were "retired breeders" and would be returned to their "owner" if they proved impossible to sell. The birds, who had been captured from the wild, were estimated to be about 40 years old and had spent the bulk of their lives confined to a cage producing chicks for the pet trade.


Both in the wild and in captivity, parrots actively parent their offspring. Like humans and other animals with highly dependent young, the bond between parent and baby is strong; the devotion displayed by parrot parents gently and persistently caring for their demanding chicks can only be described as love.


To meet the market demand for "hand-fed" birds, however, captive parrots are rarely allowed to care for their babies. Over and over, this Amazon parrot couple had suffered through the "kidnapping" of their chicks by what to them must have seemed the equivalent of a predator or a prison warden. No wonder the light had faded from their eyes.


Unweaned Is Unkind


Young, unweaned birds are routinely removed from their parents at or shortly after hatching to be artificially reared by humans. This practice gained popularity under the faulty assumption that it was the best way to ensure that birds became "tame" and bonded with their human caregivers. The sad truth is that hand-rearing has meant misery for countless generations of birds.


Hand-feeding, especially in the hands of inexperienced individuals, often leads to tragic complications, including infection, aspiration pneumonia (caused by food entering the lungs), burned or punctured crops (caused by forceful feeding or food that is too hot), malnutrition, or even death. Birds who are artificially reared are also more likely to develop behavioral problems such as excessive screaming, feather plucking, self-mutilation, and aggression.

Research conducted at the University of California, Davis, showed that allowing parrot chicks to be raised by their parents and handled by humans as little as 15 to 20 minutes a day while in their parents' care produced tame parrots without the physical and behavioral risks of artificial rearing. Further, many people have discovered that building a nurturing relationship with a parrot begins when the bird, no matter what his or her age or how he or she was reared, begins to trust. This is evidenced by the fact that parrot rescue groups successfully place hundreds of unwanted adult birds each year, despite their not having been weaned by their new caretakers.


Working for Change


Unfortunately, many people still mistakenly believe that hand-feeding a bird guarantees a good "pet." In some instances, this is because bird breeders and pet shop employees who are unaware of the risks of artificial rearing dispense inaccurate information. But the bird industry also perpetuates the "hand-fed" myth for self-serving reasons, since the practice helps facilitate mass-scale breeding. Separating young birds from their parents increases production by encouraging the adult birds to produce more babies and, therefore, more "merchandise."


While fifteen states prohibit the sale of some unweaned animals, most limit the restrictions to puppies and kittens (some states also prohibit the sale of rabbits, chickens, and ducks under a certain age). Currently, no states address the sale of unweaned companion birds, despite the serious animal welfare and consumer protection concerns associated with the practice.


In response to this critical problem, API partnered with the Avian Welfare Coalition and California assemblywoman Ellen Corbett in sponsoring AB 202. If passed, this bill will restrict the possession and sale of unweaned parrots in California. The measure will protect young parrots from some of the dangers of commercial trade and will shield consumers from the emotional and financial costs of caring for a pet who has been sold at too young an age. (For more information about this bill, see "Working the System.")


If you are interested in reducing the suffering of young birds and their parents by proposing similar legislation in your state, please contact API.


Copyright © 2003 Animal Protection Institute (API). Reprinted with permission from Animal Issues, Volume 34: Number 3, Fall 2003.