Avian Welfare Issues: An Overview

by Denise Kelly, Eileen McCarthy, Krista Menzel & Monica Engebretson

How Many Captive Birds: Are Population Studies Giving Us a Clear Picture?

The global economy of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries gave rise to the multi-billion dollar trade in wildlife. Interpol and its International Wildlife Working Group estimate that the mostly illegal trade in wildlife (including live animals, skins and parts) is the third-most-profitable illegal trade in the world today, exceeded only by the worldwide trade in illicit drugs and arms. As the public demand for novel, “exotic pets” has steadily increased on every continent, the traditional pet trade has been quick to respond, cashing in on the sale of these animals, as well as supplies for them.

Aviculture (the practice of keeping and/or breeding birds in captivity) has bourgeoned into one of the most lucrative segments of the pet industry, and it is generally accepted that captive birds (including parrots, finches and canaries) are the fourth most popular animal kept as “pets” after fish, cats and dogs (2017-2018 American Pet Product Association National Pet Owners Survey).

However, this ranking remains somewhat problematic, since population statistics vary widely from source to source, birds are not required to be licensed, bird breeding and other commercial facilities that house birds remain largely unregulated, and birds are rarely taken to a veterinarian. As a result, the actual number of birds kept in captivity remains a subject of intense debate. Still, avian rescues and sanctuaries and other animal welfare organizations recognize that determining an accurate estimate of the captive bird population is crucial to effectively addressing many avian welfare issues.


Defining the Captive Bird Population

What we can say with confidence is that the number of “birds in homes” or kept as “pets” is a smaller percentage of the total population of birds kept in captivity, and that “captive parrots” represent an even smaller percentage of that total number.

The fact that population studies often fail to correctly identify exactly what type of birds are being surveyed or clearly define the environments they are living in creates confusion and results in wildly differing population estimates. Also, it is important to consider the entity conducting the study, the target audience surveyed, how and where the research is being conducted, and the intended use of the study.

Keeping this in mind the 20.3 million birds in 7.9 million households, as reported in the 2017-2018 American Pet Product Association National Pet Owners Survey, provides only half the picture. A study based solely on pet owners with birds doesn’t come close to representing the vast and diverse population of birds kept in captivity; nor does it adequately reflect the nature and extent of the myriad of issues involved in addressing all aspects of captive bird welfare.


Why Numbers Alone May Not Tell the Whole Story

In truth, the focus on numbers alone misses the bigger picture—from the ethical issues to the impracticalities of keeping birds as pets in first place, and to the deprivation of the natural behaviors that all birds experience as result of their captivity.

Even when bred in captivity, exotic birds are not truly domesticated animals: they retain the inherent behavioral needs of wild parrots. Yet even the fact that these birds face some of the same challenges in captivity as other wild animals, such as primates and tigers, has not diminished their commercial appeal.

Indeed, using the "Five Freedoms" as a measurement of animal welfare, parrots and other exotic birds fare very poorly as companion animals, a problem examined in an article by Monica Engebretson for Animal Welfare, the Journal of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare.

Regardless of the population numbers, we do know that vast numbers continue to suffer in substandard conditions, and there is little in the way of a qualified, reliable sheltering system for birds that become displaced. Granted, we need more accurate data—but it does not diminish the underlying problems, whether we are talking about 5 million, 20 million or 40 million captive birds.


“Pet Birds” and Overpopulation

While estimates of pet bird populations are far lower than those for companion cats and dogs, a number of factors are contributing to an alarming increase in the number of displaced/unwanted birds. First remains the commercialization of exotic birds as pets and the mass-production-style “bird-mill” breeding operations that continue to flood the market with baby birds—many of which may live to 60 years or more, four times the lifespan of dogs and cats.

More important, the point at which animals kept as human “companions” reach “overpopulation” is determined not by the number of animals but by the number of responsible, qualified caretakers available to care for the type of animal in question. Species that have complex or demanding requirements needing skillful and knowledgeable caretakers who are prepared to commit significant time and/or resources to animal care will reach an “overpopulation” at a lower total number than species requiring less specialized care. There are more people who are capable of providing care for cats and dogs than there are people who are capable of providing care for exotic animals such as parrots, reptiles, or primates.

So while there may be a larger total number of homeless cats and dogs compared to homeless captive parrots, there are also a larger number of potential homes for cats and dogs while there are relatively few qualified and capable potential homes for parrots.

Many exotic bird breeders have argued that there is no “overpopulation” of parrots because they are still able to sell the birds they raise. However, the same can be said of purebred dog and cat breeders. This is because, despite the well-recognized overpopulation of cats and dogs in this country, there still exists a market for purebred animals—especially purebred puppies and kittens. Likewise there continues to be a market for certain types of captive birds—especially young or baby birds. The demand for young birds is driven by a marketing myth: that a young bird or even unweaned bird will guarantee a better “pet.” This widely believed myth creates a demand for young birds that is perpetuated by breeders and pet stores, thereby ensuring continued sales in a market that is over-saturated with older birds of every variety.


The Dimensions of Avian Welfare Concerns

Even though the U.S. banned importation of most species of captured birds with the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act, many other countries continue to allow trapping and the export and/or import of wild-caught birds and many of the captive parrots now in homes and in adoption/sanctuary programs are wild-caught. As a result, many parrot species have suffered devastating and irrevocable depletion of populations. Habitat destruction and the encroachment of human development and consumption of natural resources are partly responsible for the numerous species at risk of extinction; however, recent studies have proven that poaching for the legal and illegal trade in wild birds plays a far greater role in the global decline of parrot populations in the wild.

While aviculturists argue that captive breeding will conserve wild parrot population and preserve the gene pool of critically endangered species, the reality is quite the opposite. Captive rearing of exotic birds contributes nothing to conservation. Nearly 100 percent of captive breeding occurs outside of official conservation programs and is not based on natural selection. Since parrot survival skills and social behavior are determined by generations of evolution, interaction with the flock and environment, and passed on by parents to offspring, the probability of successfully releasing captive bred birds into a species’ habitat of origin—assuming that habitat is still intact—is extremely minimal. Moreover, the marketing of captive bred birds increases the demand for birds as “pets,” thus increasing the incentive for legal and illegal trapping of wild birds for sale to private individuals who wish keep them as “pets,” dealers/brokers seeking cheap “inventory,” and aviculturists seeking genetic diversity for breeding stock.

Parrots are highly intelligent and social animals. Many researchers equate their intellectual and emotional capabilities to that of a two- to five-year-old child, depending on the species. Parrots are sensitive creatures that have far more complex personalities, psycho-social needs, and physical care requirements than dogs and cats. However, the media and the pet industry often promote parrots as “low maintenance pets.” As with other exotic animals, people are fascinated by the idea of having a parrot as a “pet,” but few are prepared for the level of commitment or the demands of caring for a wild creature who may likely outlive them. The sad reality is that far too many parrots languish in abusive and/or neglectful environments. Others are bounced from home to home or sent to breeding facilities to live out their reproductive lives. The fate of non-productive “breeders” who are not profitable is largely unknown since, at the present time, formalized studies regarding their disposition are not available. Only a few of these “retired” or non-productive birds are placed with adoption programs or sanctuaries. In the absence of further supporting data, we must assume that the rest are resold, warehoused, abandoned, deprived, destroyed, or simply kept by breeders to live out their lives.

There is an astounding lack of knowledge about parrots, the result being that many consumers and even animal advocacy organizations are often misinformed about the true nature of birds. Among the most popular myths and misconceptions about birds are: they are easy to care for (not true), only young or baby birds will “bond” with humans (definitely not true), and that buying a hand-raised bird will guarantee that it is tame/human-bonded (completely untrue). There has been little in the way of effective public education that recognizes birds as the intelligent, complex creatures they are and brings to light the plight of these magnificent creatures kept behind bars.

Captive parrots now present many of the same overpopulation problems of dogs and cats—too many birds and not enough qualified homes. Unfortunately, less than 200 parrot refuge organizations that are not affiliated with breeding facilities exist nationwide as compared to the thousands of rescue groups that take in dogs and cats. Public shelters have limited facilities and services, if any, to provide the special care required for homeless parrots. Many cannot accept birds at all. The result is that many birds will be subjected to unnecessary suffering and end up as a burden on the animal shelter systems. Even more tragic is that many parrots are destroyed simply because they are misunderstood by their guardians or there is no place for them to go and no one to care for them. This is a crisis we are facing now; without viable solutions the situation will only grow worse and many more lives will be lost.


In Summary

    • Hand-raised birds are no more domesticated than their wild counterparts. Many people question the ethics of keeping animals in our homes that are not physiologically and psychologically adapted to live anywhere but in the wild. Often, “hand-raised” chicks are sold unweaned to brokers, pet stores, or the consumer. An inexperienced individual attempting to hand-feed a chick often produces tragic results, including infection, crop burns, malnutrition, emotional/psychological/developmental conditions, or even death.

    • There is a disturbing lack of sufficient knowledge to detect and control avian disease, particularly contagious disease in shelter situations. Some avian diseases are undetectable, incurable, and deadly, and there are few effective vaccines.

    • Existing humane organizations and shelters are neither equipped nor prepared to handle displaced captive birds.

    • Birds are often excluded from animal welfare legislation and existing animal cruelty statutes, making it often impossible to define neglect, substandard care, and abuse, or to effectively enforce any existing statutes.

    • There is no regulation governing the breeding and sale of birds. “Aviculturists” have been unwilling to self-regulate and have opposed any and all proposed regulation. Large, substandard production parrot breeding facilities can often operate undetected by the public eye.

    • Many parrot species are seriously endangered in the wild due to habitat destruction, poaching, hunting, and trapping for the pet trade. This, in turn, spurs captive breeding programs, which then further increases demand and makes importation and smuggling very profitable. Programs that introduce captive bred birds into the wild are largely unsuccessful. By contrast, due to overproduction there is a huge surplus of certain parrot species in the pet trade and an increasing number are now ending up in sanctuaries and shelters throughout the U.S.

    • “Companion” birds are often omitted from surveys and research quantifying the status of “pets” in homes, shelters, and breeding facilities. The conflicting results regarding captive birds in existing surveys have made it even more difficult to gain the attention of animal protection organizations that captive birds desperately need.


The Need for New Approaches to Avian Welfare

There is a distinct absence of public awareness in regard to this escalating tragedy since − unlike abandoned dogs and cats − unwanted birds are not visible as strays on the street.  However, they are becoming ever more visible in the skies. Warmer areas of the U.S. have already seen growing populations of feral Quaker Parrots, Peach-faced Lovebirds, and Budgerigars, as well as mixed-species feral flocks that include conures, amazons, and macaws.  The fact that these birds can thrive also increases the risk that they may be subject to the same cruel eradication methods used by municipalities to eliminate other populations of invasive non-native species. Although a serious problem clearly exists and the number of displaced captive birds is on the rise, it remains a hidden crisis of which the full ramifications for both the escaped exotic birds and native species have yet to be identified. 

Mounting numbers of displaced captive birds are destined to become a multi-faceted issue that will affect everyone involved in animal welfare and the protection of wild birds in the U.S. and abroad. It is obvious that a more proactive working relationship between animal welfare/advocacy, avian welfare/advocacy, and conservation organizations is needed to enlighten the public and to work together for the protection and welfare of all wild birds. Efforts that promote public education, legislation, placement, and conservation must be developed and implemented for wild birds just as they have been for domestic pets and other wild animals.

Meeting the new challenges of avian welfare will require the enforcement and amendment of existing animal protection statutes, regulation of breeding and sales, international cooperation and conservation campaigns, and other initiatives that further benefit birds existing in opposing worlds: their native habitats of rainforests, grasslands, cliffs, and brush regions around the globe, and the breeding facilities, pet stores, zoos, and living rooms, where millions are condemned to exist while their wild cousins go extinct.

Updated: July 2016