Parrots Forever



The word DOMESTIC causes problems. Literally, it means “pertaining to the home”. That is, something that belongs IN a home because it was created FOR a home. When we say domestic chores we mean stuff that we do around the house. When we say a person is very domestic, we mean that he is most happy and comfortable in and around the house. Domestic is something we can handle easily, and if we agree that someone is really domestic, we are implying that he is not very curious, adventurous, or self-confident. However, the act of bringing something into our home is not the same thing as making it domestic. This point becomes abundantly clear when we imagine bringing a Canada Goose into the living room and inviting him to live forever in the very nice cage we just purchased. When it comes to parrots, however, this very clear point tends to be lost.
Captive companion parrots are not domesticated animals. Parrots kept as pets are still wild animals with all of their wild instincts and the needs of their telos intact. They may be tame, but taming an animal does not make it domesticated. Dogs and cats are domesticated and have been domesticated animals for over 9,500-11,000 years. Dogs and cats have over time, through hundreds if not thousands of generations, been bred to accommodate our needs. They have been fundamentally changed from their wild ancestors to reflect human needs and to serve our purposes. To best illustrate what domestication is, and what defines domestication in an animal, the following definition is from Wikipedia:

Domestication (from Latin domesticus) is the process where by a population of animals or plants is changed at the genetic level through a process of selection, in order to accentuate traits that benefit humans. It differs from taming in that a change in the phenotypical expression and genotype of the animal occurs, whereas taming is simply the process by which animals become accustomed to human presence.
According to evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond, animal species MUST meet six criteria in order to be considered for domestication:

1. • Flexible diet — Creatures that are willing to consume a wide variety of food sources and can live off less cumulative food from the food pyramid (such as corn or wheat), particularly food that is not utilized by humans (such as grass and forage) are less expensive to keep in captivity.  Carnivores by definition feed primarily or only on animal tissue, which requires the expenditure of many animals, though they may exploit sources of meat not utilized by humans, such as scraps and vermin.

2. • Reasonably fast growth rate — Fast maturity rate compared to the human life span allows breeding intervention and makes the animal useful within an acceptable duration of caretaking.  Large animals such as elephants require many years before they reach a useful size.

3. • Ability to be bred in captivity — Creatures that are reluctant to breed when kept in captivity do not produce useful offspring, and instead are limited to capture in their wild state.  Creatures such as the panda, antelope and giant forest hog are territorial when breeding and cannot be maintained in crowded enclosures in captivity.

4. • Pleasant disposition — Large creatures that are aggressive toward humans are dangerous to keep in captivity.  The African buffalo has an unpredictable nature and is highly dangerous to humans; similarly, although the American bison is raised in enclosed ranges in the Western United States, it is much too dangerous to be regarded as truly domesticated.  Although similar to the domesticated pig in many ways, Africa's warthog and bushpig are also dangerous in captivity.

5. • Temperament which makes it unlikely to panic — A creature with a nervous disposition is difficult to keep in captivity as it may attempt to flee whenever startled.  The gazelle is very flighty and it has a powerful leap that allows it to escape an enclosed pen.  Some animals, such as the domestic sheep, still have a strong tendency to panic when their flight zone is encroached upon.  However, most sheep also show a flocking instinct, whereby they stay close together when pressed.  Livestock with such an instinct may be herded by people and dogs.

6. • Modifiable social hierarchy — Social creatures whose herds occupy overlapping ranges and recognize a hierarchy of dominance can be raised to recognize a human as the pack leader:
    • tapirs and rhinoceroses are solitary and do not tolerate being penned with each other
    • antelope and deer except for reindeer are territorial when breeding and live in herds only for the rest of the year
    • bighorn sheep and peccaries have nonhierarchical herd structures and do not follow any definite leader: instead males fight continuously with each other for mating opportunities
    • musk ox herds (although having a defined leader) maintain mutually exclusive territories and two herds will fight if kept together.

However, this list is of limited use because it fails to take into account the profound changes that domestication has on a species. While it is true that some animals, including parrots, whales, and most members of the Carnivora, retain their wild instincts even if born in captivity[citation needed], some factors must be taken into consideration.

In particular, number (5) may not be a prerequisite for domestication, but rather a natural consequence of a species' having been domesticated. In other words, wild animals are naturally timid and flighty because they are constantly faced by predators; domestic animals do not need such a nervous disposition, as they are protected by their human owners. The same holds true for number (4) — aggressive temperament is an adaptation to the danger from predators. A Cape buffalo can kill even an attacking lion, but most modern large domestic animals were descendants of aggressive ancestors. The wild boar, ancestor of the domestic pig, is certainly renowned for its ferocity; other examples include the aurochs (ancestor of modern cattle), horse, Bactrian camels and yaks, all of which are no less dangerous than their undomesticated wild relatives such as zebras and buffalos. Others have argued that the difference lies in the ease with which breeding can improve the disposition of wild animals, a view supported by the failure to domesticate the kiang and onager. On the other hand for thousands of years humans have managed to tame dangerous species like the elephants, bears and cheetahs whose failed domestications had little to do with their aggressiveness. Number (6), while it does apply to most domesticated species, also has exceptions, most notably in the domestic cat and ferret, which are both descended from strictly solitary wild ancestors but which tolerate and even seek out social interaction in their domestic forms. Feral domestic cats, for example, naturally form colonies around concentrated food sources and will even share prey and rear kittens communally, while wildcats remain solitary even in the presence of such food sources. Zoologist Marston Bates devoted a chapter on domestication in his 1960 book The Forest and the Sea, in which he talks a great deal about how domestication alters a species: Dispersal mechanisms tend to disappear for the reason stated above, and also because people provide transportation for them. Chickens have practically lost their ability to fly. Similarly, domestic animals cease to have a definite mating season, and so the need to be territorial when mating loses its value; and if some of the males in a herd are castrated, the problem is reduced even further. What he says suggests that the process of domestication can itself make a creature domesticable. Besides, the first steps towards agriculture may have involved hunters keeping young animals, who are always more impressionable than the adults, after killing their mothers.

Although some breeds of dogs and cats still have some of their original characteristics and retain the traits of their lineage, they are about as removed from the original wild lines as any animal can be. Most companion parrots, however, are only 2 or 3 generations from the wild and are still very in tune with their wild nature and instincts. Their telos tells them to forage, socialize, fly, roost, and be with others of their own kind every hour of every day for their entire lifetime.
Basically, the contract that humans make with domesticated animals is that, in exchange for a lifetime of food, water, shelter, and protection, they give us their strengths, talents, companionship, and often their lives. Animals are domesticated because they serve a purpose for humans. Dogs were originally hunting partners; cats kept vermin out of stored food; oxen had brute strength; horses made travel faster and easier; cattle, pigs, and chickens provided a ready source of food. Domesticated animals make our lives easier. Parrots really do not have any attributes that could aid in human survival. They are luxuries, mere toys to amuse us.
Parrots have only been popular, and accepted as pets for the masses, for around 150 years. Today, in most cases, parrots are only 1, 2, or maybe 3 generations from the wild. It is true that captive parrots are bred to be sold as pets, but these parrots are not domesticated. The two exceptions would be the budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) and the cockatiel (Nymphicus hollandicus). The domestication of parrots does not happen within 2, 3, 4, or even 5 generations of captive breeding. Parrots may be tame when they come from the breeders and pet stores, but being tame is NOT the same as being domesticated. Captive breeding does not change the telos of the parrot. The urge to want to forage, fly, mate, and to socially interact within a flock of their own kind has not been bred out of them. Captive companion parrots maintain most if not all of their wild instincts, and because of this, the type and amount of care required to keep them healthy and sane are greater than what most caregivers can provide.
Most dogs and cats have fairly simple expectations of their human companions. They require food and clean water in their bowls once or twice a day and a minimal amount of attention when the owner gets home. After a day spent alone, the dog or cat is usually free to run (or walk) to greet their owner at the door. The pet gets instant acknowledgement and gratification by being petted and talked to before the owner even gets their outerwear off. The dog or cat can move around freely and have something to eat while the owner is still getting home. They can go from one person to the next to get more acknowledgement and gratification by being petted by other family members. Dogs and cats are not easy to ignore. Although dogs are naturally pack animals, most of this instinct has been bred out of them. Cats are naturally solitary animals and get along fine without much interaction from their caregivers, and seldom have any interest or need to be constantly stimulated throughout the day.
In contrast, most companion parrots are locked up in their cages alone for most of the day, waiting for their caregiver to come home. They are not free to fly to the door and greet their owner, they do not get instant (or any other kind of) attention, and often they are not even acknowledged. They are frequently kept in a closed room or away from the main living area, and they cannot see what is going on. They must wait until it is convenient for their caregiver to come to them. They are often an afterthought, fed and given fresh water when and if their owner remembers. If they demand attention by screaming or acting out, their cages are covered and they are put to bed. The lucky ones will be allowed out of their cages for a while. The really lucky ones will be talked to and given some physical interaction. But these interludes are generally not enough in comparison with the number of hours that a parrot spends alone. Parrots are flock animals and expect to be in visual, vocal, and physical contact with others at all times. This is part of their telos; it is an absolute necessity to their well being.
Parrots are remarkable creatures. They are able to mimic sounds and can sometimes talk and learn complex words and phrases (and they do this without the benefit of vocal cords). Some can even use these words and phrases in proper context. Parrots are intelligent and playful; they can solve puzzles and learn tricks. They have excellent memories and can measure time. They hold grudges and have likes and dislikes, just like people. Parrots are beautiful. Some possess brilliant iridescent color, attractive feathers, and big, expressive eyes. They also possess large, sharp, powerful beaks. Those beaks, that can reduce a hardwood table to sawdust in one afternoon, can also do unspeakably awful things to a human body.
Two things about this. First: to handle a creature with such potential destructive power is fascinating and flattering to our egos. “His beak is not a threat to me because I am his master”. Second: famous last words. We want parrots to be with us, and because we love the idea of their company, we reason that they will love us too. Parrots are dependent on us, and dependency is not love. Now back to the fact that parrots talk. They also squawk, screech, scream, and shriek, because such vocalizations are part of their natural vocabulary. They will do so because they are lonely, unhappy, bored, frustrated, thwarted, stressed or aggravated. And they are one or all of these things very, very often.
Capturing, breeding, selling, and buying caged parrots for our homes are activities which have become an accepted part of our culture. These activities have been going on for a long time and unfortunately on an increasingly large scale. Millions of parrots are produced by breeders who sell as many as possible for as large a profit as the market will bear. A cursory glance at Kijiji will reveal the spectrum of current prices: several thousand dollars for a macaw, an African grey, or a cockatoo. Several hundred for an Amazon, a pionus, or an African red bellied parrot. Parrot breeding is good business. What is wrong with this picture? Any business person understands the phrase, “follow the market”. When we follow the parrot market, it is immediately apparent that something remarkably unusual is going on.
Parrots are not domestic animals. Never has a healthy wild parrot voluntarily put himself into a cage or agreed to be chained to a perch. The absurdity of this notion rests on the commonsense assumption, that for the parrot, freedom to fly is preferable to captivity. Parrots fly toward water, food, and nesting areas, and away from predators, unfriendly weather, and human hunters.
The anatomy, coloration, intelligence, instincts, and defensive and aggressive behaviors of parrots evolved to sustain them within a wide variety of environments. These attributes are survival mechanisms; they were not designed for human pleasure.
We didn't breed them this way. They are this way.  

Why Are There So Many Unwanted And Un-Well Cared For Companion Parrots?

Parrots are beautiful, unusual, and exotic. They don't cost much more than a purebred dog. They live in a cage, don't require walks, and are potentially trainable. And they talk.
Many potential parrot owners make the decision to buy a parrot for some very selfish reasons. They think it would fun to have a parrot to train to do tricks and to talk. They think owning a parrot is different and prestigious and will impress their friends. They think a parrot would look decorative and exotic in their home. They think a parrot would be a great conversation piece when they have friends and family over. Basically, people are just bored and want something new and exciting in their lives. They want the fantasy of owning a parrot and never consider the reality of it, or how many decades that reality will last.
The fact is, in spite of heightened awareness of the negative aspects of the parrot trade, it has never been easier or more affordable to obtain a parrot. And because of this, more people own and care for parrots now than at any time in our history.
With the industrial revolution and the growing middle class over the last 150 years, more people have acquired more disposable income. Although this has been great for both people and society, this has not been great for both captive and wild parrots throughout the world. Because of the exponential growth in new middle class that started in the late 1940s, more people have enjoyed a higher standard of living. This allowed first hundreds of thousands, and then millions more people who previously could not afford a parrot or would not consider spending money on a parrot, to easily obtain one if they so wished.
By the mid to late 1960s, parrots were still quite expensive for the average middle-class family. This was true for 2 main reasons. First, although there were some parrot breeders in North America, and some illegal parrot poaching and smuggling into North America, the parrot trade was not very organized and this limited the availability. Secondly, due to the fact that there were few parrot breeders breeding for profit, there was little competition. It was easier to keep their margins high and to keep the cost of purchasing a parrot as a pet high. Breeders and sellers simply did not have a lot of parrots available to exploit and make money on. It was easy for them to not oversaturate the market and to avoid driving prices down. There also was not a lot of information available on the proper care for parrots, and to own one meant that you were in a very exclusive market. As a result of limited availability and high costs, few people were coveting parrots as pets.
From the early 1970s to the 1980s, commercial aviculture really took off. More and more people wanted to be in the commercial aviculture business. And with more and more parrots coming into North America, mostly for breeders, more parrots became available. Because of this, prices started to fall as the competition to make a buck heated up. By the early 1980s, only 30 years ago, parrots were becoming much more available in pet stores and from breeders, and starting to be more accepted as pets. Parrots were still considered exotic and were more expensive to acquire as pets compared to other companion animals such as cats and dogs. Because of this, most people still did not consider trying to purchase a parrot based on price. The exception was for the more domesticated parrots such as cockatiels and budgies.
On the heels of the late 1970s, which had the worst recession/stagflation seen since the Great Depression, the western economies, lead by the United States, started one of the biggest growth stories ever. This growth continued over the next 2 decades. An economic and technology boom was underway that would forever change the dynamics of commoditizing animals of all types, from all over the world. This made obtaining animals much easier, quicker, and more cost effective for the end consumer.
Big corporations got into the act on a large scale, as so many corporations do, when they saw an opportunity to promote, facilitate, and commoditize animals as pets on an accelerating growth scale that had never been attempted before. It used to be that most pet stores would go to local breeders to supply them with animals to sell, and this still happens today. But corporations such as PetSmart, Petco, and Petland are in the business of running their own parrot breeding farms to produce parrots at a lower cost/unit basis so as to keep the margins high but at the same time bring and keep the end cost to the customer down. By bringing and keeping the retail cost down, more end users (customers) can afford exotic parrots, which at one time would have been out of their reach financially. The potential customer base is now larger, and anyone with $1,000 to $2,000 to spare can obtain an exotic talking animal without much forethought. According to Karen Windsor Foster Parrots, Ltd. & The New England Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary:

[...]PetSmart and Petco do not have the market cornered on parrot sales.  In general, independent pet retailers generate a higher percentage of sales from live pets than the cost-minded pet supply superstores.  And it is important to consider the fact that the greatest source of all for the direct sale of parrots to consumers are breeders.  There are more than 2500 parrot breeders in operation nationwide, each producing anywhere from 10 to over 65 different parrot species per farm – or factory.  It is common for large breeders to house anywhere between 500 and 1000 breeding birds.  The AVMA Pet Demographics survey of 2001 indicated 10 million parrots in homes in the US.  According to a 1996 PIJAC survey which included breeder information, that number was as high as 40 million.

The more people that can afford a parrot as a pet, the more parrots, cages, toys, food, etc., the pet stores (both private and conglomerate) can sell, and the more money can be made off the backs of all the parrots that are being bred for our amusement.
Before the Internet was in full swing, there were usually only 2 ways to obtain a parrot, and that was through a pet store or through a breeder. So if you were to purchase a parrot pre-1980, and then later you chose to get rid of it, selling that parrot would be very difficult. The only options were to sell it back to the breeder that first sold the parrot or list it for sale in the local newspaper and hope for a buyer. More thought had to go into wanting and purchasing a parrot back then. It was a bigger investment cost-wise relevant to today's costs, and you were more or less stuck with keeping the parrot or not getting the money back that you spent on it. You were much more likely to have to live with the consequences of your actions.
But nowadays, like most other things we purchase, if we decide, for whatever reason, that we have grown tired of our parrot, we have a much easier way out. We can take a quick photo of the item, write a quick description of our once-beloved object, and find someone else who thinks it might be great to have a parrot as a pet. Only now that parrot is considered to be used goods and, as with most other used goods, the cost of that parrot is more likely than not to be even less. This makes it even easier to purchase and re-sell a parrot, to indulge a whim, discover your mistake, and move on. The once coveted and loved parrot, along with millions of other parrots in the same situation, will find its way into this vicious cycle of constant re-homing for decades to come.
Yes, this happens to most companion animals at some point in their life. But dogs and cats may only go through 1 to 4 (on average) different homes within their lifetime of 10-15 years. Parrots, on the other hand, have life expectancies of 25-80 years. So even if a person were to acquire a parrot and that parrot were to live with that person forever, the odds of the parrot outliving the caregiver and needing to be re-homed are quite high. Because of this, it is a very rare occurrence for parrots to not be re-homed repeatedly throughout their lifetime. In most cases, a companion parrot will be re-homed 7 to 9 times on average. This is best illustrated by MAARS director Eileen McCarthy from the book "Of Parrots and People" by Mira Tweti:

[...]People surrendering their parrots" she says, "always say the same thing; 'If I knew then what I know now, I'd never have bought "it" in the first place." Unlike dogs or cats, overpopulation in parrots is not the result of mating run rampant. Dogs and cats mate at will without the need for human assistance (which is why getting them spayed and neutered is so important). Breeding exotic birds is complicated, and often difficult to do in captivity. To succeed in producing offspring, nest boxes must be provided, the right birds must be paired up, and they have to be proper ages. McCarthy makes the point that overpopulation is based not on the number of unwanted parrots but on the number of available placements available for them. "There are not hundreds of thousands of good homes for parrots, not even one hundred thousand," says McCarthy, "so it really doesn't matter how big the number is of unwanted parrots. We know it's big and we know it's going to get bigger, and nobody's prepared to handle what we have now. So how are we possibly going to be able to handle it coming down the pike?  That is really the bottom-line issue. The more they keep selling parrots as ideal companions for the new millennium, the more will end up in shelters. It's just cause and effect.

With the constant re-homing, and LARGE differences of the types of homes that these parrots find themselves in, parrots experience a great deal of stress. Parrots' natures are constantly being challenged and in some cases totally suppressed by their owners, who have no idea of what to realistically expect from a parrot. They expect an easy-to-care-for, compliant, and uncomplicated creature that can talk and do tricks. This is much, much harder on parrots than any other companion animal, and not just because of the number of times they go through this merry-go-round of re-homing. Emotionally and psychologically it is a lot harder on them because parrots are much more intelligent, hormonal, and emotionally needy. Once they bond with their caregiver, separation can be very traumatic. They need and rely on one-on-one interaction with their caregiver much more than with most other companion animals. Parrots can take a very long time to accept new situations and are usually not even given the chance to adjust before being moved to yet another home.
Even with the best of intentions, most people just don't have enough time in the day, the level of commitment required, or a good enough understanding of a parrot's telos to properly care for their parrots. But this reality is not what is being promoted and advertised by the pet industry!

© Parrots Forever