Thinking Outside the Cage

December 14 marks the start of the 111th Annual Christmas Bird Count, a chance for the nearly 48 million bird watchers in the US to participate in the world's biggest citizen science project to count, watch and celebrate our North American birds flying freely in their natural habitats. Clearly, this is a birder's euphoria.

Bird watching in the US is no featherweight. One of every five Americans watches birds, and their activities contribute $36 billion to the US economy annually.

Support Truthout as part of your year-end giving: make a tax-deductible donation today by clicking here!

Back in 1900, concerned conservationists, including renowned ornithologist Frank Chapman, recognized that overhunting was fueling declines in bird populations. To replace the “side hunt,” a holiday tradition that rewarded hunters for slaughtering the largest number of birds, Chapman proposed a Christmas Bird Count to help save them.

For over a century, data provided by observers during the count has been a valuable conservation tool, helping researchers, conservation biologists and the scientific community to monitor the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

But imagine if today's bird watchers encountered people climbing trees with nets in their hands, hunting down and snaring large flocks of North American blue jays or cardinals. What if they witnessed baby red-tailed hawks being robbed from their nests and stuffed into knapsacks? Worst of all, what if they learned that these beautiful creatures were being shipped to foreign countries to be peddled in storefronts and marketed as “caged birds” from America. Surely, they would be outraged. It would be a birder's hell.

Yet, this scenario plays out every day in the lives of birds in South America, Africa and Indonesia, as countless thousands are hunted down and torn from their families in the wild, only to suffer at the hands of poachers and animal traffickers for the illegal and legal global trade in parrots and other exotic birds.

Twelve percent of the world's birds are facing extinction and parrots are among the most at risk. A paper published by the Worldwatch Institute, “The Plight of Birds,” revealed that “almost a third of the world's 330 parrot species are threatened with extinction due to pressures from collecting for the pet trade, combined with habitat loss.” Most birds don't even survive the shock of capture and transport. Experts estimate that 60 percent of birds die before reaching international destinations. To compensate for mortalities, up to four times as many birds are captured than make it to market.

We seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the commercial exploitation of non-native birds. Each year, millions of the birds of other countries, such as parrots, finches and canaries, are sold as “caged birds” in the US – descendants of birds that were captured from the wild.

There is an irony in the fact that US birders often see the birds of other countries behind bars in exhibits, pet shops and homes – places where they rarely know the freedoms enjoyed by our native birds.

Keeping birds as “pets” presents another set of problems. Even when bred in captivity, exotic birds are not considered domesticated animals and their inherent behavioral and physical needs remain intact. Sadly, when it comes to birds, deprivation of their natural behaviors (to fly and flock, for example) is an inescapable component of their captivity.

Many captive birds spend their lives confined to cages; they may never experience the companionship of birds of their own kind or the joy of free flight. Their wings are often clipped to prevent them from injury or to keep them under control, thereby hindering what 100 million years of evolution have prepared them to do – to fly.

If captive birds are prone to captivity-related stress, neurotic behavior, excessive screaming, feather plucking, self-mutilation and other destructive behaviors, can you blame them?

Many people desire to own an exotic bird, but very few are capable of coping with their special needs. When the novelty of keeping an exotic “pet” wears off, many birds become victims of neglect or abuse; they are isolated to basements, passed from home to home, relinquished to shelters or simply abandoned. Others end up in breeding facilities that resemble little more than warehouses in which birds are held in barren cages for mass production. There are no legal standards to govern bird production facilities.

While breeding birds for the pet trade adds to their numbers in captivity, it contributes nothing to their dwindling numbers in the wild. The vast majority of captive breeding is done outside of official species survival plans or directed conservation efforts.

Parrots may be endangered in their homelands, but there's a surplus of them in ours; they're now among the fastest-growing population of unwanted “pets” in the US. Exotic bird sanctuaries and animal shelters across the country are filled with the victims of the legal and illegal trade.

Captive birds cannot be returned to the wild, since they do not possess the learned skills necessary to survive; nor can they be set free to fend for themselves. We have an ethical responsibility to provide the best care possible for those already in captivity.

If the millions of bird watchers are any indication, we are a bird-loving nation. Surely, it's time we start replacing the demand for birds as “pets” with a demand for preserving the species in the wild.

Despite the enormous amount of money being spent on bird tourism every year, ridiculously little gets directly routed into conservation projects, especially in the developing nations. Likewise, despite the amount of money made off the retail sale of captive birds and associated products, little or no funding from the captive bird industry makes its way to captive bird rescues.

This needs to change in order to care for the casualties of the trade in captive birds and to keep birds flying in the skies of their homelands, as freely as our own birds do in theirs. The birds have only us upon which to count.