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Illegal Bird Trade

Birds are the third most popular pets in the world.The images of striking blue and gold macaws soaring or birds snuggling in a tree are powerful. People see these magnificent birds in the wild, and they want to own one. Birds are the third most popular pets in the world, but unfortunately, this overwhelming desire has led to the demise of many parrot species, as buyers purchase wild-caught birds instead of those that are captive-bred. Even with regulations in place -- the Endangered Species Act, the Wild Bird Conservation Act, and a ban under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) -- millions of wild birds find themselves stuffed in boxes or bags headed for the black market. Yellow-headed Amazons, for example, sell for $800 to $1500 each in the United States. Most die in transit, but those who make it are sure never to return to their natural habitat.

Talking parrot movie
 

Click on this QuickTime movie (243k) to find out what Jake thinks about parrot-napping. You will need the QuickTime plug-in to view this movie.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has captured 38 wild bird smugglers over the past three years. One of these bandits, Tony Silva, was a renowned parrot expert who had been outspoken about bird conservation. In November 1996, Silva pleaded guilty to smuggling nearly $1.4 million worth of endangered parrots, including hyacinth macaws, into the United States from South America. Hyacinth macaws fetch up to $12,000 each, partially because only 2,000-5,000 remain in the wild. Silva received a seven-year prison sentence for cashing in on birds he described as "worth their weight in gold."

More recently, a Florida federal judge fined Adolph Pare $300,000 and sentenced him to a year in prison for illegally importing more than 4,000 African Grey parrots from Zaire and Senegal into the United States.

What You Can Do

With the illegal bird trade threatening the survival of many wild parrot species, it is important to learn how to differentiate captive-bred birds from those caught in the wild. Dr. Donald Bruning, the curator of ornithology at the Bronx Zoo, advises bird buyers to look at their potential pet to see if it has a closed-ring band on its leg. This tag means it is captive-bred. Bruning acknowledges that people can cheat the system by putting closed-ring bands on wild birds, but he says this band represents a first step toward protecting wild populations. For people who are just starting out, he recommends a parakeet, cockatiel, or another small bird. Large birds can be loud, messy, and long-lived -- qualities that some new owners are not prepared to handle.

A buyer should be an educated consumer. This means asking at the pet shop where the birds were bred and who the breeder was. The more people ask, the more pet stores will respond with good information. "That would be an immediate step in the right direction, and it would give people a source of getting better information on how to care for the birds," says Bruning. He explains that if enough people refuse to buy birds that lack proper credentials, questionable pet shops will be forced to change their policies.

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