Full title: Of Parrots and People: The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species
This is an important book. It’s not an easy book to read, by any means, but if you’ve ever considered getting any kind of parrot as a pet, you need to read this book. (Yes, the author’s real name is “Tweti”, and yes, it’s pronounced “tweety”.)
There are estimated to be 50-60 million pet parrots in the USA. They range from the tiny budgerigars, to the large macaws that most people think of when they hear the word “parrot”. The book starts out by examining the situation of these pet birds.
It used to be believed that parrots were just brightly colored birds with a talent for mimicry. Thanks to the groundbreaking work of Irene Pepperberg and other researchers, we now know that parrots are as smart as human children. They also have long lifespans. While a parakeet may only be as smart as an 18 month old baby and live for just 10-15 years, an African Gray can be as smart as a 6 year old and live for over 50 years. Parrots are also noisy and messy, something which people often don’t understand before it’s too late. Like many small children, they will screech when they are angry, sad, or just overexcited.
Take budgies, for example. Their normal morning routine is to fly around for a couple of hours tweeting and squawking to each other to keep in touch, and forage for food on the ground. If you don’t spread the food on the ground, they’ll do it for you. They’re quiet compared to any larger parrot, but their noise can be heard anywhere in the house–or even at the far end of the back yard, with all the doors and windows shut.
Take a look at online pet forums and you’ll find people begging for ways to get their pet birds to quieten down. It’s not surprising, then, that there are thousands of unwanted parrots. The lucky ones end up in parrot sanctuaries; the unlucky ones are euthanized. The really unlucky ones live for years in solitary confinement, trapped in a cage, neglected, fed on cheap unhealthy bird food until they die young.
At the same time, breeders are still adding to the problem. The book continues by examining the legal parrot trade in the USA. The life of a lonely captive pet parrot may be bad, but the conditions in the industry are often like a concentration camp for birds.
Apparently many big breeders know little about the birds they raise; they’re only in it for the money, after all. Many believe that birds will breed more if they are kept in the dark; ironically, the exact opposite is true, as birds are triggered to breed by lengthening daylight hours. Nevertheless, thousands of parrots are kept confined in cramped, dark boxes, fed a poor diet. As soon as they raise young, the babies are taken from them. They will scream and grieve for days, but eventually they will try again.
As I said, this is not an easy book to read–and the first half of the book, about the legal parrot trade, is light relief compared to the second half, which considers the illegal parrot trade.
The 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act in the US made it illegal to import any wild bird, unless it could be demonstrated that the capture of that species did not damage exotic bird populations in the wild. Before the law changed, the US was responsible for 40% of the captured wild bird trade; since the law, that has dropped to almost nothing. But of course, some trade continues in the underground economy, and conditions there are horrific.
Texas is the destination for a lot of parrot smugglers. Head into Mexico for 20 minutes and you can find all kinds of illegally caught wild parrots openly on sale–and being kept in deplorable conditions. Street vendors will help you stash the birds in paper bags or cardboard tubes, and secrete them about your person–or even inject the birds with ketamine or other illegal drugs, to knock them out for a few hours while you cross the border. If they live, you save hundreds of dollars over the cost of a legally bred pet bird. This potential markup makes parrot smuggling more lucrative than cocaine–and yet, the chances of being caught are lower, and even if you are caught red handed, you can often escape jail.
The birds, of course, aren’t so lucky. They end up in solitary confinement for years until they can be used as evidence in a trial; after that, the government often sells them at auction, typically to the very people who pay the smugglers. Many birds are just euthanized.
Then there are the practices of some of the people who keep parrots as pets in Mexico. I’m not going to describe them here; I feel lucky that I haven’t had nightmares about it. By the time I was two thirds of the way through the book, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it any further.
I did, though, and got to the final section, which talks about parrot conservation in Latin America. In many communities where the birds were once viewed as a cash crop, they are now seen as a precious resource thanks to the development of ecotourism. Rich gringos can now travel to research stations where they take part in long term studies of parrot populations. Instead of being sold for $25 each to smugglers, the parrots are now attracting tens of thousands of dollars a year in ecotourist trade.
If you’re looking for a happy ending, though, the book will leave you disappointed. Even if we save the parrots from poaching, we’re only postponing what currently seems inevitable. Before long, their forests and jungles will be clearcut to grow soybeans and make toilet paper and books, and the parrots will die off quietly as their habitat disappears. The book ends with a plea for readers to consider going to Eco-Libris to pay for a tree to be planted to offset the destruction caused by reading the book itself. I wish I could believe that that would be enough to make a difference.