Parrots and Parakeets

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Parrots and parakeets

These intelligent, brightly colored, affectionate birds are found mainly in warm, tropical regions and have long been popular as pets, in large part because many of them can learn to talk. But capture of wild parrots for the pet trade , along with the destruction of forests, have decimated populations of these birds, and many species are now threatened with extinction .

About half of the approximately 315 species of parrots in the world are native to Central and South America. Members of the parrot order (Psittaciformes) include the macaws of Central and South America, which are the largest parrots, with bright feathers; cockatoos of Australia with white feathers and crests on their heads; lorikeets of Australia with orange-red bills and brightly-colored feathers; cockatiels, which are small, long-tailed, crested parrots also from Australia; and parakeets, which are small, natural acrobats, usually with green feathers. Parakeets include lovebirds from Africa and budgies from Australia. Budgies are the most common type of pet parakeet, and they can be trained to say many words. Most parakeets sold as pets are bred for that purpose, thus their trade does not usually threaten wild populations.

Part of the attraction of parrots is their high intelligence, but this can make them unsuitable pets. The birds are often loud and they demand a great deal of attention, and many people who buy parrots give them up because of the frustrations of owning one of these complex birds. In addition, parrots often carry a disease called psittacosis which can be transmitted to humans and commercially raised poultry. For this reason, parrots must be examined by officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) before entering the United States, and hundreds of thousands of parrots have been destroyed to prevent the spread of psittacosis.

The large scale capture of parrots for the legal and illegal pet trade has been a major factor in the depletion of these beautiful birds. The world trade in wild birds has been estimated at over seven million annually, and the United States is the world's largest consumer of exotic birds. Over 1.4 million wild birds were imported into this country during 19881990, and half of these were parrots and other birds supposedly protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The mortality rate for birds transported in international trade is massive. For every wild bird that makes it to the pet store, at least five may have died on the way, and USDA statistics show that 79,192 birds perished in transit to the United States from 1985 to 1990, and 258,451 died while in quarantine or because they were refused entry due to Newcastle disease. In 1991 one airline shipment alone included 10,000 dead birds. Moreover, the shock of capture and caging the birds before shipment may cause even greater mortality rates.

As a species becomes rare or endangered, it often becomes more valuable and sought-after, and some parrots have been sold for $10,000 or more. In October 1992, shortly before being named Secretary of the Interior, former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt addressed the annual meeting of the Humane Society of the United States . Expressing dismay at "the looming extinction of tropical parrots and macaws in South America," he described their exploitation in the following terms: "These birds are captured for buyers in the United States who will pay up to $30,000 for a hyacinth macaw. You can stand on docks outside Manaus, Brazil, and other towns in the Amazon and see confiscated crates with blue and yellow macaws, their feet taped, their beaks wired, stacked up like cordwood in boxes. They have a fatality rate of 50% by the time they're smuggled into Miami."

Some progress has been made in restricting the international trade in parrots. By the end of 1992 over 100 airlines had agreed to forbid the carrying of wild birds. The Wild Bird Conservation Act, signed into law on October 27, 1992, bans trade immediately for several severely exploited bird species and, within a year of passage, outlaws commerce in all parrots and other birds protected under CITES. The act requires exploiters to prove that a species can withstand removal from the wild. This has greatly reduced the number of birds imported into the United States. Conservation groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Welfare Institute , have worked for years to secure passage of this legislation.

Nevertheless, the persistence of smuggling as well as the legal trade in some species of these birds will continue to threaten wild populations. This is especially true when the trees in which parrots nest are cut down to provide collectors access to chicks in the nest. As of 2002, 16 parrot species, 10 parakeet species, and three macaw species were listed as endangered by the U.S. Department of the Interior , and all species of parrots, parakeets, macaws, lories, and cockatoos are listed in the most endangered categories of CITES. IUCNThe World Conservation Unionincludes 69 members of the parrot order in its 2000 list of threatened animals.

Nine parrots are listed as extinct by IUCN. One is the beautiful orange, yellow, and green Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis ) once ranged in large numbers from Florida to New York and Illinois, but the demand for its feathers by the millinery trade was so great that the species was hunted into extinction between 1904 and 1920. Conservationists fear that several other species of the parrot family may soon join the Carolina parakeet on the list of extinct birds.

[Lewis G. Regenstein ]



Beissinger, S. R., and E. H. Bucher. New World Parrots in Crisis: Solutions From Conservation Biology. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.


Beissinger, S. R., and E. H. Bucher. "Can Parrots Be Conserved Through Sustainable Harvesting?" BioScience 42 (March 1992): 16473.

Defreitas, M. "Feathering a Nest in the Windwards. (Saving the Santa Lucian parrot)." Americas 43 (MarchApril 1991): 4045.