grey-parrots-header-6



THE JOURNEY FROM A BUSTLING
FOREST COMMUNITY TO SOLITARY LIFE
IN YOUR LIVING ROOM

grey-parrot-bird-cage
by
SIMON ESPLEY

Grey parrots are one of Africa’s treasures, and seeing them bank and wheel in the skies in noisy flocks, or chatter in the canopies as they forage is a delight and privilege. They surely represent freedom in its purest form. But grey parrots are also the epitome of life behind bars. These intelligent, enigmatic birds are perhaps best known as the feathered entertainers that chirp, wolf-whistle and mimic their way into our hearts from cages in homes across the globe. So this is the story of a special bird that is vanishing from Africa’s forests as fast as morning mist under a tropical sun, and how our fascination for a species can lead to its extermination from the wild.
The history of the grey parrot’s domestication dates at least as far back as 2000 BC with Egyptian hieroglyphics clearly depicting grey parrots as pets. The ancient Greeks also valued them, as did wealthy Romans who often kept them in ornate cages.

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French painter Eduoard Manét’s “Young Woman” of 1866 depicting a pet grey parrot.

There are two distinct species. The one we know best is the Congo grey parrot that, as the name suggests, lives in the forests of Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Its range extends from western Kenya to Ivory Coast, and includes the islands of São Tomé & Príncipe‎ and Bioko.
The lesser known Timneh grey parrot is slightly smaller in size with charcoal grey colouring, a darker maroon tail, and a light, horn-coloured area on the upper mandible. Timneh parrots are endemic to the western forests of the Guinean shield, from Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. Not much is known about this species, and many experts fear that the population has been severely depleted, placing it in an even more serious position than its better-known cousin.
The grey parrot has been heavily trapped for over a century, making it the most traded wild-caught parrot listed under CITES. It is listed on CITES Appendix II, which means that trade should be controlled in order to avoid utilisation incompatible with survival in the wild. The grey parrot is also classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, meaning there is a ‘high risk of extinction in the wild.’

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Grey parrots in their natural habitat in Ituri Forest, DRC.
©Reto Kuster

Over 1.36 million grey parrots (including Timnehs) have been legally exported since 1975, but factoring in mortality rates prior to export of 33-60%, the number of parrots harvested from the wild to supply the legal trade could top 3 million. The high level of trade has been fraught with violations from CITES member countries, exports from non-range countries, abuse of export permits with quotas repeatedly exceeded, wild-caught parrots falsely declared as captive-bred, and continued trade despite zero quota recommendation by CITES.
Trapping for the pet trade has probably been underway in DRC since the early colonial era. Today, a variety of officials play some role in authorising and taxing the trade here, but have little impact on regulating capture or transport.
The grey parrot’s journey from a bustling forest community to a solitary existence in a living room is a long one fraught with danger and death. According to John Hart, the scientific director of Lukuru Wildlife Foundation in DRC, trappers operate at a variety of sites using a range of methods – most commonly trapping along frequently-used fly corridors, or at points of aggregation. Large numbers of birds are netted at clearings where they come to ground to drink or ingest soil. Fledglings are often harvested from nests, and flying parrots are lured by live or wooden decoys in oil palms, where they are trapped on glue-covered perches, as they come in to feed. Oil palms are part of their natural diet.
They are then sold to local buyers who fill orders from exporters based in Kinshasa. In a tragic irony, the parrots spend much of their incarceration in the air with other birds. They are crammed into small containers in Kindu and Kisangani, where Hart focuses most of his research, and then flown to the capital by light plane. The birds are rarely transported by boat or vehicle due to inaccessibility and the high mortality rate.

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Top: Parrots shortly after release from captivity on Ngamba Island, Uganda.
©Charles Bergman.
Middle: Parrots are tethered to palm trees to attract other parrots for trappers in Kisangani, DRC.
Bottom Left: A wild caught parrot is put in a small cage for transport.
Bottom Right: Fledglings plucked from tree holes for the parrot trade. ©Lukuru Foundation/TL2 Project
About half of the
parrots captured for
the pet trade
die before they
reach Kinshasa

Hart calculates that at least 10% of birds die on planes, 24% die while being transported over long distance or when caught as fledglings, and between 10% and 40% die in the hands of local buyers. What this reveals is that approximately 50% of the birds die before they even reach Kinshasa. And those survivors still have a long, perilous journey ahead.
A 2006 EU import ban on wild birds means grey parrots are no longer transported to Europe, but CITES continues to support export from DRC, Congo, and Cameroon to South Africa, South East Asia and the Persian Gulf. There is rising demand for grey parrots in China, and the presence of Chinese business interests in range countries probably creates avenues for both illegal and legal trade.
South Africa is proving more and more irresistible to traders, with its toxic combination of excellent infrastructure, porous borders and high levels of fraud and corruption. In 2010, 731 grey parrots died en route by plane from Kinshasa to Durban. Speculation is that they were linked to the “Congo 500” – illegal parrots that had been seized in DRC, and taken to a sanctuary for rehabilitation and release back into the Congo forests. They were confiscated from the sanctuary by government officials, and then disappeared back into the system.

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Wild caught parrots in a holding cage await collection for transport. ©Lukuru Foundation/TL2 Project

South Africa plays an increasing role in the trafficking of grey parrots (and many other African wildlife species) and has, over the last few years, consistently imported more from DRC than that country’s entire export quota of 5,000 grey parrots.
Not to be overlooked is the number of grey parrots South Africa actually exports as captive-bred, close to 42,000 in 2012. With this level of captive breeding capacity there is little justification for continued import of wild parrots into South Africa, a practice with devastating consequences for wild populations. There is also a high mortality in South Africa’s captive exports. The intense breeding practices are a vehicle for diseases and a large number of the captive-bred greys are affected by the often deadly PBFD (Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease) and other diseases.
Many breeders portray themselves as saviours of wild parrots by producing captive-bred stock, and thus supposedly obviating the need to capture wild birds. Yet wild populations are under even more pressure to feed the growing parrot captive breeding industry.

Wild populations are under pressure to feed the pet industry with cheap breeding stock

Wild-caught birds (especially illegal birds) are cheaper than captive-bred birds, so a wild-caught bird is quicker and easier to sell. In addition, many breeders prefer wild-caught birds because they commence breeding almost immediately, whereas captive-bred birds only reach breeding age after four years. In order to increase yield, breeders often hand-raise fledglings that had been hatched in incubators, thereby robbing the birds of essential life skills handed down by parents. The result is a tame parrot, suitably conditioned for pet purposes, but of little use as a breeder – further increasing demand for wild-caught birds as breeding stock.

photo
A Timneh grey parrot at a seller in Pretoria, South Africa.
©Anton Crone

Experts say the grey parrot is so smart that it can perform cognitive tasks at the level of human toddlers, which is one of the properties that makes them so attractive as pets. But the majority of pet parrots are kept alone in cages whereas in the wild they are social birds – hard-coded to seek the comfort and security of their peers, roosting in groups and flying in large flocks. Many pet grey parrots end up as well-loved companions, but many more end up unwanted, misunderstood and socially maladjusted – often given away to friends, relatives or rescue centres.
A grey parrot lives for 50-60 years in captivity, which is something many prospective owners don’t fully comprehend. In fact, every responsible parrot owner should have a succession plan in place – someone reliable to carry on the commitment and relationship.
I would imagine both wild-caught and captive-bred parrots struggle to adjust to a life of solitary confinement in a cage or house a fraction of the size of their natural range. There is also the constant need of humans to prod, pick up, stroke and cuddle their pets, which must be stressful to birds not used to this form of close combat. Paramount is a lack of comprehension about their diet.

Many captive
grey parrots
end up obese,
socially awkward
“problem children”

The tradition is to feed pet parrots dry seed, fleshy fruit with no nutritious kernel or “scientifically prepared” biscuits – whereas in nature, the parrot will commonly feed off a wide array of fresh food, especially the kernels of forest fruit (the flesh is mostly discarded). It’s not surprising that many grey parrots end up obese, socially awkward “problem children” growling, swearing and screaming at strangers, biting fingers and chewing furniture. And, unfortunately for the naïve purchaser, they don’t become well-adjusted adults at any stage of their lifetime. With the best of intentions it’s often a lose-lose relationship for parrots and their owners.

Some wild-caught grey parrots are lucky to escape such a future. Parrots seized in Bulgaria were rehabilitated and released by the World Parrot Trust on Ngamba Island, Uganda in July 2013. The parrots were caught illegally in DRC, shipped to Lebanon (where they were issued with fake papers) and then shipped on to Bulgaria. 108 parrots arrived in Bulgaria, but only 17 survived the quarantine imposed by Bulgarian authorities who were poorly equipped for the task. The process of international bureaucracy and rehabilitation took over 3 years before the 17 survivors tasted freedom again.

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Top: Jane Goodall, Dr. Rowan Martin of World Parrot Trust and representatives from Uganda Wildlife Authority and Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary release grey parrots on Ngamba Island. ©Sherry McKelvie
Bottom: Parrots are released into a holding pen in Cameroon before release into the wild. ©WPT

This iconic bird is clearly under pressure in the wild from habitat loss and from trapping for the pet trade. The proportion of birds dying en-route from capture to the market appears very high, and we have no idea of true wild population numbers. CITES has little control over the situation and member countries view the grey parrot as an inexhaustible harvest resource for revenue and employment.
A positive sign is that thousands of grey parrots have been confiscated from traffickers in several African countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, DRC, Republic of Congo, and Guinea, and in special cases, these birds have been successfully released into their former ranges. These confiscation efforts, spearheaded by the World Parrot Trust and many other collaborating NGO’s and governments are proving a valuable deterrent and a source of birds for the restoration of the species in the wild. But much more needs to be done.
South Africa should be a conservation leader of grey parrots. There are more than enough birds in captivity to sustain a healthy gene pool for the pet trade. It should cease all imports of wild caught grey parrots while applying stricter controls against the illegal trade. The next CITES Conference of the Parties is in Durban in 2016, and given South Africa’s major role in imports from DRC and other countries it should be leading the way in pushing for an end to trade in wild-caught birds. The question is, do CITES and member countries have the political will and control over the situation to take this necessary action?africa-geographic-logo

 

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The information that went into the article was gathered from personal observations and experience, advice and info provided by experts and from various print and online resources. Most specifically I would like to list the following invaluable resources:
1. Rowan Martin, manager of World Parrot Trust’s African Conservation Program, for his advice, guidance and proof-reading skills.
2. John and Terese Hart, of the Lukuru Foundation in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
3. Cristiana Senni and Jamie Gilardi of World Parrot Trust.
4. Mike Perrin, whose book “Parrots of Africa, Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands” was an invaluable resource. I conducted a review of his book here.

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  • Ernest

    Thanks for the info it helps to know really what is happening

  • Shelley

    It’s heartbreaking!

  • Jhm0699

    Don’t buy parrots for pets! Parrots belong in the wild where they are free to soar through the tree tops.

  • Lee

    Thank you for such an informative article. I find it heartbreaking whenever I see birds, which have evolved I to highly sociable animals. living a life of solitary confinement. A ban on the trapping and se of ALL wildlife must be achieved – for many, it is already too late.

  • Peter M

    In Australia, like the grey parrots, we get flocks of cockatoos that appear to be remarkably intelligent and revel in their freedom. Caged cockatoos often make different sounds to those in the wild. Fortunately it’s pretty unusual to see caged cockatoos here. The last time I saw one was in a small cage in a garden many years ago, but I still remember the sounds it made communicating with it’s free mates. It may be delusion through anthropomorphism, but the experience still worries me.

  • Jeanine Gastellier Goeders

    Living in Paradis in the ITURI (east DRC ) forest …..with the elusive Okapi in freedom and be trapped to live in a cage is cruelty ! The Greed has no “frontiere” Pls do not buy this beautiful clever bird as a Pet deserving to live FREE .

  • Paulb

    I do believe it is one of the ultimate sins, we dream of flying yet we contain natural flyers or flight in a cage !

  • BB

    One should never purchase a parrot that is not a chick hand-reared by a breeder. Even with that being said, I do not recommend parrot ownership at all except for budgies and cockatiels because they will most likely outlive their owners (30-75 year lifespan depending on the type) and at least their owner’s lifestyle!

    • Greg Glendell

      A brilliant, but very sad article. But please don’t make the mistake of buying a bird which has been hand-reared! H-rearing is just a euphemism for parental deprivation, which causes severe behavioural problems in captive-bred parrots, once the young birds mature. The wild trade is cruel anbd should be stopped, but don’t think the captive breeding is that much better, it is not!
      Greg Glendell
      UK.

      • Phorus’ Rhacos

        Of course the captive breeding is much better, maybe not acceptable for your sandarts (which I respect and understand completely) but better anyway.

    • Kipawa

      Depending on the human being’s life, you must make a provision for your parrots in your will. We have.

    • Ellen

      Budgies and cockatiels are just as deserving of loving, nonabusive homes.

  • Colin Bell

    Excellent article Simon.

  • Jonno

    Fantastic piece Simon! A truly shocking eye-opener and further evidence that CITES and member countries quite clearly do not have the political will and control over this and countless comparably awful agendas

  • Christian Boix Hinzen

    Surely the best vaccine against wanting to acquire one as a pet must be waking up anywhere in an African forest to the sound of “pinging” and “screeching” Grey Parrots….or watching them fly freely over Africa’s forests. Lets keep the cages for pet poachers, smugglers and traders. Cracking article Simon.

  • Elissa Long

    Thank you for this heartbreaking yet concise report of the plight of CAGs and TAGs.

  • Shari Mirojnick

    Another reality about captivity is that most parrots don’t reach old age. Poor diet, lack of vet care, accidents shorten their lives. The average lifespan of a grey in captivity (in the US) is 12 years. As for buying only hand-reared parrots, they came from somewhere. The lives of parent birds are dismal. Small flights, no toys, cheap diets, and no enrichment. Their entire lives are making babies for a predator to raid their nest box. In South Africa, parrots are sold as hand-fed babies, but their parents are from the wild. Noted in the article, wild-caught greys are cheaper and ready to breed. There is a bottom line to parrot breeding and that will always trump the well-being of the parrots. We need to educate the next generations that parrots are wild animals, and have no business being in our homes. It’s a frightening thought that humans are allowed to keep endangered species in their living rooms and backyards. Imagine if that were true for other endangered species like rhinos. No one thinks we’re going to save a species like rhinos by breeding them for the pet trade.

  • Dannielle Webb

    This was so sad to see and read, UNFORTINATLY it paints a picture where people don’t get to see the loving owners such as myself who actually see their parrots as their children who really give them a spoiled life. My 2 African greys have their own bedroom, are free to fly around the house if they wanted to but just stick to their room, they have huge cages (I call their “bedrooms”) they get plenty to eat, lots of toys and plenty of love (and health care when needed) so my parrots are well looked after) I am young enough and well educated on their care) SO not all Parroents (parents) of parrots) are horrible people who don’t care about their pets as this article showed) Just for you FYI jhm0699 Cats and Dog are wild also at one point too!! People don’t “own” parrots they OWN you.
    Shari- I had a cockatiel live to be well into his 30’s (and that’s old for a tiel) also for a grey old age (pet ones) they say is about 30ish (on a seed only diet) Mine get seeds/fruits/veggies/eggs/ occasionally meat (white meat only) JUST so you all are aware Parrot owners are Decent and LOVE their FIDS (feathered kids)

  • Amazing article of course well written by Simon and stunning photography. One point I would add to the comments here is just that we who do share our lives with a grey Parrot perhaps have a unique opportunity to advocate for the adoption of rescued Greys over purchasing from breeders as people tend to ask us advice before buying and we tend to hang out in bird forums etc… so the audience is there. There are so many parrots needing forever homes, why keep breeding them? Similar to adopting a dog rather than going to a breeder – many understand that concept but don’t realize the same applies to parrots.