Rosemary Low tells us more about the ethics of Parrot breeding.
One of the first Parrot books available in the English language was Parrots and Parrot-like Birds by the Duke of Bedford. The first edition was published in 1929, when he was still the Marquess of Tavistock.
He had a famous Parrot collection (including birds at liberty) on his huge estate at Woburn Abbey. His tragic death in 1953 was a huge shock to the avicultural world. In 1954 an American edition of the book was published. It can still be found on the internet at a low price, whereas the first edition is a collector’s item.
I love to peruse these old books. Recently I read the advice on the Cockatiel in this classic book. At that time very few Parrot species had been domesticated and offered for sale as captive-bred. Already the Duke saw a problem.
He warned: “Unfortunately, while healthy Cockatiels are hardy and prolific, there are often on the market a number of birds inbred or badly reared that are a source of trouble to their purchasers, the cocks proving sterile and the hens getting eggbound or indulging in some kind of mental vagaries that effectively prevent the propagation of their kind.
It is to be hoped that someday breeders of foreign birds will begin to observe the elementary rules of hygiene and management that no one engaged in rearing domestic animals would think of neglecting.”
These words are as true today as when they were written nearly one hundred years ago. Over-breeding of certain species and the concentration on the production of quantity over quality (especially in mutations) is a serious problem today.
Equally, hand-rearing birds to make them easier to sell as pets, creates problems. Many are not socialized with their own species and if they end up in a breeding situation might prove useless for breeding. Worse still, they could be aggressive and kill their partners.
This is what the Duke of Bedford meant in “some kind of mental vagaries” even though hand-rearing was rare then. Parent-reared birds removed from their parents at a very early age, without the opportunity to learn the behaviours of their own species, could be equally problematic.
Supply exceeding demand
Several years ago I heard about Rosellas that were being sold for the equivalent of $2 each in the Netherlands. How can it happen that living creatures as beautiful and as easy to care for as these Parakeets, can be sold at such a low price? It is simply a case of supply exceeding demand.
Unfortunately, most people with a pair of Parrots let them breed without any thought as to whether the young will be wanted. When a Parrot is sold for almost nothing it is likely to be acquired by an inexperienced person who buys a small, cheap cage and places it in the living room, like an ornament. This person is ignorant of the aviary space needed for such active birds, or the level of attention they require.
If you have pairs of inexpensive species that you know are difficult to sell to suitable homes, please do not breed from them. Let them lay! Do not thwart their instinct to breed. Then replace the eggs with the ceramic eggs that pigeon fanciers use or other false eggs. If you remove her eggs the female will lay again – and again, possibly depleting her calcium reserves with fatal consequences.
Advice for the buyer
It should go without saying that someone seeking a bird of any kind should:
- Buy from a reputable, experienced breeder.
- First research the accommodation and dietary needs of the species in question.
- Not buy unweaned Parrots unless he or she has lot of experience in hand-rearing. Even then, caring breeders are unlikely to sell unweaned young because they know about the problems — often fatal — that can arise for the chick.
When a breeder sells to someone who has never had a Parrot as a companion, they need to emphasize that Parrots — even the smallest species — are highly sentient creatures.
They have a complex range of emotions, including grief, contentment, love, fear, frustration (sexual and otherwise), depression, dislike and jealousy. The latter is often observed in companion Parrots — jealousy of a human companion or another avian one.
Sentience — that is — being capable of feelings and emotions, is a subject that is rarely discussed in books on Parrot care. Emotions run high in most Parrots, even if this is not recognised by their “owners”.
It is something that until quite recently was almost totally neglected. Whether you have aviary birds or house companions, there is a golden rule: “Try to put yourself in the place of your bird or birds and ask yourself what you can do to improve its life and wellbeing.”
This is advice that should be passed on by every breeder with every young bird.
If you breed Parrots you have to face the reality that a proportion of those of them will become unwanted eventually. This might be because they are too loud and demanding or because they start to pluck themselves and no longer look beautiful.
Or perhaps the owner has died and the relatives are not interested in inheriting a Parrot. It is time that breeders and others started to take a responsible attitude to the problem, that is, they act in a way that minimises the numbers of unwanted birds.
Dedicate an aviary
I would suggest that every breeder sets aside one aviary for unwanted Parrots. I do not mean taking unwanted pets that will be paired up with the possibility of producing more problem birds.
I am referring to Parrots from aviaries that are old or difficult to rehome for some other reason. A breeder could dedicate a large aviary with a large shelter or indoor section for several birds of different species that can live together amicably, enjoy life and never be moved on.
You sometimes hear people talk about Parrots that they have “rescued” – to pair up and breed from. This is not rescue – it is obtaining cheap or free Parrots for profit.
I also believe that breeders have an obligation to look after their pairs that are no longer producing due to age – not to sell them at the next big sale day.
Question your conscience
Cockatoos are among the most problematical of hand-reared Parrots — often because purchasers do not understand the huge degree of commitment needed to keep a Cockatoo happy and healthy.
In the UK, a former Cockatoo breeder now devotes her time and energy giving aviary space to unwanted Cockatoos.
In Canada, a respected company that hand-rears young for the pet trade ceased to breed Cockatoos.
In 2005 Mark Hagen told me: “Large Cockatoos seem to be the ones with the majority of behavioural problems, leading to abandonment. We used to breed a dozen baby Moluccans every year from five pairs and stopped this years ago. We do still breed Goffin’s.”
Breeders created the problem. If they have a conscience, they will stop hand-rearing young. There are now too many unwanted Cockatoos and other Parrots for rescue centres to cope.
Owners of pairs of more expensive Parrots should consider very carefully what they are doing when they sell their young into the pet trade. In pet stores the unfortunate birds, unloved and lonely, often languish for months because the price is so high.
Breeders who sell to stores are increasing the risk of problem Parrots that end up unwanted. Early neglect (lack of close contact with humans) results in Parrots that will soon have behavioural problems with which inexperienced purchasers are unable to cope.
I have even seen young hand-reared Parrots in stores offered for sale in glass cages. This is inhumane. They are even denied any physical contact with people.
To decrease the number of young of certain species available for the pet market will seem like a curious aim to commercial breeders. The fact is, however, that certain species, notably white Cockatoos, and Grey Parrots, are more likely to end up in rescue centres because they are so demanding when hand-reared, especially in inexperienced hands.
The same breeders could be producing birds that make wonderful pets that are easier to cope with, such as Cockatiels. The problem is that these lovely birds do not have the same kudos as larger Parrots.
Many purchasers do not make an effort to read reliable literature about the species they are buying or on general Parrot behaviour. Often, they search the internet where there is much conflicting and incorrect advice. Books by acknowledged avicultural authors with many years’ experience is recommended.
Normally there is absolutely no warning from the seller about possible behavioural problems. Neither are there suggestions about training Parrots to perform simple actions such as stepping up that make them much easier to live with.
Although it is commendable to recommend books about Parrot behaviour, many Parrot owners are not interested in buying books. A breeder could easily photocopy the relevant pages about behaviour-related problems so that the potential purchaser is aware of these.
There are many breeders who try hard to find the most suitable homes for their young birds. These are the truly committed ones who see every bird as an individual that deserves the best that its human companion can give.