Two things you need to know about me before you read this:
1. I am a parrot owner.
2. I went to Costa Rica to work for a couple months this summer.
When I was in Costa Rica, I wasn’t studying parrots, but I did get the privilege of going behind the scenes at a couple wildlife rehabilitation clinics and I did do some observations of parrots in the wild. What I saw and learned was eye-opening and powerful. Life-changing, really.
Wild animals are illegal to own as pets in Costa Rica. This includes any wild parrot, even if it is non-native to the region. The reason is simple: Costa Rica’s people pride themselves in being environmentally forward-thinking, and want to protect threatened species (as so many Central and South American parrots are). That’s what the legislation says. But in actuality, Costa Ricans have a long history of keeping wildlife as pets. A fascinating survey in 1999 reported that approximately 24% of households kept wild animals, the majority of them parrots. https://www.animalsandsociety.org/assets/library/432_s921.pdf
Fines were just recently increased to more formidable amounts, and more parrots are being surrendered or confiscated.
The rehabilitators I met had whole flocks of these “pet” parrots in their facilities. They were keeping these birds in large flight cages with same or similar species, feeding them natural foods they could find in the wild, and monitoring them to see if they were performing normal behaviors indicating that they would be able to be released. The rehabilitators were surprised to learn that a vet interested in wildlife conservation, a.k.a. me, owned a parrot. I would say they were even a little bit judgmental.
I adopted my parrot (a young black-capped conure) a few years ago from a woman who worked at Petsmart. She told me that my bird came from the store she worked at, that she had felt sorry for him for not being bought for so long. She decided to bring him home, but he didn’t get along with her other conure. One of them had to go. Beyond being from Petsmart, I don’t know my bird’s history. He doesn’t have a band. However, since importation of most parrots into the U.S. has been illegal since 1992, and the large pet store chains generally follow the rules, I am pretty confident that he is a captive-bred bird and my possession of him did nothing to deplete wild flocks.
But there’s another issue at stake here: animal welfare. The rehabilitators introduced me to the parrots that they were trying to prepare for release into the wild. Most of the birds, once put into the large flight cages after being quarantined, had to learn many new skills that they did not acquire in captivity. They had to learn to climb up branches, fly, forage for food, interact appropriately with members of their same species, and avoid humans.
I watched wild red-lored parrots (Amazona autumnalis) one morning from the porch of my cabin. I could hear them calling as they wheeled towards me in a small flock. They landed in a tall, leafless tree and I watched through my binoculars as they perched together, in pairs, and preened one another. I also watched the descent of a horde of orange-chinned parakeets (Brotogeris jugularis) attracted to a pile of fruit placed by the staff of the dining hall where we ate our meals. I saw how one or two birds would initially find the fruit, and then call to the rest of the group until 20….30…40 parakeets were perched on the watermelons and papayas like fat green locusts. I saw huge flocks of parakeets in the city of Alajuela, and in Quepos, to my lasting delight, I saw a single pair of scarlet macaws (Ara macao) far away in the distance, calling raucously and heading purposefully towards the mountains.
And I realized that parrots are never alone.
Yet, many of the birds at the rehabilitation centers came from situations where they were housed by themselves in tiny cages, with barely enough room for them to move. The amazing thing is, these birds do learn the required skills, albeit slowly. In the flock setting they are placed in, they learn from each other how to be “normal.” The whole experience has provided me with many questions about keeping parrots as pets, and if my own bird fares well with a schedule that demands I work and leave him alone 10-12 hours a day, 5 days a week.
For the next few months, I will be exploring companion bird ownership in the United States and other countries, how we can improve bird welfare, and parrot conservation efforts. My blog has previously been an eclectic mix of subjects but this will be my focus for the time being. Thanks for reading!