Canary in a Coal Mine? A Day to Save the Birds....

This Thursday (January 5, 2012) marks the 10th anniversary of National Bird Day, a day to recognize the threats birds face -- both in captivity and in the wild. This day, launched by Born Free USA in coordination with the Avian Welfare Coalition, is a somber reminder of our winged friends' perilous plight -- a plight of which many people across America remain unaware.

The international trade in "pet" parrots (or the domestic trade within countries of origin) remains a major threat to global parrot populations and causes immense suffering to thousands of individual birds.

Poor to no enforcement of international treaties and local laws continues to be a major conservation challenge, especially where illegal practices are viewed as socially acceptable at the local level. In Latin America, illegal wildlife trade is second only to the narcotics trade, and parrots are one of the most victimized animals. Their beauty and charisma have become their curse. Magnificent scarlet macaws once flew in abundance over much of Latin America. Today their numbers have drastically fallen as the striking birds are under constant and sustained threat from deforestation and poaching.

Is captive breeding a panacea to the further decline of imperiled bird species? Threatened and endangered species are some of the most sought-after birds, and those people who are most eager to acquire rare birds are some of the disreputable breeders looking to add new genetic stock to their collection and to cash in on progeny that they produce. Moreover, the trade in captive bred birds provides a smokescreen for trade in wild-caught birds.

For example, in 2011, South African breeders imported more than 5,000 wild caught African grey parrots from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and exported nearly 25,000 African greys to markets around the world. These birds include captive-bred birds produced from wild-caught parents as well as wild-caught birds laundered through South African breeders and exported as "captive-bred." And on Christmas Eve 2010, 730 wild-caught African greys died on a commercial flight in South Africa. The parrots were part of an order of 1, 650 adult parrots who'd been caught in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to be sold to South African breeders.

Captive breeding is not the answer -- protection in the wild is.

A focus on captive breeding also ignores the welfare of the individual animals. Even in the most modern breeding facilities in the United States, birds typically are housed in conditions that fail to meet their physical and behavioral needs. The welfare of birds held in captive breeding facilities in developing countries is most assuredly similar or worse.

Whether birds are wild-caught or captive bred, their welfare in captivity is frequently poor. It is very difficult to meet the needs of these intelligent, highly social, flight-adapted animals in a home environment. The only real solution is to replace demand for parrots as pets with demand for keeping parrots (and all wildlife) in the wild.

There is hope.

Recently, government authorities in Cameroon, Africa confiscated 700 African grey parrots captured in the wild, stuffed into crates and destined for the pet trade. Thankfully these birds were still alive. Cameroon chose to turn the parrots over to our friends at the Limbe Wildlife Center to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild instead of cashing in and laundering the birds back into the trade.

And in Latin America, a project that Born Free supports to protect scarlet macaws in Honduras has been a resounding success. As a direct result, "parrot patrols" organized by local communities in the region, 11 scarlet macaw chicks who were confiscated directly from poachers were provided care until they were old enough to fly and rejoin their flocks and families, instead of spending the rest of their lives in small cages.

January 5 -- National Bird Day -- is a time to redouble our commitment to the plight of birds everywhere and to recognize that the fight for their survival and freedom is not over. We must persist.

Many seem to think that the problem of bird trade and conservation was solved with the passage of the U.S. Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, which effectively reduced the United States from being the largest importer of wild-caught birds to one of the smallest. The passage of the act was a triumphant battle -- but we have not yet won the war.

Let us take one day out of the year -- January 5 -- to consider the birds in our backyards and their cousins flying free from Anguilla (whose national bird, by the way, is the Turtle Dove) to Zimbabwe (whose national bird is the African Fish Eagle).

They need our support.