Wild Birds Should Fly Free: National Bird Day Puts Our Winged Friends on Center Stage

What does a caged parakeet in Connecticut have in common with a scarlet macaw flying freely in Costa Rica? They are both at risk.

The exotic bird trade remains complex, and related statistics are staggering. The number of "pet" birds in the United States is estimated to be between 8 and 40 million, and is mostly exotic birds, such as parrots and cockatiels. With a parrot's average lifespan running 75 years, these birds will spend agonizing decades in captivity, and will likely outlive many of their owners.

Sunday, January 5, 2014 marks the 13th Annual National Bird Day: a day to recognize the threats facing birds, both in captivity and in the wild. This celebration, launched in 2002 by Born Free USA in coordination with the Avian Welfare Coalition, is a reminder of the plight of our winged friends. It's a day to shine a spotlight on issues critical to the protection and survival of all birds.

The treatment of parrots -- one of the most highly sought-after exotic birds - serves as a prime example of these issues. The international parrot trade remains a major threat to global parrot populations, with roughly one-third of all parrot species in peril. Additionally, the trade causes immense suffering to thousands of individual birds who languish in captivity each day. To make matters worse, there is an inconsistent patchwork of domestic and international bird laws and regulations in place, with poor enforcement to combat bird smuggling. In Costa Rica, as in most of Latin America, the illegal wildlife trade is second only to the narcotics trade in profitability, and parrots are one of the most victimized animals. Their beauty and charisma have become their curse.

The U.S. government took decisive action more than two decades ago to dramatically curtail the import of wild birds, in an effort to reduce the pillaging of nests for these magnificent animals around the world. The Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 effectively shifted the U.S. from being the largest importer of wild-caught birds to one of the smallest, aiding in conservation efforts worldwide. Meanwhile, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) continues to provide much-needed protection to wild bird species globally.

But, the unregulated breeding of exotic bird species in the U.S. continues to flood the market with millions of animals. Many of these birds are entrusted to humans who are ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle the significant responsibility of their ongoing care. Overproduction and promotion of parrots and other exotic birds has resulted in an influx of unwanted, abused, and abandoned birds in shelters and rescue facilities across the U.S. Even when bred in captivity, exotic birds are not domesticated animals because their natural instincts, such as flying, flocking, and mate-bonding, remain intact. Basic components of captivity -- including isolation, lack of stimulation, and insufficient exercise -- have led many captive birds to lash out, often violently, or to continuously talk, squawk, or sing. On average, a "pet" bird remains in a home for only 2 years, and is then sold, passed on, or surrendered. Of the 100 or so self-identified bird rescue and rehabilitation facilities in the U.S., a significant portion have been established just in the last few years to address this need, and remain overcrowded and underfunded.

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 best solution is to replace the demand for birds as pets with a demand to keep all birds in the wild.

The threats to birds are real and global. Straw-headed bulbuls in Malaysia and Singapore have been poached to dangerously low numbers. Songbirds in China are trapped and sold for food or as pets. Migratory birds are netted and slaughtered by the hundreds across Northern Africa and the Mediterranean. Captive-born parakeets flutter in overcrowded cages at discount pet stores. Cockatiels, parrots, and other exotic birds repetitively pluck feathers from their own chests in revolt of their restrictive captivity.

On January 5, National Bird Day (http://www.nationalbirdday.org), we will reaffirm our commitment to birds everywhere and acknowledge that the fight for their freedom and survival is not over. We must persist. With 46 million birdwatchers in America, the market is ripe for respecting and appreciating birds in their natural habitat.

National Bird Day is a chance to consider the welfare of all birds -- from the cage, to the backyard, to the skies across the globe.

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