Setting the record a little straighter regarding international trade in wild African grey parrots

The truth regarding a published piece that caused at least one reader to ask: “Is this really true??? If it is not true how can they get away with saying this???”

by GrrlScientist for NatureNetwork.com (now defunct)| Twitter

Adult Congo African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus), preening. (Credit: Papooga / Creative Commons CC 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.)

Early this morning, I was suddenly jolted out of sleep deprivation after reading this paragraph quoted in an email from a new parrot owner:

The fact remains that the majority of captive-bred grey parrot chicks on display in pet stores around the world have wild-caught parents that are confined to a small cage in a “bird mill”. This is nothing like the experience we had with the non-commercial breeder. In “bird mills”, which are reported to exist in basements in New York City, the wild parrots are kept in cramped, dark cages and fed high protein and calcium diets to promote egg production. If the eggs are removed, she will continue laying until she eventually becomes depleted, slows down, and is replaced. Wild-caught grey parrots, like battery chickens, can be replaced cheaply by importing them en masse from source countries where they are still captured.

“Is this really true???” she asked. “If it is not true how can they get away with saying this???”

Indeed. I wanted to know the answers to these same questions.

This led me to read the complete piece (which has since been edited to remove the quoted portion above), published online by National Geographic’s Explorers’ Journal. This led to further unpleasantness as I was confronted the horrible reality that even scientists may allow their emotions to run rampant when it’s convenient. On one hand, scientists are only human after all, like the rest of us. But on the other hand, scientists are … well, scientists.

I left this comment on the site:

your article would be more useful if you would only report the facts instead of including gossip, rumour and inaccuracies. includ[ing] misinformation calls into question everything you claim in this piece, thus, your piece has no credibility at all with rational people.

just for example, if you’ve ever lived in NYC, then you know that living space there is so highly sought-after and expensive that even the most productive pair of African grey parrots cannot possibly earn enough money from sale of their chicks to pay their own living expenses. further, there are strong “quality of life” laws in NYC that would result in the birds being removed from the premises for creating so much noise.

further, if you know anything about the reproductive physiology of grey parrots, then you know they are not “indeterminate layers” as chickens are. [unlike chickens, which will lay an egg nearly every day to replace eggs that are removed from their nests until their body shuts down from calcium depletion] grey parrots will only lay a certain number of eggs, then stop, regardless of whether the eggs remain in the nest with them. not only that, but birds rely on light to prime their reproductive systems, so grey parrots would not be living in a “dark basement” as you claim, because this would shut down reproduction.

and your claim that a wild grey parrot is easily replaced with another wild-caught grey parrot when it slows reproduction is a complete fabrication. importing wild parrots is not a trivial matter. it takes months of coordination with a number of government agencies and requires a lot of paperwork from the exporting country and the importing country, as well as veterinary certificates and quarantine paperwork, pre- and post-importation.

and that’s just one little quibble i have with what you wrote. perhaps you should just stay away from writing serious journalistic stories and go back to writing reviews of children’s movies that you email to your friends?

Immature Congo African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) (Note charcoal grey eye colour, which is typical for immature grey parrots.) (Credit: HD desktop wallpapers.)

But that was just my predawn warning shot. After three cups of coffee and a closer examination of this piece, I found an impressive flock of factual inaccuracies accompanying the typographical and spelling errors (the site’s editors have since corrected those) — publicly-presented misinformation that must be set straight publicly. In this, my rebuttal, I quote the inaccurate passages from the article and provide some facts — research, reasoned arguments and other information — to corroborate my corrections.

It has taken us just 70 years to almost wipe-out one of the most abundant parrots on earth [sic], converting the species into one of the most abundant, well-known and widespread pets on earth [sic].

Grey parrots are not and never were “one of the most abundant parrot species on Earth” for a number of widely-accepted ecological reasons, including one of the more obvious and well-researched reasons, body size — larger animals are simply rarer than smaller ones (ref). For example, there are many more wild budgerigars than grey parrots, and there always were.

Nor are grey parrots one of the most abundant pets on Earth. If we examine the country that has the greatest overall number of pet owners in the world, the United States, as an example of the sorts of pets that people commonly keep, a few facts become apparent. First, according to the most recent statistics compiled by the American Veterinary Medical Association, there were 8.3 million pet birds in the United States at the end of 2011 [AVMA, 2012]. Contrast this with the numbers for the other two most common pets, dogs and cats: there were approximately 70 million pet dogs and 74.1 million pet cats in America at the end of 2011. These numbers make “pet birds” a very very distant third in overall pet popularity.

But unlike dogs and cats, which are two distinct species, “pet birds” includes many hundreds of bird species all lumped together into one gigantic category. Since “pet birds” includes everything from budgerigars, pigeons and canaries to Amazon parrots, cockatoos and macaws, the claim that grey parrots are “one of the most abundant, well-known and widespread pets on earth [sic]” just doesn’t pass even a casual “reality check”. For example, one simply has to walk into a pet store and look at the bird species available for purchase as pets. The vast majority are small, affordable and comparatively quiet birds; canaries, zebra finches, budgerigars and cockatiels. As parrots go, grey parrots are waaaay down the pet availability list and thus, they cannot possibly be “one of the most abundant, well-known and widespread pets on earth [sic]”.

Pet Congo African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). (Credit: HD desktop wallpapers.)

The author goes on to make another fabulous claim:

Millions upon millions have been captured and removed from the wild to accommodate booming demand over the last century.

“Millions upon millions” is a slippery phrase and for that reason, this claim has no place in either scientific writing or in serious journalistic reporting. Whilst it’s true that we cannot know how many birds are removed from the wild, it is possible to use mathematical models and other tools to estimate that number. According to a 2003 report by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC; access their trade database), more than 657,000 individual grey parrots were removed from the wild between 1982 through 2001 (as cited here). If we include pre-export mortalities in this number, some estimates place the number of grey parrots removed from the wild during this time period in excess of one million individuals (as cited here) — an estimate that some of the author’s own colleagues came up with, so he should be well aware of it.

(Just for the record and based upon my own reading that includes reasonable estimates of mortality rates for wild-caught parrots, I estimate this number to be higher: I estimate that somewhere between 1.5–2.0 million grey parrots removed from the wild in those two decades.)

According to my sources (i.e., see de Grahl, 1987), trade in grey parrots has been ongoing at low but slowly increasing levels for many decades. However, these two particular decades (1982–2001) were probably the peak years for trading wild-caught parrots if one considers the total numbers of individuals removed from the wild. So it would be unreasonable to claim that one million grey parrots have been removed from the wild annually for the past 70 years when it is likely that this peak number was only achieved only after 70 years of increasing trapping and public demand.

Nevertheless, even my own (higher) personal estimates don’t qualify as being “millions upon millions”. It is unlikely that “millions upon millions” of grey parrots were captured and removed from the wild during the previous century, regardless of how “booming” the demand for them might have been.

It’s also important to point out that during this same time period, the world’s biggest importer of wild-caught parrots, the United States, enacted the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA). This law severely restricts importation of all wild-caught birds (and parrots); effectively reducing the numbers of imported wild-caught birds (and parrots) from more than 100,000 annually to just several hundreds per year — a mere trickle, comparatively speaking.

In 2007, the next-biggest consumer of wild-caught parrots, the EU, enacted their own ban on importation of wild-caught parrots (more here). This ban restricts importations to only captive-bred parrots from certain countries. I mention this to show that it is reasonable to assume that foreign demand for wild-caught parrots has probably either stabilised or has decreased from pre-WBCA levels.

At this point, the author might have realised that someone out here might actually question the veracity of his “facts”, so he goes on to distract his readers from their thoughts by make yet another fabulous claim:

Just as demand for wild birds and animals was subsiding in the “western world”, a resurgent and prosperous Far East has hundreds of millions more people potentially trading birds.

“[H]undreds of millions”? REALLY?? Considering the size of the human population in these countries, it would appear that the author is accusing every last person in at least some of these countries of “potentially trading birds”. I assume the author is not talking about trading domestic barnyard chickens and ducks, nor is he talking about trade in captive-bred or otherwise legal birds (and parrots) since his article focuses on the illegal trade of grey parrots. But the author never makes his intended meaning clear, so the reader is left to choose between a variety of assumptions.

At this point, I cannot resist putting two of the author’s claims side by side to add some context; he claimed that “millions upon millions” of grey parrots are being illegally traded by “hundreds of millions” of people. Since these two assertions appear in the same article, am I correct to assume that every wild-caught grey parrot is “potentially” handled by an average of one hundred people?

The author then goes on to make another dubious claim, this one with a more scientific basis:

In an effort to better conserve the species NGOs like the World Parrot Trust and BirdLife International have split them into two species, the Endangered Timneh grey parrot in West Africa and the Vulnerable African grey parrot in central Africa.

Pet timneh African grey parrot (Psittacus timneh). Timneh African grey parrots are smaller than Congo African grey parrots, with darker plumage, and a horn-coloured base on the upper mandible of its beak. (Credit: Peter Fuchs / CC BY-SA 2.0.)

My sources make no mention of any role whatsoever for World Parrot Trust in this decision — are they even recognised authorities in taxonomic matters?

My sources do indicate that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)/BirdLife International made this split in 2011 and elevated these two former subspecies to full species status (more here). Whilst it is possible that conservation priorities and international politics were the underlying motivations to speed up this particular taxonomic rearrangement, this decision was actually based on peer-reviewed research that documented non-overlapping geographic ranges, plumage and morphological differences, distinct calls and DNA divergences between these taxa — all reasonable and widely-accepted taxonomic reasons that support this decision (ref).

Grey parrot ranges. (Credit: BirdLife International / IUCN.)

The author’s claim that the timneh grey parrot is endangered is in error (as of 2013. They were later uplisted to Endangered status at the end of 2016, a ruling that was enacted in 2017). According to 2012 Red List published by the IUCN, neither grey parrot species is considered to be endangered in the wild. But both the Congo African grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus, and the timneh African grey parrot, P. timneh, are formally classified as “vulnerable” (Congo African grey parrot datasheet and timneh African grey parrot datasheet).

New forums and groups are being established to save one of the most traded wild-caught birds in the world.

“[O]ne of the most traded wild-caught birds in the world” — there he goes again, grinding his axe by making yet another sensational claim.

I cannot find any data to support or refute this assertion, but based upon the author’s earlier misinformation in this piece and upon my own internal “reality check”, I remain skeptical of this assertion unless and until I see verifiable data or a reasonable argument presented by a credible organisation or scientist.

But I did look around to see what sorts of information on this topic is “out there”. According to my sources, the countries that export the most wild-caught parrots are in South America; mostly Guyana, Suriname and Argentina (Reynolds, 2001). This would suggest that one or more Amazon parrot or macaw species may possibly be “most traded”, not grey parrots, as the author claims.

The “fight” to keep grey parrots safe in the wild is now moving into the forests, salt licks and clearings of the Congo and West African forests, as we mobilize a global effort to save the species from further local extinctions with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Saving Africa’s most important global ambassador from persecution and capture back home is going to be a global effort.

I know this is petty hair-splitting when compared to my other complaints about the accuracy of this article, but — silly silly me! — I thought African elephants are Africa’s “most important global ambassador”? Or is it one of the rhinoceros species?

Booming emerging markets and the increased use of container ships to move large numbers of live, wild-caught parrots, birds and animals is spurring on the recent boom in demand.

If container ships are being used to move large numbers of wild-caught parrots, birds and other animals, then this is news to me. On one hand, I am not an expert in the variety of cruelties that humans heap upon the world’s wildlife in their quest for a gawdalmighty dollar, so this could well be true. But I have been avidly following the antics of wildlife smugglers for a decade, reading with disgust as they smuggle birds in luggage, in automobile hubcaps, duct-taped to their legs or crammed into their underpants, moving them by automobile, aircraft, boat, bicycle, horseback and even on foot. Despite this plethora of easily verified methods used to smuggle birds of all species, I’ve not seen anything indicating that live wild-caught parrots and other birds are currently moved using container ships — although one of my sources says that container ship movements did happen in the past (de Grahl, 1987).

Poor regulation in South Africa has established this country as a global hub for the wild-caught bird trade.

I have recently read a number of actual news stories published by credible news organisations claiming that Singapore and the Solomon Islands are the “global hub for the wild-caught bird trade” (i. e.; ref). Which would suggest that South Africa cannot also be “the global hub for the wild-caught bird trade”. These conflicting claims inspire me share some unsolicited advice: You conservationists really need to get together and compare notes so you can all decide what the truth really is. Otherwise you risk confusing and annoying the public with your stream of inconsistent sensationalist claims, finger-pointing and childish one-upmanship.

That said, it is possible that you actually meant to say that South Africa is the “international hub for illegal movement of wild-caught grey parrots”. But if this is what you actually meant to say, then stop screwing with our heads; clarify the matter for us by saying just that and leave out all the unsubstantiated falderal.

To summarise; whilst it is true that people view parrots as desirable pets, and at least some people will go to great lengths to obtain them, I don’t believe the many sensationalist claims made in the NatGeo article because fact-checking the piece shows reality is not as the author reports. By publicly reporting sensationalist claims, the author of this piece automatically calls into question all his claims — and even his research is suspect. How can we trust him to be truthful and transparent when he cannot write a factual OpEd piece for NatGeo?

Congo African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). (Credit: HD desktop wallpapers.)

Sources and background:

Thomas McPheron, Communications at AVMA [email; 20 March 2013]

Augustus Asamoah, Director of the Biodiversity Conservation Research at the Ghana Wildlife Society [email; 21 March 2013]

US Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, 2012 Edition. (2012). American Veterinary Medical Association. ISBN: 978–1–882691–29–6.

Melo M. & O’Ryan C. (2007). Genetic differentiation between Príncipe Island and mainland populations of the grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus), and implications for conservation, Molecular Ecology, 16 (8) 1673–1685. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365–294X.2006.03128.x; PDF available upon request.

Blackburn T.M., Harvey P.H. & Pagel M.D. (1990). Species Number, Population Density and Body Size Relationships in Natural Communities, The Journal of Animal Ecology, 59 (1) 335. DOI: 10.2307/5176; PDF available upon request.

The Wild Bird Conservation Act.

New rules for captive bird imports to protect animal health in the EU and improve the welfare of imported birds (press release).

de Grahl, Wolfgang. (1987). The Grey Parrot [translated by William Charlton]. 1987. TFH Publications. ISBN: 0–86622–094–1.

Reynolds, John D. (2001). Conservation of Exploited Species. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978–0–521–78733–8.

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Originally published at Nature Network/Scilogs (now defunct) on 21 March 2013.

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PhD evolutionary ecology/ornithology. Psittacophile. scicomm Forbes, previously Guardian. always Ravenclaw. discarded scientist & writer, now an angry house elf

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𝐆𝐫𝐫𝐥𝐒𝐜𝐢𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐢𝐬𝐭, scientist & journalist

PhD evolutionary ecology/ornithology. Psittacophile. scicomm Forbes, previously Guardian. always Ravenclaw. discarded scientist & writer, now an angry house elf