Features & Columns

Exotic Bird Domestication Creates Epidemic of Abuse, Abandonment

"We get calls nearly every day from people wanting to abandon their birds."
Exotic bird domesticationFLY AND MIGHTY: Diggy, a Senegal parrot, is one of hundreds of foster birds cared for by Mickaboo volunteers.

A cacophony of voices greets visitors to Aileen Cureton's home. They cackle, babble and occasionally wander into profanity. It sounds like a gaggle of ornery drunks who've given up waiting their turn and decided to talk over each other.

"Don't mind them," Cureton says, ushering me into her book-filled living room, where the chorus of chatter swells to a pitch no mild-mannered library would allow. "They're a little overexcited."

She introduces me to Mr. Bird, the less-garrulous of the bunch, an emerald-green Indian ringneck parrot who's a bit larger than a parakeet and sports trailing tail feathers and an reddish-orange hooked beak. He disembarks from her forefinger to mine, then promptly poops on my sandal and squawks.

"Oops, sorry about that," Cureton says, rushing back with a napkin. "All that out of a little bird. Can you believe it?"

Mr. Bird flits back to his perch in what used to be Cureton's bedroom before she got crowded out by her avian wards. In place of a bed and dresser, four large cages line the walls, each occupied by an exotic parrot. Jacob and Willie—a pair of tight-knit and very vocal yellow-crowned Amazons—perch in adjacent cages along one side, where they carry on conversations part English and part piercing primal shrieks. Oscar, another Amazon, lives opposite the pair next to Mr. Bird, who pipes up once in a while in a voice that sounds like a garbled tape recording: "What're you doing, Mr. Bird?"

Every amenity in the bright white room is programmed: lights flick on at 7am; the radio goes live at 3pm to give the housebound flock something to listen to; and the thermostat sets to an ambient spring-summer warmth.

"I wasn't always a crazy bird lady," says Cureton, who divides her time between a day job at Facebook and volunteering as a foster mom to unwanted parrots through the Silicon Valley-based rescue nonprofit Mickaboo. "I planned to get a dog at first. I'd go visit the dogs up for adoption at Andy's Pet Shop—this was about five years ago—but over time I noticed I was hanging out more with the birds. They have a way of winning you over. They're hilarious, they can literally speak your language. It's a riot."

That mix of charm and beauty has helped make parrots the third most popular companion animal in the nation, behind dogs and cats. But there's a dark side to the trend of domesticating tropical birds.

"We have more than we know what to do with," says Michelle Yesney, a retired Santa Clara city planner and CEO of Mickaboo. Her downtown San Jose home has become a sanctuary for dozens of chittering cockatiels and parakeets, some with deformed legs and other special needs. "We get calls nearly every day from people wanting to abandon their birds. They're wonderful animals. You can form amazing bonds with them. But they're difficult to care for."

The overabundance of exotic birds has become a national crisis. Once a rare and prized pet, parrots have become increasingly disposable.

"The growing number of birds that are being surrendered ... is unfortunate," says Beth Ward, vice president of shelter operations for the Humane Society Silicon Valley. "Hundreds in our area are being displaced."

With life-spans that can surpass 80 years, parrots often outlive their owners and then get passed off on Craigslist. During times of economic instability, families tend to abandon these birds in foreclosed homes or surrender them to local shelters. Not everyone is as accommodating as Cureton and Yesney.

"We've noticed that people will keep them for about five years before deciding that they don't want a parrot after all," Yesney says. "That's a shame. They need stability. They develop deep personal bonds with their owners. One of the biggest issues we deal with in birds we get is grief. They miss their people, their home, their routine."

The Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 outlawed importing wild-caught birds, spurring an unprecedented boom in captive breeding. A glut of hand-raised chicks flooded the market, which is unregulated and rampant with abuse.

Breeders discovered that they could pull three to four clutches a year out of parrots by over-stimulating their hormones—a cruel pace compared to the few-year cycle in the wild. Birds became big business. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates there are somewhere between 60 million and 70 million pet parrots in the United States alone, which marks a 417 percent increase from two decades ago. That number is expected to grow to more than 100 million by 2020 if breeding continues unchecked.

Sometimes, they're freed and assimilate into urban life as comfortably as a flock of pigeons. Hundreds of cherry-headed conures have made a home in the canopies of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Similar feral colonies have settled in Campbell and Sunnyvale.

Two avian veterinarians founded Mickaboo 15 years ago in response to the bird-breeding craze. Today, virtually every animal shelter in the Bay Area passes their abandoned parrots to Mickaboo volunteers. The nonprofit offers classes on how to care for parrots. If anyone wants to adopt one, they have to attend a workshop and pass a rigorous home inspection and screening to make sure they're up for the challenge of caring for a wild animal, one that's moody and not always willing to be tamed. "What we saw for the first time after this law passed in 1992 were these generations of birds that failed to learn their most basic instincts," Yesney says. "These highly intelligent, extremely social creatures were removed from their parents, failing to learn fundamental social skills and survival skills. Some were raised without ever having seen another bird."

For creatures as intellectually and emotionally complex as apes and dolphins, the lack of proper stimulation and care and a lifetime locked behind bars offered an unfathomably bleak existence. They developed neuroses, like self-mutilation and aggression. Because of their unpredictable temperaments, they were often relayed from home to home.

"People don't realize that they can't just lock it in a cage and expect it to entertain them," Yesney says. "Sometimes our parrots don't even speak. And they almost always bite at some point, which is part of how they communicate. I tell people all the time that everything they ever learned about parrots is wrong."

The average parrot gets sent to seven to 11 homes in its lifetime, according to Jacqueline Johnson of Best Friends Animal Society. The vast majority of the birds experience neglect and abuse, she says.

"They're like perpetual foster children," says Johnson, who cares for six parrots of her own, all rescues that include Goffin's cockatoo, African greys and a macaw. "Some of these birds are so disturbed that they tear their feathers out and bite into their skin like an emotionally troubled person would do. You don't see this disruptive behavior in the wild. Captivity breeds these issues."

Robin Bjelk, who cares for a couple of Senegals out of her Sunnyvale home, says it took about a year for her birds to settle in after the trauma of getting handed off from one owner to the next.

"When I got Aggie, I called her my little crack baby," says Bjelk of her Mickaboo adoptee. "She'd pace back and forth in her cage and wouldn't settle down for the life of her. It took a long time before she realized this was her 'forever home.'"

Johnson would like to see a moratorium on parrot breeding.

"Even if we stopped breeding parrots altogether this year, our grandchildren will still be dealing with the birds we have right now," she says. "We need to stop hand-raising birds. We egotistically thought we could raise them better than their parents—well, we can't. And now we have a problem that has reached a crisis level. That's no exaggeration."