Unwanted parrots: What can we do?

Asks Rosemary Low

Everyone who cares about parrots is deeply concerned about the growing problem of unwanted birds. What can be done to try to address this sad situation? I believe that a change of attitude is needed on the part of many people.

If you breed parrots, you have to face the reality that a proportion of those you rear will become unwanted eventually. This might be because they are too loud and demanding or because they start to pluck themselves and no longer look beautiful. Or perhaps the owner has died and the relatives are not interested in inheriting a parrot. I believe that it is time that breeders and other owners started to act in a way that minimises numbers of unwanted birds.


What happens to many parrots when they get old?
If they are lucky, like this Orange-winged Amazon,
they find a caring home after being discarded.


Dedicate an aviary

Imagine what a difference it would make if every breeder set aside one aviary for unwanted parrots. I do not mean taking unwanted pets that will be paired up with the possibility of producing more parrots that need to be re-homed. I am referring to parrots from aviaries that are old or difficult to rehome for some other reason. A breeder could dedicate a large aviary with a good-sized indoor section for several birds of different species that can live together amicably, enjoy life and never be moved on. This applies especially to wild-caught parrots that have never been at ease in a cage.

You sometimes hear people talk about parrots that they have “rescued” – to pair up and breed from. This is not rescue – it is obtaining cheap or free parrots for profit. I also believe that breeders have an obligation to look after their pairs that are no longer producing due to age – not to sell them off at the next big sale day.

Question your conscience

In the USA one breeder was asked to take back two of her hand-reared young from different owners – a four-year-old Moluccan Cockatoo and an Umbrella. She asked herself: “What am I doing producing more hand-reared parrots, when even perfect parrots like Quinn and Woody, lose their families and their security, all they ever knew, because two people I thought were committed to them (not to mention each other), could not get along? … I ask myself why I breed birds, given that so many are abandoned.”

She is not the only breeder faced with this dilemma. In the UK, a former cockatoo breeder now devotes her time and energy to taking in unwanted cockatoos. Breeders created the problem. If they have a conscience, they will stop breeding, or at least stop hand-rearing young, now that rescue centres cannot take all the unwanted birds.

Wendy Huntbatch told me: “We rarely see plucking in wild-caught cockatoos. All our self-mutilators are hand-fed babies -- from many different breeders. The white cockatoos are normal for the most part until they reach about ten years -- and then the plucking starts, often followed by self-mutilation.”

Opt for parent-rearing

Parent-rearing takes longer, thus reducing production. Parent-reared young are more stable emotionally and better able to amuse themselves, therefore less demanding and less likely to get onto the re-homing roundabout. Parent-reared young are suitable not only for an aviary situation. If their parents are unafraid of humans, and if they are removed from them as soon as they are independent, they can make more suitable pets than hand-reared parrots. This will be dependent on the mind-set of the new owner who must have patience and a lower level of expectation of taming progress than if he or she had purchased a hand-reared parrot.   However, I would still not recommend cockatoos as companions.

Breeders also create problem birds by hand-rearing Australian parakeets and Kakarikis. They sell them as pets, simply because so many are being reared that they have a better chance of selling them if they are easy to handle. Most Australian parakeets are suitable only for aviaries and hand-reared birds can become very aggressive when they mature.

Be a responsible breeder

Rosellas have been sold at 3 Euros each in the Netherlands. How can it happen that living creatures as beautiful and as easy to care for as these parakeets, can change hands at such a low price? It is simply a case of supply exceeding demand. Unfortunately, most people with a pair of parrots let them breed without any thought as to whether the young will be wanted. When a parrot is sold at such a low price it is likely to be acquired by an inexperienced person who buys a small, cheap cage and places it in the living room, like an ornament. The need for aviary space  for such active birds is ignored, along with the level of attention it requires and its most basic needs which include daily flying exercise.   

If you have pairs of inexpensive species that you know are difficult to sell to suitable homes, please do not breed from them. Let them lay! Do not thwart their instinct to breed. Then replace the eggs with plastic ones or infertile eggs from similar sized parrots or with the false eggs that pigeon fanciers use. If you remove them the female will simply lay again – and again, possibly depleting her calcium reserves with fatal consequences.

Note that the creed among members of the Swiss avicultural society EXOTIS is: Be a responsible breeder. If you have not got homes in advance for young, do not produce them.

Breeders of more expensive parrots should consider very carefully what they are doing when they sell their hand-reared young into the pet trade. If they sell to garden centres, where the unfortunate birds, unloved and lonely, will languish for months because the price is so high, they are greatly increasing the risk of problem parrots that end up unwanted. Early neglect (lack of close contact with humans) results in parrots that will soon have behavioural problems with which the inexperienced people who buy from garden centres are unable to cope.

To decrease the number of young of certain species available for the pet market makes no sense to commercial breeders. The fact is, however, that certain species, notably white cockatoos and Grey Parrots, are more likely to end up in rescue centres because they are so demanding when hand-reared, especially in inexperienced hands. The same breeders could be producing birds that make wonderful pets that are easier to cope with, such as Cockatiels. Of course they will not do so, because commercial gain is their main motive. I would encourage small breeders with perhaps a handful of pairs to choose their species with care and go for the smaller ones that are easier for people to live with.

Educate buyers

Many breeders (and almost all pet stores) give inadequate advice or information about the parrots they sell. I know because I receive phone calls from people who have recently bought a parrot and who ask the most basic questions imaginable. One cannot blame the seller entirely as most people do not make an effort to read up about the species they are buying or on general parrot behaviour. While there is now an obligation on the part of shops to give some printed information about the species purchased, this probably relates only to diet and accommodation.

In the case of parrots, the reason why so many become unwanted at an early age is very simple. While everyone knows that if you do not train a puppy it will become impossible to live with, most people fail to realise that the same is true of parrots. Without guidance, the behaviour of many young parrots will become intolerable by the time they are two or three years old. Normally there is absolutely no warning about this from the seller or suggestions about training parrots to perform simple requests such as stepping up that make them much easier to live with and therefore less likely to be sold on at a young age. Although it is commendable to recommend books about parrot behaviour, I know from long experience that the average parrot owner is not interested in buying books. What can the breeder do?  He or she can purchase books beforehand and include them in the selling price of the bird. I know one breeder of Grey Parrots who includes a copy of my book A Guide to Grey Parrots as Pet and Aviary Birds in the purchase price and another who insists that they read the book before they collect their bird. If a breeder does not wish to do this, he or she could easily photocopy the relevant pages about behaviour-related problems so that the purchaser is aware of these.


Parrot rescue centres are overloaded
with unwanted Grey Parrots


Don’t be a serial impulse-buyer

We all have heard about shopaholics whose main method of getting a kick out of life is to go out and buy yet more clothes. Unfortunately, people exist who have the same attitude towards parrots. When they are feeling a bit down, they go out and buy another one. They do not really have the time or the space, so one of their existing companions has to go. It might be taken to the local pet shop which means that there will be no knowledge of who will buy this bird. This is not an imaginary scenario. Unfortunately, I have seen it happen, with the owner buying two or three parrots in four or five months and “discarding” an equivalent number.  This is inexcusable behaviour towards a sensitive creature like a parrot, that suffers every time it is moved on.

Great care in rehoming

It is so easy to buy a parrot but extremely difficult to find a suitable home if you can no longer keep it. This is something that people should consider very carefully before acquiring a parrot – yet they seldom give a thought to it.  Sometimes there are totally genuine reasons for having to part with a parrot. I have seen people agonise for months about finding a new home for one, turning down prospective purchasers until the right person or place is found. If you carelessly dispose of a parrot, that is, to an unsuitable home, this can be the first step on a path of multiple homes in two or three years. With each successive home the parrot become more traumatised and less suitable as a companion. Finally, it goes to a rescue centre because no one else will take it.

A free parrot can be a major problem 

There are two last-ditch alternatives to a rescue centre: the parrot is euthanised or it is given away – just to get rid of it. Remember that if you are offered a free parrot, there is usually a very good reason why it cannot be sold. Think very carefully, ask a lot of questions and, if necessary, ask an experienced parrot person to look at the bird before you agree to take it. Even that might not answer the question of why it is being given away. There are unscrupulous people who will get rid of diseased birds as quickly as possible, perhaps one that is carrying a virus, with no thought about how many birds it will come into contact with and infect in the future. People who run rescue centres have to take huge risks all the time because some parrots that look healthy are potential time-bombs, infected with PDD, PFBD or some other serious or killer disease. They might be disease-tested before admission, but the test is not invariably correct. If you have a bird that carries a virus that can infect a whole group with which it comes into contact, and cannot or will not keep it, please act responsibly and have it euthanised.  

Listen to the advice of those who know

Wendy Huntbatch who founded and runs one of the world’s biggest and best parrot rescue centres on Vancouver Island (in Canada), speaks and writes about the unsuitability of cockatoos as  “pets” and the sad lives that many of her rescued birds have led. (She could have written a similar article about the macaws at the World Parrot Refuge.) When will people start to heed this advice from those who are on the receiving end of abused and unwanted parrots?  Not until they stop buying these birds as pets will the demand dry up and breeders go out of business. Even then, it will be fifty years before the flow of unwanted cockatoos and macaws ceases.

Here is a typical communication from Wendy Huntbatch of the World Parrot Refuge in Canada (www.worldparrotrefuge.org):

“You should see the two cockatoos that arrived today.  They would break even the toughest heart.  One is a tiny little Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo wearing only a sparse down vest and a few broken and shredded feathers on the wings and crest.  She sits so close to the naked Eleanora that they appear to be attached to each other.  They came in the cage they have shared for 30 years - a 20" x 20" Hagen cage.  The Eleanora, “Sunny”, was supposedly a male until last year when she became eggbound due to calcium deficiency. Oh, by the way, they said they really loved these birds!  That is why they kept them for 30 years - until they looked so dreadful it was an embarrassment for people to see them and the vet bills were looking scary -- and then they gave them to us.

“By the way, I have received three large collections from breeders and many smaller collections.  Two of them said it was too expensive to keep them now that they no longer produce and the price has gone too low to make it worthwhile. “

The World Parrot Refuge is a private initiative, funded by some donations but mainly by the proceeds of the business run by Wendy’s partner. I believe that it is the duty of all parrot owners to make contributions to genuine parrot rescue facilities.

Cockatoos and large macaws are unsuitable house companions for 99% of people who purchase them for this purpose. Occasionally one finds a caring and dedicated owner who gives  their parrot everything it needs. Even some such fortunate birds might need to be re-homed because cockatoos live nearly as long as people. A friend has taken on a Goffin’s Cockatoos from a lady in her eighties who agonised for one year about parting with him. She was so caring that she wrote: “I feel guilty at having hung on to him for so long as I think that I have been selfish, thinking of what I want rather than what he needs.”

She was no longer able to let him out of his cage and believed he could not fly very well. My friend quickly discovered he could fly the length of the room. He settled in extremely quickly and readily allowed my friend to handle him. The Goffin’s had been brought to an animal rescue as a cruelty case 17 years previously. His lady owner wrote to my friend: “He belonged to a family who kept the children quiet by allowing them to prod and poke him with sticks. The one to knock him off his perch was the winner. He was terrified and trusted no-one.” It took her some months to gain his confidence.

Unfortunately, because they are the most highly priced of parrots, there will always be people who breed them for commercial gain only. We need more articles from people who describe the problems involved in keeping them indoors. Note that most of the articles published praising their virtues are from relatively new owners. I would like to see some honest articles by people who have kept one for more than 20 years. Very few such people exist.

Grey Parrots are not as highly priced but, because of their popularity, they attract the attention of commercial breeders. Most people who buy the resulting young have no idea of the problems they are likely to encounter with this intelligent species that needs a higher level of attention and stimulation than many people can give. At a conservative guess I would say that at least 60% of Greys pluck themselves at some time in their life and a large percentage of these never regain their plumage. They look ugly and it becomes difficult to even give them away. One rescue centre in the Netherlands has, I am told, 600 Grey Parrots. Before you buy a young bird, visualise what it would look like half naked and ask yourself if you would still be committed to keeping it forever… 

Aratinga conures, such as the Sun Conure, are frequently donated to bird parks and rescue centres because their voices are too loud in the home.


A former owner of this macaw threatened to kill it
if it was not removed from his house

Few large macaws, such as this Blue and Gold, stay in the same pet situation for more than five years. Their destructive ways,  loud calls and lack of human understanding of their  needs make them unsuitable as companion birds.

What happens when rescue centres are full?

Sadly, some rescue centres do not know when to say “We are full” and continue to take more birds, to the detriment of the existing  occupants. In the Netherlands, Michel van de Plas runs the parrot rescue Stichting Papegaaienhulp. The people responsible recognise that the time has come to say “No”; they cannot take any more birds.

However, Michel’s wife is a parrot behaviourist. When people contact the centre she offers to visit them and work through the problems that have resulted in the owners giving up on their bird. Michel told me that in this way about 60% of the birds due to be re-homed are staying with their owners. This shows that a major problem is the lack of knowledge of purchasers regarding parrot training and behaviour. I believe that expectations that are too high, perhaps regarding talking ability or a parrot’s capability to learn tricks, might also play a part. But the major problem is the failure to understand how demanding a parrot companion is, and how much time needs to be spent with it.


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