On paper, it’s not hard to understand why people want parrots as pets. They’re beautiful, exotic, smart, and they can talk to you. But they’re also undomesticated, wild birds with behaviors that are ill-suited to captivity. Highly high-maintenance, they’re noisy, needy, and expensive, requiring special food and veterinary care and lots of attention from their owners — and if they don’t get it they’re liable to act out aggressively or self-destructively. And since they often live to 80 or beyond, it’s more than a lifetime commitment. No wonder many of the birds wind up in rescue sanctuaries, surrendered by frustrated owners.
“Parrot Confidential,” a documentary premiering on PBS “Nature” on Nov.13, explores the abandoned parrot problem via interviews with parrot owners and rescuers. Filmmaker Allison Argo, who made six previous documentaries for “Nature,” was intrigued from her very first parrot encounter. “I was astounded by the intelligence. It was taking me in, studying me. I could absolutely tell that there was a lot behind those eyes. They’re up there with great apes and elephants. They’re very intelligent.”
However, Argo continues, “They have not been domesticated as dogs and cats have for thousands of years. These are wild animals with wild needs. They're flock creatures and are rarely alone,” a fact she illustrated by filming wild parrots in Costa Rica. “It’s ironic that we have this population problem in captivity at the same time the numbers are dwindling in the wild from habitat loss and they’re also still being poached. There’s a robust illegal trade.”
Ironically, the parrot population is out of control in America. The 1970s TV series “Baretta” increased the demand for pet parrots like the sulfur-crested cockatoo Robert Blake owned, and breeders went into overdrive, and the consequences are still being felt. “You can’t spay or neuter them. The operation is life-threatening, so it’s not to be taken lightly,” points out Marc Johnson, the founder of the nonprofit Foster Parrots and operator, with his wife Karen, of the New England Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary.
Johnson, a potter, hadn’t planned to be a bird rescuer, but after getting a blue and gold macaw for company, he found himself taking in unwanted birds and now gives refuge to 550 abandoned parrots. "It's becoming harder and harder to find homes for parrots because people are learning that they do require a lot of care and a lot of attention. They take a lot of your time.”
Because parrots form a mate bond with their owners, he continues, a bird can become seriously anxious when that person is absent. “It can be manifested in repeated screaming, self-destructive behaviors, self-mutilation, feather picking. There’s some speculation that birds that self-mutilate or pick out their feathers get that same endorphin rush that people get from behaviors like cutting,” he notes. These birds become unadoptable “because people don’t want a parrot that looks like a plucked chicken.”
Another reason for parrot surrender is they can become jealous of and aggressive toward their human mate’s partner. “It’s a difficult thing for couples. ‘It’s either me or the bird.’ So they often give it up. We try to adopt out birds in pairs whenever we can because they are flock animals and they need constant companionship,” says Johnson. “One of the saddest things to me is the thought of a bird sitting there in front of a window all day waiting for the people to come home from work.”
Because parrots regularly outlive their owners, Johnson has provisions in place, encouraging people to provide for their birds in their wills, a sort of perpetual parrot care. “And we have people sign a contract that says Foster Parrots has the first right of refusal in terms of re-homing that bird. So we get them back, and then we'll try to find another home for them.”
Johnson hopes that “Parrot Confidential” shows “the true nature of a wild parrot so that people understand what we’ve taken away from them and we can never give them in captivity.” Foster Parrots established and supports The Avian Welfare Coalition to raise awareness of the issue, and sponsored the building of a tourist lodge in a village in Guyana, where the people who used to be parrot trappers now work as tourist guides. “A bird in a tree is worth more on a yearly basis than the money from one sale,” he points out.
“We need to put our energy into educating people,” agrees Argo. “Not everybody can adopt a parrot and make that kind of commitment, but everyone can support conservation efforts in the wild.”