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

21 March 2013 by GrrlScientist, posted in Aviculture, Birds

SUMMARY: Simply trying to learn the truth regarding a published piece about international trade in wild-caught African grey parrots 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???"

This is what my two companion Congo African grey parrots think of the story I am responding to in this piece.
Image: GrrlScientist, 29 January 2013. All rights reserved.

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), written by a working scientist and published online by National Geographic's Explorers' Journal. This led to further unpleasantness as I was confronted the disturbing 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. And scientists are ethically bound to deal with reality, with replicable or provable information (such information is often referred to as "facts") instead of rumour, opinion and runaway emotions.

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?

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 [doi:10.2307/5176]. Grey parrots are medium-sized parrots (dwarfing the more plentiful and familiar Australian budgerigar, for example), and grey parrots are the largest parrot species living on the African continent, so they cannot possibly be "one of the most abundant parrot species on Earth".

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, for a well-documented 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.

Still, 8.3 million pet birds sounds like a lot. 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]".

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 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”. This is because 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.

In 2007, the next-biggest consumer of wild-caught parrots, the EU, enacted their own ban on importation of wild-caught parrots (ref). This ban restricts all importations to 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.

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 (ref). Whilst it is possible that conservation priorities and international politics were the underlying motivations that sped 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 in birds [doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2006.03128.x]

The author's claim that the timneh grey parrot is endangered is in error. According to 2012 Red List published by the IUCN, neither grey parrot species is considered to be endangered in the wild. 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 species 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! -- even though I am a bird-lover, I still 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 gawd almighty 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). So which claim is the truth?

This motivates 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 conflicting sensationalist claims and 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” or that it is the “international hub for illegal movement of wild-caught African parrots”. But if either of these 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.

Now that I've finished sharing the bulk of information that I could find for my little fact-checking mission, I have a few thoughts about science and scientists, about conservation, exploitation of wildlife and politics that I plan to share in the next day or so, so stay tuned for that!

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: ; 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: ; 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.

Many thanks to my twitter pals, @JacquelynGill, @Barkersaur and @tigerhawkvok, for sending PDFs of scientific research that I'd requested.

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8 Responses to “Setting the record a little straighter regarding international trade in wild African grey parrots”

  1. Laurella Desborough Reply | Permalink

    What a wonderful analysis of an article purporting to be scientific but obviously very flawed. Thank you for publishing facts and sources and pointing out the extreme exaggerations regarding the trade in African Grey parrots. Just to add an interesting point. I was shown a copy of an old "story book" for Persian children. There were several stories about parrots...talking parrots, especially African greys. Since this was an antique book, it seems that African greys have been loved pet birds for many many years by many peoples.

  2. Terri D'Arrigo Reply | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this. I do not have a Grey, but I am well-aware of what happens to them at the hands of smugglers. Many of the bird organizations I "like" on Facebook shared the NatGeo piece, and when I read it, it just seemed off. The crimes perpetuated against these beautiful birds are very real, but when an organization as reputable as NatGeo exaggerates the problem to the point of bluster, it damages the cause of trying to help these creatures because it ruins credibility.

    A general rule of thumb is that wild birds should not be taken out of their habitat to become either pets or breeders. At this point, with so many domestic breeders, not to mention the thousands of birds of all kinds that are awaiting loving families after being relinquished to sanctuaries, rescues, and foster homes, there is simply no reason for anyone wishing to share the company of bird to turn to those that are wild-caught. Those of us in the "bird world" need to make the general public aware of smuggling and the horrors of taking wild birds out of the wild, but we need to do so rationally, in a way that is bolstered by facts, and we must refrain from sounding shrill.

  3. Brian Reply | Permalink

    Sorry. I stopped reading when I saw you quote a reference from 1987. You should be ashamed of yourself for using some of the very same biased, inaccurate methods as the article in question (And yes, seeing the pictures of your own African Greys already tells me where your bias is).

    Your entire argument in this article is one of semantics. You spend most of your time (and words) arguing about the wording and phrasing of the other article while ignoring the ethical, moral details the article brings up. Is it moral to possibly support the illegal trade via breeding/retail? Should people be allowed to trap and transport these animals? Are there negative impacts on the environment and/or people in these native, parrot-rich areas?

    It's amazing how you can read that entire article and not walk away showing any signs of critical thinking about this subject. Instead you focus on irrelevant details like cargo containers and where more illegal trapping takes place.

    The other article, at least leaves you wondering about some of the moral implications of our acts as a society. Yours, simply sounds like an unruly 12 year old arguing with their parents and deserves about as much attention.

    This entire piece you've written is a complete waste of brain power that could have been used to do... just about anything and be more productive.

  4. David Longo Reply | Permalink

    Brian, the whole point of this rebuttal was to show readers that media knows how to misconstrue the truth to pull on 'your' heartstrings.

    None of the information in this article is factual so how can you believe it ???

    Deforestation is the primary cause (at 97%) of species decimation, not capturing for the pet trade. But the pet trade always has to be the fall guy so the logging industry continues to feed governments their revenue every year.

    • George Reply | Permalink

      David Longo, even if habitat loss was the main cause for the decline of wild parrots - which is not the case for all species, and for Greys in particular - are you saying that the trappings can continue without any impacts? Is this how you envision the recovery of this species?

  5. colin trainor Reply | Permalink

    Despite the incredible popularity of this parrot as a cagebird, there has been no recent [if ever] study of the distribution and conservation status of this bird in the wild. Trade data should come from CITES, we can quibble about data quality, but I'm not sure "World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC)" is a great source, presumably they recite secondary data from CITES, which presumably should be considered as a bare minimum in terms of numbers.

    BirdLife International assess the conservation status of all birds for the IUCN:
    This is limited of course by the paucity [total absence?] of actual specific field surveys.

    See here a summary:

    Distribution and population
    Psittacus erithacus has been split into P. timneh and P. erithacus. P. erithacus has a distribution extending from southeastern Côte d'Ivoire east through the moist lowland forests of West Africa to Cameroon, and thence in the Congo forests to just east of the Albertine Rift (up to the shores of Lake Victoria) in Uganda and Kenya and south to northern Angola (Juniper and Parr 1998), as well as on the islands of Principe (Sao Tomé and Principe) and Bioko (Equatorial Guinea). Preliminary calculations based on forest cover and country-level population estimates (Dändliker 1992a, 1992b, Collar 1997, Fotso 1998b, JRC 2000), subtracting estimates for P. timneh, suggest a global population of between 560,000 and 12.7 million individuals (Pilgrim et al. in prep.). Population declines have been noted in Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Togo, Uganda and parts of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In all of these declines, trapping for the wild bird trade has been implicated, with habitat loss also having significant impacts throughout West and East Africa. From 1982 to 2001, over 657,000 wild-caught individuals of erithacus and timneh (the vast majority erithacus) entered international trade (UNEP-WCMC 2003). Considering estimates for pre-export mortality, the number of birds extracted from the wild during this period may well have numbered over 1 million (A. Michels in litt. 2012). Cameroon accounted for 48% of exports from 1990-1996 (Waugh 2010), and estimates that c90% of trapped birds died before reaching Douala airport suggest, although quotas remained at 12,000, over 100,000 birds were being captured in Cameroon annually during this period (F. Dowsett-Lemaire in litt. 2012).

    Population justification
    Gatter (1997) estimated two breeding pairs/ km2 of P. timneh in logged forest north of Zwedru, Liberia. McGowan (2001) provided similar estimates of nest densities in Nigeria of 0.5-2.1/km2, believing the higher end to be more accurate. This would indicate 4.2 breeding birds/km2 plus non-breeding birds (the remaining 70-85% of the population, as estimated by Fotso (1998b), giving estimates of 4.9-6.0 birds/km2. These estimates are substantially higher than those of 0.3-0.5 birds/km2 in good habitat in Guinea (timneh) and 0.9-2.2 birds/km2 (in evergreen forests) or 0.15-0.45 birds/km2 (in semi-deciduous forests) in Ghana. Using these density estimates, the overall P. timneh population was estimated at 120,100-259,000 birds, and the West African population of P. erithacus at 40,000-100,000 birds, although central African populations of this subspecies are much larger. Using a global land cover classification, a digitised map of the species's range from Benson et al. (1988), and estimates of density 0.15-0.45 birds/km2 in semi-deciduous forest (including deciduous forest) and 0.3-6.0 birds/km2 in evergreen forest (including swamp forest and mangrove), supplemented by post-1995 published national estimates where available, an initial coarse assessment of the global population of this species (subtracting estimates for the now-split P. timneh) is 0.56-12.7 million individuals.

    Trend justification
    Population declines have been noted in Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda and parts of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In all of these declines, trapping for the wild bird trade has been implicated, with habitat loss also having significant impacts throughout West and East Africa. Data suggest that c.21 % of the wild population is being harvested annually, and in addition forest loss during 1990-2000 was estimated to be particularly high in Côte d'Ivoire (31%) and Nigeria (26%). The total number birds extracted from the wild during the period 1982 to 2001 may well have been over 1 million (A. Michels in litt. 2012), with perhaps some 100,000 birds per year being captured in Cameroon during the late 1990s and early 2000s (F. Dowsett-Lemaire in litt. 2012). The rate of decline is hard to quantify, but given the massive level of capture for trade and the high levels of forest loss in parts of the range a decline of 30-49% in three generations (47 years) may be a conservative estimate.

  6. Elizabeth Polk Reply | Permalink

    I have been breeding African Greys in the US for over 20years. I started with six pairs of imports. Since than I have kept my domestic paired babies as future breeding stock. Because of the ban on imports, these wild caught pairs that were imported here in the US are becoming too old and infertile. The numbers of African Greys breed here will be reduced substantially in the near future. This will encourage more smuggling as the price of Greys goes up.
    I also want to mention how the parrot mills will remove the eggs so they will lay again every 28 days. Not that much of a problem but they will only feed the day 1 babies for 8 hours a day instead of the 24/7 which gives you a brain dead bird.

  7. ginie beeckman Reply | Permalink

    In Belgium and overall in the European Unitited countries are wild caught African Greys and many other exotic birds and animals very restricted, as almost forbidden! Habitat loss is far most at the cost of the African Greys and the Timneh's, not the trade in wild caught birds. Since the seventies, African Greys are bread in our country and there are already generations of pairs born in captivity who give chicks enough for the pet trade. This said, I'm against the trend of taking the eggs, and incubate them in an incubator and hand feed the chicks because they would be much tamer and docile for people who wants them as a pet. We create a whole range of behaviour problems as well as a generation of grey's (as well as other parrots and 'toos) who have no idea to bread naturally. The pet trade, although well regulated (wild caught birds are here not the real problem), creates a lot of unhappy birds, and the grey's are bought in an instant, without true knowledge. The time a grey stays within one family is app. 3 years... that says enough, I think. I don't denie that there is a trade, that there is maybe some illegal trade of greys, but lets not denie that now these days, we need to look at the parrots who are born in captivity and I think they need a close look: are these animals really pets? Would anyone be allowed to buy a non domesticated animal like a parrot? Do we require laws that regulate the cage such an animal need, and other special needs that we have to provide to be allowed to keep or breed these animals? etc. Further, we need to help and provide the countries with wild stock money and information to keep the natural inviroment of these wild animals safe. They need to be protected, as well as mammals as elephants and others. But for this moment, the grey's are not inlisted as endangered species. Let us not overreact! By the way, in dark sellers... greys will NOT breed. The conditions are very specific when we want to breed with them and need knowledge. Although I think there are breeders who are not responsible and humane, you cant MAKE greys to lay eggs. Keeping them in cages that are too small or in dark rooms will not work at all! Overall, when we purchase a grey or another parrot or 'too, we, as buyers, have also the responsibility to choose a breeder who loves his animals, who give them an aviary and take good care of them. If we don't buy from big breeders or pet shop chains, and choose wisely, then we - maybe - stop not only the illegal trade as well the inhumane circumstances of breeding stock, born in captivity or not.

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