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February 12, 2013

No-Fly Zone, Page 4: Captive Breeding Has Declined, But Problems Persist

Intensive breeding has produced generations of psychologically damaged birds

All Animals magazine, March/April 2013

  • Wild mealy Amazon parrots are free to fly and flock together, unlike their captive bred counterparts.  All Canada Photos/Alamy

“There are so many parrots out there, I just don’t like adding birds to the marketplace,” says E. B. Cravens. One of the most respected parrot breeders in the world, he lives on the Big Island of Hawaii. He’s explaining why he’s largely quit the business.

Cravens writes frequently on parrots and their care. He has great insight into their nature. I wanted to talk to him about the psychology of parrots—especially the babies and parents in big breeding operations.

“Absolutely, they are factory farms, pumping out parrots. There are also conscientious breeders, and lots have stopped breeding too, like me.” At captive breeding’s height, he says, maybe 750,000 parrots per year were being produced in the United States. Now that number is maybe 100,000 per year as people learn more and more about how difficult parrots can be in the home.

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He speaks slowly. His voice is gravelly, resonating with thoughtful wisdom. The marketplace for parrots has slowed, he says, and that has weeded out a lot of breeders. But he is concerned about the effects of the factory farming system on the parrots themselves.

“All these parrots, the babies, they’re orphans,” he says. “My breeder friends hate it when I say this. But that’s what they are, orphans.”

Cravens has been letting his own parrot-parents follow their “strongest impulse”: raising their offspring themselves. Baby parrots need closeness. In the wild, they’ll spend months and months in constant contact with their parents. But in a factory-style breeding operation, they never see their parents or are removed early on to be raised by people. The result is young parrots who don’t know who they are, who spend their lives in a no-birds land between human and animal.

At first, the young parrots are cuddly and affectionate. “People are smitten,” Cravens says. “They think, ‘Oh, this parrot really loves me, just like a baby.’ And you want to be loved like that. But the truth is, it’s just lonely. It’s needy.”

In a few years the parrot hits puberty and develops intense needs for bonding with a mate. “It gets sexual, and the problems really begin. It may attach to one person in the family and grow hostile to others. It may even bite or attack others. … The parrots become dysfunctional because they have not been allowed to have a childhood.”

The owners of Santa Barbara Bird Farm in California, Phoebe Linden and her husband have not bred parrots in 11 years, out of concern for what breeding does to the birds’ mental health.

“There are so many crazy, whacked-out parrots,” she says, emotion filling her voice. “Every domestically raised bird is traumatized. To some extent all are. Some birds respond to trauma, like some people, and have no effects. Some drag their trauma around with them all their lives.”

She adds, “We don’t have a parrot problem in the country. The parrots are not the problem. The problem is people. Too often, they want the parrots to be decorations. Or they don’t focus enough on the parrots’ needs.”

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