Canadian Parrot Symposium

Canadian Parrot Symposium



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Aviculture, Conservation and Regulations

by Laurella Desborough,
President, American Federation of Aviculture


Aviculture is defined as the care, keeping and raising of birds. (It should be noted that it is illegal in the United States for members of the public to possess or keep native species. Exceptions are birds held under state and federal falconer's permits, native species in rehabilitation facilities or non-releasable birds under special education permits. Common pigeons, starlings and English sparrows are non-native birds, introduced from Europe, and may be kept.) People have kept birds as pets and finches for hundreds of years. In the mid 1900's budgerigars became popular. After World War II, cockatiels and lovebirds were commonly kept and bred. During the fifties people ordered 'green parrots' from the Sears catalogue for $15 and received an amazon or a Phillipine Great-Bill. In the sixties European travelers to Mid-Eastern markets purchased pairs of Blue and Gold macaws. During the early seventies, as development in third world countries accelerated, exotic birds became even more accessible to the bird collectors in third world countries. This resulted in more birds being imported into the United States and Europe. Softbills and finches, but especially parrots of all types, were imported. As the special charismatic characteristics of parrots became more well known, their desirability as pets increased. They were intelligent; they had a fantastic ability to mimic the human voice, they were startlingly beautiful, and some were sweet and affectionate. After the development of the surgical endoscope, surgical sexing became available, and more aviculturists began trying to breed parrots. As more breeders were successful in breeding and hand rearing parrots, parrots became ever more popular.


Prior to 1992, the main regulations regarding importing or owning exotic birds in the U.S. involved United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements that all imported birds go through a thirty day quarantine to determine whether or not birds in the shipment showed evidence of Exotic Newcastle disease (VVND); and United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) requirements for specific permits for CITES listed birds. Since the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA) in October 1992, the only birds imported into the U.S. have been birds owned as pets or birds not listed as prohibited by the act, such as some softbills. Importation into the U.S. has been drastically reduced.


The Wild Bird Conservation Act was supposed to conserve birds in the wild and encourage captive breeding. At the present time, there remains a question as to whether either of these goals is being met or can be met in the future. The USFWS officials envision that the WBCA will encourage foreign governments to conduct surveys of wild populations, to establish wildlife management programs, and perhaps to set up captive breeding programs for their native species. In addition they envision that these processes will encourage conservation of native species. In terms of encouraging captive breeding in the U.S., it has not been clearly demonstrated exactly how the WBCA can or will encourage it. It is clear that officials at USFWS have the final word on all applications for cooperative breeding programs. To date, of the seven applications received, only one has been approved: a cooperative breeding program for Harpy Eagles to be conducted by the Peregrine Fund.

Countries of Origin

For the most part, exotic birds imported into the U.S. come from third world countries. The countries which export birds earn significant income from the export of wildlife, along with timber or minerals. In fact, wildlife may be one of the major sources of income from exported goods. The people in these countries live at a level much different than that of the industrialized countries. In these countries there are few programs for the management of the health of the people, much less management programs for wildlife. The situation of large and continually expanding human populations in Asia, Indonesia, Africa, and Central and South America has a continuing impact on wildlife. In some of these countries, programs are being established to limit or control population growth through family planning education and incentives for reducing the number of children in the family. It is difficult to make these programs successful due to the people's religious beliefs, such as fundamentalist Muslim or fundamentalist Catholics. The fundamentalist religions generally do not want to provide education for women or information on birth control. Concern about the expanding population and its potential devastating effects on the lives of the people has not been addressed, much less the effects on wildlife.

Developing Natural Resources

In addition to the problem of increasing human populations and overcrowding, the need for income in third world countries adversely affects wildlife. The officials in many countries need operating funds and will often sell timber or minerals to produce income. When these sales of natural resources are made, the development of the resource is not necessarily accomplished in such a manner as to preserve wildlife. The results of overharvesting timber and uncontrolled mineral development can leave a barren and devastated environment. Wildlife suffers from habitat degradation and so do humans. For example, in the Phillipines where large stands of timber were harvested from hillsides, heavy rains caused massive mudslides which destroyed local villages. Land is developed or exploited for profit. To a lesser degree it is cleared to make room for expanding human populations. In the process little thought is given as to the resulting consequences for wildlife. With these insights into the problems faced by third world countries, it is hard to imagine that these countries of origin are going to initiate wildlife management plans or conduct population surveys in the near future. Unfortunately, when management programs are put in place it doesn't necessarily mean that management is occuring. For example, in a national refuge in Indonesia, there were inadequate numbers of wildlife officers patrolling the area and large scale timber removal has occurred.

Feral Cats

In addition to the habitat degradation and loss suffered by wildlife around the world due to the activities of man, a widespread and insidious threat has been introduced: the domestic cat (Felis domesticus). While it is commonly understood that habitat loss is the main cause of reduction in the numbers of avian species worldwide, it is little understood that the domestic cat, living in a house, or feral, is destroying birds and animals at an alarming rate. Whether in England, Europe, the United States or Australia, the daily depradations by domestic and feral cats are reducing wildlife populations to dangerously low levels, and placing some on the brink of extinction. Australian studies state: "Evidence from recent surveys indicates that being well fed does not stop domestic cats from hunting. The best way to stop them from hunting is to stop them from roaming." This manmade catastrophe is receiving only slight attention from conservation organizations or humane organizations. The animal rights groups are actively working to promote and establish managed 'feral cat colonies'. The movement began in Europe in the late 1970s, and the crusade in the U.S. has been escalating in recent years. They believe that feral and subsidized, semi-wild cats have a value to people and the environment and deserve humane management and protection. However, wildlife biologists in California state that "colonies of 'feral' cats adversly affect local populations of mammals, migratory and non-migratory birds, reptiles, and amphibians of wildlife habitats in or near urban areas. Many cat colonies are in parks, open spaces, riparian areas, coastal wetlands, and nesting areas of endangered birds. Well-fed cats kill, injure, or harass vulnerable local wildlife. Cat density in colonies exceeds that of natural predators, and regular feeding of cats attracts skunks, raccoons, etc., creating disease risks to wild animals and a public nuisance." The Humane Society of the United States believes that feral cats should not be set up in managed colonies, but rather removed from the environment. "Knowingly subjecting wildlife to excessively heavy predation and to cat-borne wildlife diseases should become part of the discussion of humaneness. Damage to wildlife by cats is intensified when people feed stray or feral individuals, concentrating them in areas where intensive predation and disease spread occurs." When will the animal rights groups recognize that feral cats and free-ranging domestic cats are a serious threat to wildlife around the world? Saving avian species involves more than banning importation of exotic birds and setting up managment plans in countries of origin, it also involves control of the domestic cat.

Conservation Activists

Both in the U.S. and other countries there are organizations which are working to conserve wildlife. Legitimate and respected organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the International Union of Conservation of Nature, and the World Wildlife Fund, sponsor conservation projects in the field and follow known scientific protocols for research projects. Most of the people involved in this work have scientific degrees and demonstrated competency. Many members of these authentic conservation groups believe that it is wrong to import birds for any reason; that it is better if all wild animals remain in their environment and that the environment be protected. This is a wonderful idea, however, it is based on the premise that native peoples will not utilize all of their wetlands and jungles and will preserve their wildlife. However, as long as the human population continues to expand at an uncontrolled rate, one can forsee that these expanding populations will turn jungles into farms and timber into cleared hillsides, with the resulting disappearance of most wildlife.

Pseudo-Conservation Activists

Many organizations have taken up the conservation banner, and new organizations or splinter organizations have been created to 'work' in this area. Although some organizations have people with college credentials, they are usually not advanced degrees in the area of the biological sciences. (It is difficult for the average person to differentiate between respected conservation organizations and the others when making donations.) These conservation 'wanna-bes' skim the surface of conservation issues and come up with shallow answers to the complex problems existing in third world countries.

Banning Importation

One of these shallow answers is that 'if we ban the importation of exotic birds (focusing mainly on parrots), the species will be conserved in the wild.' These people were very active in promoting the passage of the WBCA. Now that it has become law, they continue to be active in putting forward petitions to the USFWS to ban importation from specific countries. For example, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), has submitted petitions to ban all imports from Indonesia. (The EIA is a private organisation, not a government agency.) The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) brought suit against the USFWS under the WBCA to cause specific species listed on CITES III in one country to automatically be placed on CITES III in all countries. The HSUS won that lawsuit. Attempts by the animal rights groups in Africa and Australia and Europe are being made to impose further restrictions on the possession, sale and transport of exotic species. It is apparent that one can expect these efforts to be continued, not stopped. In many towns and cities in the U.S. extremely restrictive laws are being proposed. For example, laws against owning any exotics, laws allowing only two pets, laws prohibiting breeding of animals, and laws requiring excessive fees ($100. per bird per year proposed in Florida), along with inspection by local animal control officers, including permission to confiscate animals they believe are not being humanely handled. Often these local laws are the result of complaints received by individuals who believe no one should own an exotic animal or bird. Why is this occurring?

The Image of Aviculture

If you ask the average person about aviculture, he hears instead the word 'agriculture'. Although there are a lot of people who own birds as pets and quite a few people breeding birds, the general public knows very little about exotic birds and aviculture. Actually, what they know is slanted toward the direction of the illegal. The recent nationwide broadcast of the Nova film, The Great Wildlife Heist, and similar films, will probably exacerbate our problems. People hear the following: birds are smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico; exotic birds are expensive; people make a lot of money on birds; people shouldn't own exoticsthey belong in zoos. People have little concept of what it means to raise baby psittacines from hatching to weaning. And aviculturists have not done very much to educate the general public because they are generally too busy just raising the birds to get involved. However, this vacuum has been filled by the negative messages and powerful 'wild birds should fly free' images put forward by the animal rights groups. Aviculturists have not defined themselves to the public; people with a special agenda have established a negative image which is being promulgated on television and in print.

The Animal Rights Agenda: No More Birds!

It is time to face facts. The animal rights groups' final solution is NO CONTACT BETWEEN MAN AND ANIMALS. Research into the various animal rights groups by the Capital Research Center in Washington, DC, has provided detailed information regarding the goals, the means, the income, the membership numbers, etc. for the most high profile animal rights groups. It is important to note that animal rights does not mean the same as animal welfare! Animal welfare groups are interested in assuring that all birds and animals are treated in a humane manner. Animal rights groups want no interaction between humans and animals; no zoo animals, no research animals and no pets, not even management programs for wildlife. Some even want to prohibit farm animals. It is hard for those who love animals and want to promote their best interest to understand that the animal rights membership say they want the same thing. Unfortunately, what the membership want is not the same as the animal rights leadership's goals. It is important for everyone who has anything to do with animals or their care to study and understand what these groups represent. Realize that the most visible and vocal of the groups have been responsible for providing slanted information, via films and written reports, to the general public and to the legislators and governmental agencies such as the USFWS. Their methods with films involve the use of photographic shots that are real, however, the voice-over narrative presents ideas or beliefs which have little or nothing to do with what is actually occuring in the film. These are examples of misinformation and disinformation provided by sources which claim to have the interest of the birds at heart, but are actually expressions of their hidden agenda.

Combating Disinformation

It is most probably useless to engage these people in a discussion about the information they present. They have no interest in the truth. Their only interest is to accomplish their goal of NO BIRDS IN CAGES/NO PET BIRDS. We might be able to convince some of the ordinary membership to at least look at some other information and facts. However, with regard to the leadership, there is no reasoning with them. It is likely that the greatest success in combating these groups is to improve the practice of aviculture and thereby professionalize it by the following: keep records, identify individual birds, quarantine new birds, follow the latest concepts in the care and keeping of exotic birdsbabies and adults, join together in organizations which advance the practice of aviculture, support scientifically-directed conservation projects, and educate legislators and councils about aviculture and exotic birds and most importantly, closely monitor local and state proposed regulations and laws. It is best to take action before laws are put in place, not afterwards.

Professionalism in Aviculture

Why is it important that aviculturists become more professional? At this point in time, everyone feels that he has a stake in the wildlife of the world. The general public perceives wildlife as 'belonging to the people', or 'belonging to future generations' and not just belonging in your aviary. The average person believes that the local zoo has more ability to breed exotic birds than you do. They are unaware that serious aviculturists routinely attend conferences, seminars and symposiums in order to keep up with the new information on exotic bird husbandry. Many aviculturists become specialists in the study of one or two species. In the process of learning new and better ways to care for birds, it seems that aviculturists also need to show the world that they have achieved a significant level of competence.

Keys to Professionalism

Behaving in an ethical manner, employing record keeping, marking individual birds, using safety systems, providing proper nutrition, providing proper housing, quarantining new arrivals, attending conferences, belonging to professional organizations, supporting the industry and supporting conservation: all these comprise the attributes of an aviculturist behaving in a professional manner.

The Lack of Professionalism

Recently, professionalism, or rather the lack of it, has become a problem for aviculture. Because much of the information about exotic birds has focused on the great amounts of money involved, many people have decided to get into bird breeding. Unfortunately, they have not reviewed bird farm balance sheets. So often the focus is on making dollars, not raising healthy and happy birds.The results are observable in bird marts and fairs: the selling of unweaned babies to inexperienced buyers; the crowding of small birds into cages; the offer for sale of sickly and stunted birds; and the sale of hybrids. These four failures of ethics provide the reasons which animal rights persons seek in their fight against ownership of pet birds. It is up to aviculturists who care about birds to do something about these four problems. If aviculture fails to address these problems, other organizations will address them with state and local regulations.

The Model Aviculture Program (MAP)

The MAP was designed by aviculturists and avian veterinarians to improve avicultural practices through setting basic standards for avian husbandry. The MAP is not a private business; it is a non-profit service organization designed to be of benefit to aviculturists. Application fees are used for basic administrative costs. The clerical work is performed by one part time person. The management of MAP is under the direction of the MAP Board of Directors, comprised of aviculturists and avian veterinarians who guide the organization and general policies under which the certification program is administered. The MAP also provides information to aviculturists, such as: a variety of record formats, information on designing quarantine areas, sample business contracts for breeders and handfeeders, and relevant information on laws and regulations.

Why is MAP Needed?

In the U.S. and Canada, for the past fifteen years rules and regulations on a state and national level have been considered and proposed. Since the early eighties animal rights groups, sometimes with the help of the conservation community, have attempted to ban importation of wild caught birds and to regulate ownership of exotic birds. When there is a law in place dealing with exotic birds, there will be regulations in association with that law: permits, licenses, inspections and a definition of legal and illegal activities under those regulations. Historically, aviculturists are anti-regulation, privacy-oriented individuals. They have resisted all attempts to regulate their activities, until the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992. In fact, this law would probably not have been passed if aviculturists had joined together to form a professional association or organization which would have set basic standards for exotic bird care. For these reasons, the Model Aviculture Program is needed.

Three Key Elements of MAP

The first key element is the use of models for husbandry practices involving the areas of quarantine, safety systems, caging, nutrition, nursery, and record keeping. Models can be applied to a variety of formats in avicultural facilities. Guidelines were designed to provide instruction on each area within the aviculturist's facility and are for use in planning or improving the facility.

The second key element is the use of the veterinarian as inspector. The veterinarian is chosen by the aviculturist. The veterinarian imparts the authority of a state licensed professional to the MAP process, while maintaining the confidentiality of the aviculturist. Avian veterinarians helped design the MAP; their medical experience has provided the needed complement to the aviculturists experience in creating a program that is effective and useful.

The third key element is the utilization of the closed aviary concept. This concept requires defining separate areas within the facility, each with a distinct location and use. These areas are as follows: Quarantine Area: The area where all new birds are housed for a period of time to determine their condition of health through observation and appropriate testing. Breeding Area: Adult breeding stock are housed in species appropriate set ups so that production of eggs and young is enhanced. Nursery Area: The nursery area is where young are fed and raised when not being parent-raised. Nurseries may vary according to the type of species being raised, i.e., a waterfowl or pheasant nursery would require a different set up than a nursery for psittacine chicks. Isolation Area: An area where sick or injured birds can be kept apart from the breeding collection and nursery. This area must also be separate from the quarantine area. Food Storage and Supply Area: Food storage, preparation and wash areas may be combined. Planning the aviary design and monitoring traffic flow between each area in the facility is the critical element in preventing and controlling disease transmission. This includes air flow as well as traffic patterns for servicing each area. Following protocols to prevent disease transmission is extremely important for each aviculturist; if lost, one can no longer replace birds with wild caught ones. Along with following the closed aviary protocols, record keeping on each aspect of the aviary or bird farm is a must: identification of individual birds, breeding records, weight records on babies, sales records, and information provided to buyers.

A MAP for the Future

The MAP has been endorsed by the Board of Directors of the American Federation of Aviculture as a viable program for inspection and certification of aviculturists. MAP has the active support of several major zoos which only permit the sale of surplus zoo birds to people in the private sector who are certified MAP participants. MAP has been presented to the USFWS as an organization designed to improve captive breeding of exotic birds. The MAP certificate provides aviculturists with the official evidence of meeting professional standards.

Aviculture and Conservation

Beyond meeting standards of good husbandry and recordkeeping, aviculturists in the private sector today are expected to actively promote conservation, or they are deemed to be only interested in birds as 'commodities' or 'only a hobby'. The words 'commercial' and 'commodity' are used by members of conservation organizations, by animal rights groups, and by representatives of governments. When these words are used, it is in a derogatory manner, i.e., 'you are treating birds as commodities' or 'you sell your birds, well then, you are commercial'. The expectation seems to be that aviculturists should be raising birds, but never sell them. A realistic response to these comments is: aviaries are not being supported by government grants, or by foundation grants, or by zoo entrance fees. Aviculturists in the private sector must sell some birds to be able to provide food, housing and veterinary care for the collection. It is only when aviculturists are actively promoting conservation, either by supporting a particular project or by routinely donating to a particular organization, that aviculturists are believed to be concerned about birds in the wild. They are perceived as being selfish, greedy users or consumers of exotic birds, not as propagators and preservers of species.

Aviculture Supporting Conservation

Most aviculturists who have a deep love for birds are also concerned about birds in the wild. Most also contribute to conservation organizations and some have actively participated in fundraising for special conservation projects. Others participate in special breeding programs for unusual or rare species, keep good records, and exchange breeding stock. These activities are important for future conservation of species which may be decimated in the wild. Some of these species may continue to exist only in our collections. This does leave aviculturists with a tremendous responsibility. At present, the conservation and zoo communities are watching to see how the private sector aviculturists handle this responsibility. Will we manage to hybridize and lose species? Will aviculturists inadvertently mix subspecies when pairing? Will aviculturists lose birds through inadequate quarantine practices with new arrivals? Will aviculturists lose birds because they are not provided with adequate nutrition or housing? Will aviculturists selfishly hold on to single rare birds instead of placing them with other breeders holding a single bird of the opposite sex? All of these questions remain unanswered.

The AFA Red Siskin Project

Most conservation projects have been instituted by various conservation organizations, rarely by aviculturists. The notable exception is the American Federation of Aviculture's (AFA) Red Siskin Project, devoted to the captive breeding of the rare and endangered Venezuelan Red Siskin. Very few birds remain in the wild; a lot of birds exist in breeding collections in Europe and some in collections in the U.S. The project focuses on breeding with the goal of eventual release either in Venezuela or in a safe location with similar habitat.

The AFA Red-fronted Macaw Project

The second exception is the American Federation of Aviculture's new conservation project, the Red-Fronted Macaw Management and Recovery Project. During the past summer, under the auspices of the AFA, Dr. John O'Neil and Dr. Leticia Alamia traveled to Bolivia to do a preliminary and very general survey of the habitat and population status of the macaw. They completed the first stage of the project and have reported on previous studies as well as their experiences with the birds, the local peoples and the officials. This comprehensive three to four year project on the Red-fronted Macaw has been designed by wildlife biologists for the AFA. The project includes a complete survey of the various populations in Red-fronted Macaws, to determine whether or not there has been a change in the populations, to formulate and carry out a plan for recovery, including land-use planning and management as needed for recovery, to carry out an educational campaign to instill pride in the people who will ultimately protect the Red-fronted Macaw, and to develop local programs that will allow the people to benefit monetarily from having the macaw in their valleys and protecting it. The notable difference between this project and other conservation projects is that it has been initiated by aviculturists and will be directed by aviculturists. This project will be the model for future conservation projects conducted by aviculturists. Conservation projects can be conducted successfully by aviculturists as long as they employ the skills and knowledge of experienced and competent wildlife biologists.

Aviculture Tomorrow

Aviculture, the care, keeping and breeding of birds in captivity, is practiced by many aviculturists in the private sector. Aviculture is also practiced by bird curators in the zoo community and by wildlife biologists with their captive breeding projects in countries of origin. These three avicultural communities share a great responsibility for the future of many species. The following challenges must be met: the responsibility for preserving viable gene pools of many species, the problem of developing successful wildlife management programs, the problems posed by the shallow solutions supported by animal rights groups, the problems facing the conservation community, the regulations proposed by governments, the need for a positive image for aviculture in the private sector, the need for professionalism and certification of standards in the private sector, the need for a means to move intact collections of species to future generations, and the need for all three communities to support conservation projects. If there is to be a tomorrow for avi-culture, these three communities must work together today to successfully meet these challenges.


Laurella Desborough

Laurella grew up on an Illinois farm where she was fascinated by birds, both domestic chickens and native wild bluebirds. As a youngster she raised chickens, as a teenager she raised fancy pigeons and after college, racing pigeons. She graduated from Southern Illinois University with a B.F.A., minoring in Biological Sciences. She later obtained an M.A. from UCLA and taught art and mechanical drawing until 1982.

In 1979 she acquired her first exotic birds, a pair of Orange-winged Amazons. By 1983 she was working with Eclectus parrots and chose to specialize in them. She presently works with the four Eclectus subspecies common in the U.S. She has raised Severe Macaws, Congo and Timneh Greys, Blue-fronted , Lilac-crowned and Yellow-naped Amazons, African Brownheaded parrots, and, when lucky, Hawkheaded parrots. In 1987 she co-authored the first definitive book on Eclectus parrots. She has written articles for the AFA Watchbird, Bird World, Bird Talk, American Cage Bird Magazine, and presently writes a column for Bird Breeder magazine. She frequently gives slide lectures on Eclectus parrots, the Model Aviculture Program and legislation.

In the fall of 1983 she helped found the Contra Costa Avian Society and for nine years worked as the C.C.A.S. newsletter editor and writer for the Cheep News. In the early eighties she became a club delegate to the American Federation of Aviculture (A.F.A.) and continued this work, becoming Northern California State Coordinator, later Executive Secretary to the A.F.A. Board and presently serves as A.F.A. President.

Other avicultural activities include working in the early eighties with other Northern California aviculturists to design the Model Aviculture Program, which is now operational and provides certification of basic avicultural standards for aviculturists. In 1987 she worked with two other aviculturists to create the non-profit Avian Research Fund for the purpose of presenting educational seminars and raising funds for avian research. To date $65,000 has been donated. Additionally, she is working with a small group of aviculturists to create the first non-profit world-class captive breeding facility; the land for the first facility has been donated and the first planning grant has been received for the Advocates for Bird Conservation.

Silvio Mattacchione & Co. - Quality Books About Birds & Aviculture

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