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Is it wrong to buy a bird?

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

With trending hashtags like #adoptdontshop, it’s no wonder that somewhere along the way, the action of buying a baby bird instead of adopting one from a rescue has become vilified.


when we consider all of the factors going into this massive choice—that is “shopping” versus adopting—is it actually wrong to buy a baby bird? I’ll skip ahead to my conclusion (emphasis on the “my,” as this is an opinionated topic): it depends. Wow, groundbreaking. Stay with me here because this topic is not straightforward and I myself have gone back and forth on it many times.

Let’s start out by considering a few of the many of the reasons why buying a bird has become a heavily scrutinized action. For me, the first thing that comes to mind is the illegal wildlife trade, which has taken a massive toll on wild parrots. When we see pictures of African Greys being lured into traps high up in trees, Alexandrines being crammed into small cages, and macaw eggs being stolen from nests, all for the illegal pet trade, a gut-wrenching, visceral reaction is only natural. Believe me, seeing these photos and hearing these stories breaks my heart and makes me lose hope in humanity. But then I take a step back and think of how the United States combatted this very issue. Rather than outlawing parrots as pets, in1992 the US passed the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA), which along with other existing acts, prohibited parrots from being imported to the US except under extremely regulated circumstances. This effectively eliminated wild-caught parrots from the pet trade in the US. While it is true that there still exists some illegal exotic wildlife trade activity in the US, chances are that the birds you see in pet or specialty bird stores were bred in captivity. The same cannot be said true for many other areas of the world. The illegal parrot trade runs rampant in much of the Middle East, far east, and South America. So, if you are considering getting a parrot, it is important to consider where you live and how that influences where parrots in the pet trade in your area are coming from. The sad truth is that where you live plays a huge role in this particular part of the discussion. Many countries have laws in place that are meant to protect animals from the illegal wildlife trade, but that doesn’t mean that such laws are enforced. Keep this in mind.

Let’s say that you live in a country where you can legally obtain a parrot that was bred in captivity. Does that mean that there aren’t any other ethical issues to consider? Of course not. Just because there are legal avenues for obtaining a captive-bred parrot does not mean that you should go buy, rather than adopt, a parrot. For one, many argue that by having a parrot, we inherently increase public interest in parrots as pets, which ultimately drives the illegal pet trade of wild-caught parrots. I will say that this argument doesn’t seem to address the topic of “buy vs. adopt,” rather it addresses the question of if parrots should be pets in the first place. Nonetheless, I hear this argument come up all the time during these discussions. While there doesn’t seem to be much out there in the way of scientific evidence backing up this argument, many of us with a parrot-focused Instagram have at least a few stories of accidentally inspiring others to go out and get a pet parrot. On the flip side, one of the best ways to increase awareness in parrot conservation efforts is to connect the public with parrots. This is the basis of many conservation awareness efforts…in order for us to be motivated to protect something, we first must feel a connection to what it is we are trying to conserve. This is perhaps why there is so much public interest in protecting certain cute species, like koala bears, over other less cute species—it’s easier for the public to form a connection with a cute koala bear, which motivates them into taking action. But I digress…back to the actual topic at hand. My feeling on this particular argument—that by having pet parrots we increase public interest which drives the illegal trade of wild-caught parrots—is that there simply isn’t sufficient scientific evidence for me to be swayed either way. Instead, I think about how my portrayal of life with parrots, be it on social media or otherwise, can help educate others on parrot-related issues. Only publicizing the cute moments is leaving a HUGE part of the narrative out—this is why I try to frequently post about things like proper parrot nutrition, enrichment, and tough topics like behavior problems.

I’d also like to bring up the fact that not all pet stores, specialty parrot stores, or breeders are created equal. Just like with dogs, where we range from horrendous puppy mill situations to responsible breeders, there is a spectrum of what it means for a bird to be “bred in captivity.” This really just means that you have to do your homework. I can try to break this down a little bit…if a breeder or store seems seedy (like you get the sense that they are sketchy, lying, scamming, or mistreating their birds or employees), leave immediately. If a breeder refuses to tell you where their breeding pair came from, leave immediately. If a breeder doesn’t take their birds (including their breeding pairs!) for regular check-ups with an avian veterinarian, leave immediately. If a store cannot tell you where their birds come from, leave immediately. If wings are clipped before the birds are fledged, leave immediately. If a breeder or store wants you to take an un-weaned bird home without providing you with ample resources to confidently hand-feed the bird yourself, leave immediately. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Cages or enclosures should be clean and appropriately sized for the birds, and birds of different sizes should not be housed together. The staff should be knowledgeable, and their primary concern should always be the wellbeing of their birds, not selling you a bird. This means asking you questions about what kind of home you live in, what other pets you have, whether or not you have young children, and so on. If you are buying a bird that can easily outlive you (amazons, cockatoos, and macaws, to list a few), a good breeder or store should at the very least provide you with estate planning information to make sure that your bird continues to be cared for after you pass. Most adoption facilities that I know of actually require that these documents be drawn up before a bird is released into your care, but this requirement doesn’t seem to be as popular amongst for-profit stores. Maybe thinking about one’s death isn’t good for business.

Finally, onto the question that I personally struggle with the most. Is it wrong to buy a baby bird when there are so many birds in need of a good home available for adoption? Oof, this one gets me. If you’re reading this blog post, you probably know what it’s like to walk into a bird store, see those cute little baby faces, and hear those cute little baby noises. So very tempting. Baby birds are incredibly open and tolerant to new experiences. This is why to somebody like me who studies parrot behavior and loves training, baby birds are so appealing. They present us with a great opportunity to raise a bird with certain desired behaviors and characteristics. This is not to say that older birds can’t learn new behaviors (they definitely can), only that the barrier may be lower with baby birds. The problem that I see is that baby birds aren’t the best representatives of what adult birds are like. Oftentimes, birds that were incredibly tolerant of something when they were babies “suddenly” become intolerant of it. People have a tendency to blame this on a so-called “bluffing phase” or the “terrible twos,” and the result can be, and frequently is, that the bird ends up surrendered to a rescue. I hate these terms, by the way. They imply that the bird’s behaviors are somehow disingenuous and are not really representative of their true intentions (because my bird always loved belly scratches before but now, he bites me when I try to scratch his belly). I would argue that chances are, your bird never liked whatever it was you have been doing, but that they only recently started to express their dislike in a way that we deem unacceptable, like biting or screaming. This gets into the idea of interpreting parrot body language and always respecting it, especially with baby birds when they are learning whether or not they can trust us. This is another tangent though, one that perhaps deserves a post all to itself. To get back on track, what I’m getting at is that many new parrot owners aren’t equipped with the necessary information or skill set to be able to raise a young bird, and this leads to adoption centers filling up. Does this mean that getting a baby bird is inherently wrong? In my opinion, no. It just means that we once again have to do our research before bringing a bird home. This is true whether you buy or adopt a bird, it’s just that adoption facilities in my experience typically make sure you do this research, whereas bird stores often don’t.

The fact is, whether you are buying a bird or adopting one, you are still shopping for one. It you adopt a bird that doesn’t like you or that you don’t like simply because in your mind adopting is right and buying is wrong, you aren’t doing any good by yourself or by the bird. In other words, the best bird to bring home is the bird that you feel a connection with and that fits into your (parrot-friendly) lifestyle. That said, if after reading this post you are equally ok with adopting and buying, I’d always promote adoption over buying simply because of the great kindness that providing a bird with a much-needed home is. The way I see it, #adoptdontshop isn’t the solution, just a catchy hashtag that doesn’t accurately portray the many issues at hand.

Dr. Stephanie Rosenbloom has her Ph.D. from Cornell University and has been caring for parrots her entire life. She believes that we can all benefit from asking more questions, seeking knowledge from reliable sources, and giving others the benefit of the doubt before drawing conclusions. She applies these concepts to her practice as a parrot trainer and behavior consultant.

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