Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Passion for Parrots and the Fight to Save Them in the Wild



On a sweltering afternoon this summer, Joseph M. Forshaw, an Australian ornithologist, strolled through Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, scanning the trees for feral monk parrots. No one knows how these squawking green birds, usually native to Argentina, first arrived in New York. But they thrive in wooded corners throughout the city.

Stephen Baldwin, 50, founder of the Brooklyn Parrot Society, explained that the birds eat whatever they find — “pine buds, berries, pizza.”
Mr. Forshaw, 67. smiled. “Ah, parrots are such wonderful generalists,” he said.
The former head of wildlife conservation for the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, Mr. Forshaw knows parrots’ talents. The author or co-author of 16 ornithological books, he is considered the world’s leading expert on the parrot. His latest, from Princeton University Press, is “Parrots of the World: An Identification Guide,” which he hopes will give “conservationists new tools for fighting the traffic in wild birds for the pet trade.”
“It was the pet trade that probably first brought your monk parrots to Brooklyn,” he says. “These fellows are managing well. But elsewhere, the results are often tragic.”
Q. For how long have parrots had an association with humans?
A. Certainly for much of recorded human history. Alexander the Great brought parrots back from his Asian expeditions. The ancient Romans had them, too. When Australia and South America were opened up to Europeans by the voyages of discovery of the 16th and 17th century, the international trade in the birds really began. Today the parakeet is second to the goldfish as the world’s most popular pet.


Q. For how long have parrots had an association with humans?
A. Certainly for much of recorded human history. Alexander the Great brought parrots back from his Asian expeditions. The ancient Romans had them, too. When Australia and South America were opened up to Europeans by the voyages of discovery of the 16th and 17th century, the international trade in the birds really began. Today the parakeet is second to the goldfish as the world’s most popular pet.
Q. Do you have any insight why parrots make such good pets?
A. Unlike most other birds, they can imitate human speech. That endears them to people and creates a bond. If you keep a blue jay or a sparrow, it’s not going to do more than hop around in a cage. A parrot will talk to you.
One of the most memorable birds I’d ever encountered was a corella, a kind of Australian cockatoo. In the 1970’s, a woman rang up a research institute where I worked complaining of a bird she’d inherited from her deceased grandfather. We took it off her hands. It turned out this corella had originally been given to her grandfather by some Aboriginals. As a young man, in 1910, the grandfather had worked on the construction of the Australian railway system, and somewhere the Aboriginals had gifted him with this bird. Well, the corella had a repertoire of camp noises from the railway, pots and pans, brash talk — and he did all this in an Aboriginal dialect! Sixty years later! These birds have an amazing learning capacity.
Q. Some biologists believe that parrots can actually understand the words they speak. Do you agree?
A. I think that’s probably taking parrot intelligence a little too far. What the birds have probably done is learned the association between words and actions. They’ve learned that certain words generate certain actions — whether that equates with “understanding,” I don’t know.
Wild parrots make contact calls to each other which are mainly given in flight to maintain cohesion within flocks or between birds in trees and those flying overhead. What happens with pets is they substitute their owners for flock members and learn to imitate their “calls,” which are words.
We do know that parrots in the wild make their calls in regional dialects. A study of wild birds in Trinidad established that the dialect sounds are learned by the young from their parrot-parents. A researcher took parrot chicks from nests in one area and moved them into nests elsewhere. He found that the chicks learned the dialectical calls of the adopted parents.
Q. So do we love these birds because they’re smart?
A. They are very clever birds. Plus, they are beautiful, affectionate and loyal. They bond with you as if you are their mate. My pet red-capped parrot will allow me to scratch her neck, but she retreats if my wife comes to her. In fact, she’s jealous of my wife, who is actually very good-natured about it.

The thing I see as I travel is that people truly love their parrots. Once I was in Brazil doing field research. Word got around in this little village that this crazy Australian had come from the other side of the world to see parrots. So when I came out of the hotel, a dozen villagers had lined the sidewalk holding their caged pets for me to inspect. Most of the birds were quite ordinary, but included among them were Amazona vinacea, an uncommon species I’d been searching for, but had been unable to find in the wild.

Q. Are people loving parrots to death?
A. I think so. A third of all parrot species are threatened or endangered. The bird is at once ubiquitous and endangered. The most pressing threat is habitat destruction because of logging and agriculture. There’s additional pressure from the pet trade where wild parrots are being taken from the tropics for sale in Europe and North America. There’s tremendous mortality when the birds are transported. It is estimated that for every wild bird who makes it to the pet shop, at least 10 die.
Q. So should people stop keeping parrots at all?
A. I think they should probably only purchase captive-bred birds. Frankly, I question whether we need to take parrots from the wild at all. One of the biggest problems with the pet trade is that there’s a huge demand for rare species, like the hyacinth macaw. These birds just can’t sustain the assault of organized harvesting.
Q. Australia has stringent prohibitions against the export of wild parrots. Should other countries follow suit?
A. For us, this policy works. There still is some smuggling, but it’s minimal. So when you get off at Sydney International Airport, you walk out of the terminal, and there are cockatoos in front of you and following you around. If you go to Indonesia, you can be there for three weeks and you might never see one. They have virtually uncontrolled export. The comparison speaks for itself.
Q. In the tropics, it’s common for people to eat parrots. Have you ever done it?
A. Terrible to say: I have. And the ones I’ve eaten were not too bad. It was a sulphur-crested cockatoo. We were in the outback, collecting specimens of birds that had been killed for agriculture protection. The airplane that was supposed to bring supplies was delayed, and things got difficult. So when we finished our measurements of the birds, we just chopped the breasts up and dropped them into the pot. We did it out of desperation.
Q. Did it taste like chicken?
A. No, they are very gamy.
Q. How did parrots become your life’s work?
A. If you grow up in Australia, you can’t help but be interested in them because they are everywhere. Australia has the highest diversity of parrots in the world.
As a child, I kept an aviary with them. At university in the 1950’s, I studied pharmacy. In those times, there was no such thing then as professional ornithology studies. But then in 1962, at a meeting of an amateur ornithology society, I met someone who invited me to work in wildlife research at the Australian Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. That was the beginning of my professional career.
Today, I live in Canberra, and if I put a feeder in my backyard, I’ll see five or six different parrot species in a day. If I travel to the outback, I can see great big flocks of them. That makes me glad to be an Australian. I can’t imagine what life would be like without parrots.

No comments: