Is it possible for a pet parrot to be as happy in captivity as they would be in the wild? Is parrot ownership more like prison … or could it be like a happy, perpetual childhood experience?
As a bird mom to three cockatoos and a parrotlet, it is a question with which I wrestle day-by-day, and even moment-by-moment—and over which I’ve lost sleep, plagued with guilt.
It’s a feeling that never goes away, really, this nagging in my heart and stomach. Would my genius and high-energy Goffin’s cockatoo, Ellie, have been happier if she were wild? Is she her happiest self, here with me?
Here are my thoughts about the question, “Is it possible for a parrot to be as happy in captivity as in the wild?”
The first bit of my research was practical. A survey of baby songbirds showed that 83% of them die within the first year. I know Ellie isn’t a songbird, but research is limited on wild Goffin’s so … I’m going to go with these parameters.
If Ellie were wild, she’d probably also be dead in some horrific way.
If she’d made it past the first year, about half of the adult (songbirds) die per year. The average life expectancy of a tit bird is 2.6 years, for instance, although their actual life span is 21 years. You can read more about that in this interesting article. I had no idea life-expectancy of wild birds was so short.
The next thing she’d have to deal with are the elements. Many animals pass away in the harsh weather and winter, and dehydration is actually more likely than starvation. The beautiful wild is also really, really harsh.
(Stay with me! I promise there’s a happy ending here!)
Drought, injury, disease, infestation and predation also kind of suck for wild birds.
When I was desperate with owner-guilt, I googled and read a bunch of articles. Christine Wilcox also wrote an interesting piece about this very thing called “Bambi or Bessie: Are Wild Animals Happier?” in Scientific American. It’s an excellent essay, and worth reading.
In a nutshell, Christine believes that animals that are relieved from exposure, given basic care AND are allowed to express themselves naturally (with socialization and enrichment) are a lot happier than their wild counterparts and she’s got some good data for that idea too.
So here are my humble bird-mom thoughts on it.
Florida Atlantic University student, Jolie Reisner, is our brilliant research assistant on the literacy work we’re doing with cockatoos. She sent me an interesting article about whether animal captivity could be considered incarceration.
The thought—and, yes, I think it sometimes some animal captivity could be likened to prison—makes me nauseous with sadness. Certainly the analogy sticks when animals lack love, nurturing, freedom of choice, and especially enrichment.
This is particularly an absolute concern for birds. It’s so easy to drown their voices, to shut them away. To keep them as decoration. To force them here or there, to hurt them. To ignore them as they numb away…
I don’t think it’s always, or often necessarily, that way at all. My friend, Dr. Clubb of Rainforest Clinic and Exotics, an avian veterinarian with a career spanning over 30 years, says avian care and enrichment is getting better and better.
I think parrot captivity could also be likened to childhood, in a sense. Humans can have very, very happy childhoods, notwithstanding limited major life choices and some of the bumps that come along the journey when someone else is in charge of your life.
Children have toys and activities, they have enrichment and experiences, they can be so very deeply loved, and I think absolutely deeply happy too.
Is a trade-off of wildlife living for something akin to a beloved childhood experience worth it?
When it comes to Ellie (and so many of your birds, too), I’ve come to believe that it is possible for her to be very happy in captivity, in a world free of predation and pestilence, free of winter chills and starvation.
She lives an existence of profound love, a home with sisters and toys, friends who care about her, a mother who loves her fiercely. I think parrot “captivity” really could be very much compared to a perpetual happy childhood—perhaps a few challenges along the way—but filled even with the kinds of choices children make: their friends, their favorite foods, games, learning, and activities.
When bird parronts are sensitive to their little charges’ preferences and fill their lives with a rotating assortment of enrichment, a variety of things to taste, experiences to be had, training and guidance for those bumps. When I look around at so many of you bird mom and dad friends who absolutely adore your little bird kids…I still struggle so much with guilt (don’t all mothers?), but I do actually think a life in captivity can be a very worthwhile life indeed.
Cheers to all you awesome moms and dads!