Avian Expert Articles

Parrot Conservation: How We Can Help & How It Helps Us

scarlet macaw flyingOver a remote village in the Moskitia region of Honduras there still flies the critically endangered Central American subspecies of scarlet macaw. Admiring these rainbow birds and working on their behalf, once lived Tomas Manzanares, leader of the indigenous village, Rus Rus.  One day he grew tired of nefarious elements coming into the ancestral lands and taking what they wanted — trees, parrots, land. He reported the names of those who were illegally taking his people’s resources to governmental authorities. The government didn’t do anything, but the criminals did. They waited in ambush one morning by the river where Tomas took his daily bath and shot him four times. He nearly died. His fellow villagers fled, knowing that their turn might be next.  Only five months later, his wounds still healing, Tomas returned to his village to accompany me and others to survey the area’s scarlet macaw population. We had hired a squad of soldiers to come with us — as much to keep Tomas and his people safe, as we outsiders.

One early morning down by the riverside, Tomas showed me the scars from the bullet wounds. “Tomas,” I said, “Why are you risking your life to help us conserve the parrots here?” “Doctora,” he answered, “Everything is at risk, so I am willing to risk everything. If the birds don’t make it, neither do my people.”

Tomas, with his hard-won wisdom, affirmed a deep healing truth, which supports and motivates my work in parrot conservation in many Central American countries. We are one earth and the well being of all species and individuals intertwines into an interdependent whole.  If one of isn’t doing well, none of us are.  The corollary to this lightens burdens: if we help one, we help the many, including ourselves. As long as you do something to care for life on this earth, you help us all.

Specifically, if we care for birds either near or far, we help birds everywhere, and we help our human kind as well. We do this in three major ways:

  • Knowing Wild Birds Helps us Care for Our Wild Birds
  • Knowing & Caring for Wild Birds Helps us Care for Our Companion Birds
  • Knowing & Caring for Wild Birds Helps us Care for Ourselves

Knowing Wild Birds Helps us Care for Our Wild Birds

The more we know about birds in the wild, the better able we are to frame appropriate research questions and design, and to make adaptive management decisions that improve the quality of life of free-ranging birds. For instance, learning the variety of foods that a wild bird eats helps us determine habitat quality and carrying capacity so that we can, in turn, work on reforestation and identification of suitable areas for conservation efforts, such as the release of birds rescued from the illegal wildlife trafficking. This knowledge is important not just for conservation team members directly involved and on site, but also for the variety of conservation team members required to form powerful and synergistic multidisciplinary teams.  Team members can be half a world away and still contribute experiences, skills and resources, such as social media and website management, contribute or conduct publicity, education and awareness campaigns, as well as donate financial or other resources. For instance, for Lafeber Conservation Projects, we utilize people who have never seen a free-flying parrot who help us design websites and media, network with others, and support the programs financially. People with pet birds in their homes are a tremendous resource for wild birds because they form deep and intimate relationships with their birds. They also understand them in ways that others do not. There is power in these relationships and bonds, which results in a commitment and ability to care for birds wherever they may find them.

Knowing Wild Birds Helps us Care for Our Companion Birds

adult wild scarlet macawThe American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) held a welfare conference in November 2013 to help attendees understand how to conduct a welfare assessment for animals. Each assessment has three components:  Body, Mind and Nature. Individuals are rated on a scale from suffering, to coping, to flourishing, which is the aim. Body refers to the physiological needs of an animal and the well being of the body, such as nutrition, safety, temperature, etc. Mind means paying attention to what the animal is experiencing, thinking and feeling, such as fear, stress and pleasure. Nature means looking at “normal” behaviors for the species, such as flight and reproduction. Categories may share common elements, such as in the case of flight for birds. Being able to fly impacts a bird’s body (such as cardiac health and weight), a bird’s mind (such as the ability to avoid stress and enjoy flying), and a bird’s nature, whose evolution niche evolved to perhaps fly tens of miles a day, as in the case of macaws.

Using these categories, there is much we can learn about wild birds in their habitats that can help us care for companion birds. Knowing wild birds helps us recognize low-welfare conditions, including behavioral abnormalities and disease. For instance, the more we can learn about parrots’ diets in the wild, the better we can provide adequate nutrition for pet parrots. Some parrot species, such as macaws, have been documented to eat more than 50 types of plants. Our goal is to provide as close as match as possible to the native diet, as of yet we do not have adequate studies on how to use domestic food stuffs to provide all that a wild diet can. Wild birds can also provide insight on birds’ requirements for growth, reproduction, nesting, housing and flight space, as well as companionship, stimulation, etc.

wild scarlet macaw chicks in nestBy studying how parrots raise their chicks in the wild, we discover the important role of adults in the development and survivability of chicks, especially in such long-lived social species. Parent behavior contributes to chick learning, behavior, vocalization, flight patterns, foraging techniques and location, and future reproduction. Knowing this, we can see the importance of raising young parrots with parents and adults of the same species. Most parrots rely on public (flock) information to estimate the quality of patches for foraging. How then might the size of the flock and the number of birds with which a bird lives impact the ability to eat appropriate foods?

Being in tune with the life of wild birds can help us better empathize with others. Studies have shown that by placing ourselves in the situation of the bird, such as experiencing the body, mind and nature states of the bird, we increase our empathy and desire to work on behalf of others. To really be able to empathize with a particular species or individual, one must know aspects of body, mind and nature that lead to the good life for each.  So go ahead, be a wild bird, and see how this changes your behavior and attention to birds at home or work.  For every species you care for, read all that you can, and make a goal to become a citizen “scientist” or “ornithologist” on behalf of birds. You can use this information to not only help birds you personally know, but those far and wide as you talk to others, give presentations, write, or use social media.

Knowing & Caring for Birds Helps us Care for Ourselves

scarlet macawOne of the greatest sources of happiness for humans is caring for others, regardless of the species.  Doing all you can to care for birds near and far brings vitality, happiness and richness to your life.  Furthermore, living a life according to your values, including highly valuing birds and their well being, helps you integrate your behavior with your values, which brings satisfaction and a deep indwelling source of happiness and joy to your life. Doing all that you can helps you not only express your values, but also contributes in a way that staves off helplessness, despair or victimhood. By doing something you empower yourself and others to do even more.

Knowing all that we can about the ways and expressions of nature helps us live in a way that comes from our deepest understanding of reality, and not based on our own culture’s biases that tend to favor humans and the powerful. Knowing about nature’s being helps us see that we belong on this planet, and we need not ever experience existential angst or loneliness, for we are one animal species among many, radically interconnected with others in the web of life. Seeing that other species have agency and mind, body, and nature aspects to their well being helps not only welcome us into the family of things, but also helps us welcome others by caring for them and allowing them to live in peace. By helping others we ensure an ecosystem and earth that can support the wide variety of life, including the human species. In addition, we keep up the highest levels of biodiversity, beauty and wildness, which studies have shown contribute to our well being.

Caring and learning about birds keeps the spirit of feathered beings soaring upon this planet and helps our own spirit soar as well. Here is what you can do:

1.  Grow your understanding of birds:

  • Identify the species of birds in your life
  • Find out everything you can about your bird’s species in the wild – their conservation status and the poaching rate, and all aspects of body, mind and nature.
  • Improve the way you care for your bird

2. Share your understanding of birds

  • Educate and raise awareness in others to improve the way they care for birds in captivity and in the wild
  • Let others know the conservation status of birds, their poaching rate, the laws and what they can do to protect these birds in the wild.

3.  Donate financially to conservation projects, such as groups that work with your bird’s species in the wild.

4.  Reduce your carbon footprint or consumerism by 10%.

5. Engage in ecotourism

  • Support communities that need economic power to protect their native species and ecosystems
  • Support conservation projects that earn their income through ecotourism
  • Directly provide work, such as caring for rescued birds, monitoring populations, and providing witness to the lives of parrots and people near and far

6.  Join a multidisciplinary conservation team

  • Seek out conservation efforts in species and localities in which you are interested
  • Offer voluntary services (and sometimes paid!) over as long a period of time as you can. Even if you can only donate a few hours or weeks a year, by doing so year after year you help build expertise and relationships that help the overall conservation effort.

Thank you for caring!  By doing so, you help us all.
— LoraKim

For more information, or on how to get involved, contact Dr. LoraKim Joyner at Lafeber Conservation.

3 thoughts on “Parrot Conservation: How We Can Help & How It Helps Us

  1. Thank you Dr. Joyner for bringing this important message forward. Many of us who love birds do want to contribute to REAL working conservation projects. This is wonderful. I will help spread the wordl

  2. tThis is so well written and so thought provoking. Thank you for bringing the plight of wild parrots to the forefront and not only caring for them but caring about us humans as well!

  3. Thank you so much, Dr. Joyner, for this comprehensive article on caring for parrots … the whole picture. I will do my part in my corner and also help spread the word too.

    And God bless Tomas and people like Tomas.

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