Understanding the Illegal Parrot Trade


America is a nation of pet keepers with approximately 63% estimated to own at least one pet. In 2008, Americans were estimated to own 16 million pet birds and many of these birds are parrots (APPMA 2012, AVMA 2002). Members of order Psittaciformes are highly sought as pets because of their brilliant coloring, social nature, intelligence, and ability to vocalize (Fig 1).

hyacinth macaw

Figure 1. Parrots are charismatic birds that are highly sought as pets. Shown here, hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyancinthinus).

While there are more parrots than ever before in captivity, there are fewer parrots in the wild now than at any time in recorded history. In fact, psittacine birds are the most threatened group of bird species in the world today (Wright 2001, Pires 2011). The situation is particularly dire in the neotropics where at least 46 out of 145 species (31%) are at risk of global extinction (Wright 2001).

Although the cause of declining parrot populations worldwide is complex (Box 1), the most important factors include habitat loss, culling, and capture of individuals for the pet trade (Snyder 1999,Wright 2001).

Box 1. Factors implicated in falling wild parrot numbers
  • Habitat loss
  • Culling by farmers
  • Capture for pet trade
  • Natural predators
  • Climate change
  • Inclement weather (e.g. hurricanes)
  • Disease or injury

Most parrots live in tropical rain forests, and destruction of their habitat is ongoing as land is cleared for cattle ranching, exotic tree plantations, settlement, and agriculture. As rain forest is turned into farmland, parrots can turn into crop pests, by eating or indiscriminately destroying plants. Farmers respond by culling bird populations, which can take a serious toll on bird numbers. The relatively low reproductive rate of parrots exacerbates their conservation status (Wright 2001) (Box 2).


Box 2. Features of parrot reproductive biology that worsen their conservation status
  • Small clutch size
  • One clutch or less per year (with rare exceptions)
  • Low survival rate of chicks and fledglings
  • Large proportions of nonbreeding adults
  • Restrictive tree cavity nest requirements

Although parrots are cavity nesters, they lack beaks that are capable of excavating holes within trees, so they must rely on cavities created by other species (Fig 2) (Pires 2012). If a parrot is unable to find a suitable nest cavity, it does not breed.

ring necked parakeets tree nest

Figure 2. Ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri) nesting in a tree cavity. Image by Les Chatfield. Click image to enlarge.

While habitat loss is indiscriminate, affecting all species that claim the rain forest as their home, the pet bird trade only affects those species craved by humans (Fig 3) (Pires 2012). This fact should lead companion parrot owners, as well as professionals that dedicate their time and expertise to bird care, to some uncomfortable truths:

[L]et us…presume that you didn’t hop on a plane and pluck your bird out of a tree. We will also assume that none of us are directly responsible for the millions of parrots taken from their natural habitats. However, it is inescapable that we have directly benefitted from this exploitation. In essence, while we are only a gear in the machine that made parrots threatened, the machine wouldn’t work without us. We owe them.—Dicker 2000

smuggled parrots mom with parrots

Figure 3. Trapping for the legal pet bird trade & illegal smuggling have made a significant impact on wild bird populations. Image by Janice Waltzer from Flickr Creative Commons where the caption reads: [S]o sad…she tried to smuggle them into the US and they suffocated when customs kept them for hours going through everything… Click image to enlarge.

A dozen facts about the illegal bird trade

So if we “owe birds”, then the first, necessary step we can take is to learn more about the illegal bird trade, a complex and pressing issue.

  1. The illegal wildlife trade is the third largest black market industry in the world:  The wildlife trade is a massive global industry in which live animals are captured from their native habitats and sold as pets or for research, or animals are killed and their parts sold for medicines, food, clothing, or accessories (Gastañaga 2011). Interpol values the worldwide wildlife black market at (US) $10 billion annually, making it the third largest illegal trade in the world after guns and drug trafficking (Gastañaga 2011). The illegal parrot trade, which occurs largely in the neotropics, is a part of wildlife crime.
  2. Most parrot poachers are the quintessential “little guy”:  Although the role of professional poachers or members of organized crime groups is important in activities like tiger poaching in India or turtle poaching in Asia, this is not the dominant picture in the wild bird trade (Pires 2011). Local villagers opportunistically commit most poaching in underdeveloped regions of the neotropics, Africa, and Asia (Pires 2011). These individuals often subsist on very little income, and wildlife trade serves as a secondary, or sometimes primary, source of money (Pires 2011). Villagers often keep parrots like chickens until they can be sold to a trader (Pires 2012) The middleman then transports birds to open-air markets in major cities throughout the neotropics (Gonzalez 2003, Gastañaga 2011, Pires 2011, Pires 2012).
  3. Villagers usually target nestlings or juvenile birds during the breeding season:  Depending on the species of interest, anywhere from 30% to greater than 70% of nestlings are poached (Fig 4) (Pain 2006, Pires 2012).Species whose nestlings are most easily removed from the nest are captured in the highest numbers (Pires & Clarke 2012).
    juvenile macaw in nest

    Figure 4. Poaching of nestlings for the pet trade is believed to contribute to the decline of many parrot species. Image provided by LoraKim Joyner.

    The type of nest targeted determines the method used:

    • Only a few parrot species nest in cliff crevices, making them the most difficult to access and the least likely to be poached.
    • The few parrot species that nest closer to the ground or in arboreal termite mounds, like the canary-winged parakeet (Brotogeris versicolorus), are most likely to be poached. Villagers simply reach into nest holes and remove nestlings although they may need to bring along children whose smaller hands can more easily reach into the nest (Pires 2012).
    • Of course most psittacine bird nests are found high up in trees. The poacher climbs the tree using ropes and primitive ladders then reaches into the nest cavity. Sometimes a machete is used to enlarge the cavity. Alternatively cutting down the entire tree allows easy access to the nest. Of course machete use or demolition of an entire tree can cause bird death and also destroys a viable nest that could be used for future breeding purposes (Cantu 2007, Pires 2012).When smugglers plan to transport birds internationally, eggs can be less cumbersome to transport than live birds. Egg smugglers in Australia utilize specialized body vests to prevent egg damage while incubating and concealing their cargo (Alacs 2008, Coghlan 2012).Nest poaching requires no specialized gear, however professional poachers employ specific skills and equipment like cage traps, fishing line snares, or netting outside of the breeding season (Engebretson 2006, Cantu 2007, Wetson 2009, Pires 2012). Species targeted by mist nests, like the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) and yellow-chevroned parakeet (Brotogeris chiriri), spend much of their time in agricultural lands and may be easier to catch while feeding on crops (Pires 2012).


  4. Domestic trade rules the roost:  The large, international demand for birds fueled wildlife poaching during the 1960s to 1980s (Gastañaga 2011), but there are indications that a large segment of poached birds today are part of internal trade (Fig 5) (Desenne 1991, Best 1995, Wright 2001, Pires 2011). Throughout the neotropics, parrots are common household pets–like cats and dogs in the United States (US) (Drews 2002, Cantu 2007, Weston 2009, Pires 2012). A survey that interviewed many licensed trappers and environmental police inspectors in Mexico estimated that 86% to 96% of birds captured from the wild are sold within Mexico and are not exported abroad (Pires 2012).

    girl with-lorito

    Figure 5. Young girl with her pet parrot or “lorito” in Paraiso, Peru. Image by ‘Jagubal’.

  5. The most heavily poached species are usually the least expensive:  Although the media often focuses on the smuggling of species considered rare and valuable, the most heavily poached and traded species are actually the least expensive birds. Smaller species, like parrotlets and parakeets, generally lack the ability to mimic the human voice and demand the lowest prices. For instance the canary-winged parakeet, the most poached parrot in northern Peru, sells for only (US) $0.33. In Mexico, the Mexican parrotlet (Forpus cyanopygius) retails for (US) $5 and the orange-fronted conure (Aratinga canicularis) for (US) $18 (Fig 6). Amazon parrots (Amazona spp.) are higher priced since these fairly large birds are considered the best talkers. Macaws are generally the most expensive birds because of their large size, ability to talk, and longevity. For instance the military macaw (Ara militaris) sells for anywhere from (US) $600 to $1800 (Cantu 2007, Pires 2012).

    orange fronted parakeets

    Figure 6. A free-ranging orange-fronted conure (Aratinga canicularis). Image by Brian Ralphs.

  6. The illegal bird trade poses an immediate threat to species survival through loss of species from the wild:
    According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, of the 330 existing parrot species, 100 psittacine birds are listed and 66 are directly threatened due to the illegal parrot trade (Gastañaga 2011, Pires 2012, Coghlan 2012, Fernandes 2013). Extensive poaching has the potential to eliminate species from the wild and the Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) is considered the latest victim of the wild bird trade. This species is now thought to be extinct in the wild (Pires 2012), and wild population estimates for the blue-throated macaw (Ara glaucogularis), red-fronted macaw (Ara rubrogenys), and Lear’s macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) hover around 150 individuals or less per species (Pires 2012). The hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyancinthinus) is also considered an endangered species because the population has undergone very rapid reductions in the past and the threat from illegal trapping and habitat loss remains (Fig 7) (Wright 2001, BirdLife International 2012).

    hyacinth macaws

    Figure 7. Free-ranging pair of hyacinth macaws (Anodorhynchus hyancinthinus) in southern Pantanal, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Image by Geoff Gallice.

  7. Poaching is associated with a very high mortality rates: Many birds do not survive the process of poaching. It is estimated that approximately 75% of birds taken from the wilds of Mexico (50,000-60,000 birds per year) die in transit. Researchers in Nicaragua estimate that in order to compensate for mortalities, up to four times as many parrots are captured than are needed at market (Engebretson 2006, Wetson 2009).Even parrots that do survive can become malnourished, ill, or injured. Feather plucking is also commonly observed in birds kept at illegal pet markets presumably due to the stress of capture, transport, and inadequate diet (Engebretson 2006, Wetson 2009, Pires 2012).
  8. The illegal wildlife trade is associated with potentially significant health risks: The global wildlife trade is considered an important source of emerging diseases (Gomez 2008). Smuggled birds can serve as a health risk to both humans and native bird species by exposing them to pathogens introduced from their region of origin or acquired during transit (Raso 2004, Karesh 2005, Gomez 2008). Pathogens diagnosed in illegally traded wild birds have included (but are not limited to) Chlamydophila psittaci, Newcastle’s disease, and avian influenza (Bruning-Fann 1992, De Schrijver 1995, Mase 2001, Raso 2004, Freitas 2004, Gomez 2008).
  9. The primary purpose of CITES is to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival: Although its efficacy is greatly undermined by the illegal wildlife trade, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora or CITES is one of the most successful international environmental treaties ever established. Nations traditionally viewed environmental problems as domestic concerns, but by the 1960s the need for international cooperation had became clear. CITES originated as a 1963 resolution of the World Conservation Union and was entered into force on July 1, 1975 (Zimmerman 2003).CITES establishes a permit system for exportation and importation of regulated wildlife. The treaty divides regulated plant and animal species into three appendices (Box 3) (Zimmerman 2003). CITES has also banned trade in over 800 species of flora and fauna (Pires 2011).
    Box 3. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Appendices
    Appendix I Species in serious danger of extinction.
    Appendix II Species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid use incompatible with their survival. Species that closely resemble Appendix I species (“look-alikes”) are also listed in Appendix II.
    Appendix III Species that are protected in at least one country that has requested assistance from other member states in controlling trade

    CITES covers all psittacine birds except budgerigar parakeets (Melopsittacus undulatus), cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus), ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri), and peach-faced lovebirds (Agapornis roseicollis) (Coghlan 2012) because their wild populations are not threatened.

  10. ‘[P]eople and States are and should be the best protectors of their own wild fauna and flora’ (CITES 1973): Individual member states to CITES must take responsibility for protection of their native wildlife, and each country must also pass (and enforce) national legislation that regulates animal importation.
    • Australia elected to halt trade of its native wildlife in the 1950s.
    • In the 1980s and early 1990s, the US was the largest importer of neotropical parrot species, accounting for almost 50% of the international market for imported birds (Pires 2012, Wright 2001). In 1992 the US passed the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA), which bans the importation of all endangered species listed by CITES (Wright 2001).
    • Although parrot-poaching rates were significantly lower in the years following the WBCA (Snyder 1999), over 75% of legal bird trade was redirected to Europe (Beissinger 2001, Wright 2001). In October 2005, the European Economic Union (EEU) temporarily banned wild bird trade after imported birds died from a H5N1 strain of avian influenza in the United Kingdom. In 2007 the EEU adopted a blanket ban on parrot trade that is irrespective of the species conservation status (Carrete 2008).


  11. A “top-down” approach to wildlife trade control appears ineffective in the neotropics: The “top-down” approach to trade control emphasizes state level concerns and policing. For instance, the Peruvian government has established legal trade quotas that allow parrot harvesters to operate under a state license (Weston 2009). Ideally, such quotas are based on population and habitat studies and are meant to remove ‘surplus’ individuals from the wild population (Munn 2006, Weston 2009).Unfortunately there is little that is done for violations of state wildlife laws. Law enforcement is generally indifferent to wildlife crimes given the perception that it is a relatively minor offense (Herrera 2007, Pires 2011). This mindset is particularly true in underdeveloped countries where an environmental police agency may not even exist (Pires 2011).Even when law enforcement takes the illegal parrot trade seriously, very little can be done to deter potential poachers (Pires 2011). Agents are faced with the daunting task of patrolling large areas of land despite inadequate resources. Law enforcement in Mexico, for instance, has been credited with halting only 1% to 2% of illegal parrot poaching on an annual basis (Cantu 2007, Pires 2011).
  12. The strongest solutions to the illegal parrot trade may come from the “bottom up”: Given that local villagers, and not professional poachers, are responsible for most wildlife poaching, it is not surprising that the typical policing model of catching offenders in the act has a negligible effect on reducing the illegal wildlife trade. Arresting and prosecuting individuals may even be counter-productive because it not only builds resentment against outside authorities but can also criminalize common village practices (Duffy 2010, Pires 2011). Viable solutions to the poaching problem must acknowledge that livelihoods sometimes depend on exploiting species for the illegal wildlife trade (Pires 2011).The best approach to the illegal wildlife trade in neotropical countries targets multiple issues by reducing the rewards associated with poaching by shutting down illegal markets in the cities, incentivizing locals, and increasing the risk to poachers (Pires 2011, Pires 2012).Increasing the risk to poachers is done by (Wright 2001, Pires 2011):
      • Increasing guardianship: Poaching rates at nest sites decrease significantly when breeding sites are actively monitored by local citizens or police through patrols or video, although this can be expensive and difficult to extend over large areas (Fig 8).
    parrot patrol

    Figure 8. Villagers patrolling local parrot nests in Honduras. Image provided by LoraKim Joyner.

    • Strengthening formal surveillance e.g. law enforcement stops on roads that middlemen use to transport species.
    • Making certain areas inaccessible e.g. remove make-shift ladders from trees
    • Eliminating the sale of mist-nets

    Research indicates that one of the best methods to preserve wildlife is to incentivize locals to not only abstain from poaching, but to actually protect parrots instead (Pires 2011). Locals can develop a vested economic interest in the conservation of their native wildlife when the existence of parrots provides jobs and money (Pires 2011). For example clay licks in Peru are a favorite destination of macaws year-round and draw many ecotourists internationally (Fig 9) (Pires 2011). Another tactic is parrot nest sponsorship programs, which pay an annual sum for protection of nest sites (Carrete 2008). Support of parrots by locals can also be encouraged through conservation education programs and awareness campaigns for national pride (Wright 2001).

    macaws at clay lick

    Figure 9. Clay licks attract large flocks and can potentially support ecotourism. Image by Brian Ralphs. Click image to enlarge.


What can you do?

Now that you have a better understanding of the illegal parrot trade, you are better equipped to help.


The illegal wildlife trade is a large and complex industry that has fed and clothed many of the poorest people in the world. Of course smuggling has also brought many species to the brink of extinction (Pires 2011). Although the topic can appear overwhelming, on Earth Day and in the days that follow, we owe it to parrots to learn more about the world around us—and to do what we can.