“Helloooo”, says Einstein.
Einstein, an African Grey parrot who lives at the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee, became famous in a TED talk in 2006. She sang “Happy Birthday” to Al Gore, mimicked other birds and even other animals, and regularly performs on cue. According to Ms. White, “Einstein babbles all day.” She has a vocabulary of more than 200 words and sounds, and with her trainer, Stephanie White, demonstrated how communicative and intelligent a bird can be.
While many of us think “bird brain” is an insult, African Greys show us we need to rethink what we know about bird intelligence.
African Grey parrots are widely favored as pets due to their high level of intelligence and incredible abilities to “speak” and communicate. Yet, the same endearing qualities that makes them so popular as pets also increases their market demand, ultimately threatening wild populations.
African grey parrots are one of the world’s most commonly trafficked wild bird species. BirdLife International estimates that over that last 40 years, up to 3 million African grey parrots have been captured in the wild from forests in Central and West Africa.
Ecology, Habitat and Popularity
The African Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is an Old World parrot in the family Psittacidae. Two subspecies of the African grey parrot are known, the Congo African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) and the Timneh parrot (Psittacus timneh).
African Grey parrots are one of the most popular avian pets in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. Demand for wild birds is also increasing in China. This is primarily due to the bird’s unparalleled ability to mimic human speech and other sounds. Another reason for the popularity of the African Grey is the bird’s longevity. African grey parrots generally live for an average of 15-20 years in the wild due to their fruit and seed-only diet, but with a more varied diet in captivity, African Greys can live from 40-80 years.
The range of these birds extends from southeastern Côte d’Ivoire east through the moist lowland forests of West Africa to Burundi, Cameroon, from the Congo forests to Uganda, Ghana and Kenya and south to northern Angola, Nigeria, Ghabon, Tanzania and Rwanda as well as on the islands of Principe Equatorial Guinea.
Although typically inhabiting dense forest, they are commonly observed at forest edges, clearings, gallery forest, mangroves, wooded savannah, cultivated areas, and even gardens. It is a highly gregarious bird, forming large roosts, historically containing up to 10,000 individuals.
Women Who Make a Difference: Dr. Irene Pepperberg
Dr. Irene Pepperberg is a research associate and lecturer at Harvard University. She is an internationally recognized researcher and scientist particularly noted for her studies in animal cognition and communication, with a specialization in parrots. Dr. Pepperberg’s research into the cognitive principles of communication established her as a pioneer in the study of language learning in animals other than non-human primates (exemplified by the Washoe project) and marine mammals (exemplified by work on dolphins and sea lions), by extension to a bird species. Dr. Pepperberg is also active in wildlife conservation, especially in relation to parrots. She is president of The Alex Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on research into the cognitive and communicative abilities of parrots.
Alex, the original Grey parrot subject, for whom the foundation is named, passed in 2007 at the age of 31. According to his biography, he was known as one of the most famous African Grey parrots in history”, pioneering “new avenues in avian intelligence”. His obituary was in the The Economist. Dr. Pepperberg’s work with Alex led to his ability to possess more than 100 vocal labels for different objects, shapes, and colors. He could identify certain objects by their particular material and count object sets up to a total number of eight.
Alex exhibited math skills that were considered advanced in animal intelligence, developing his own “zero-like” concept. He was also able to infer the connection between written numerals, objects sets, and the vocalization of the number. Alex was learning to read the sounds of various letters and had a concept of phonemes, the sounds that make up words. He understood concepts of same-different and bigger-smaller. He died suddenly in September, 2007 of an unexpected, catastrophic health event associated with arteriosclerosis, most likely a heart arrhythmia.
Threats to African Grey Parrots
According to research conducted by William F. Laurance et al. of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science and the College of Science and Engineering at James Cook University, massive new “development corridors” are being proposed across the African continent. These corridors are being created to increase agricultural production, mineral exports and economic integration.
The result is a massive, large-scale expansion of roads, railroads, pipelines and port facilities, and will open extensive areas of land to new environmental pressures. A corresponding increase in the level of mining, oil and logging businesses in central Africa will put tremendous pressure on wildlife species, including the African Grey Parrot.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that from 1982 to 2001, over 657,000 wild-caught individuals of both African Greys entered international trade. According to the IUCN, “Habitat loss is undoubtedly having significant impacts, particularly throughout West and East Africa. In addition to capture for international trade, there is an active internal trade in live birds for pets and exhibition (McGowan 2001, Clemmons 2003, A. Michels in litt.2012). The species is also hunted in parts of the range as bushmeat and to supply heads, legs and tail feathers for use as medicine or in black magic (Fotso 1998, McGowan 2001, Clemmons 2003, A. Michels in litt. 2012).”
Once captured, the parrots are exported and sold to breeders or the pet market. They are typically shipped in appalling conditions, packed into inferior transport crates and often held in sub-standard quarantine facilities. Consequently, the survival rate of the captive birds is very low. It is estimated that less than 50% of these birds survive, and that figure could even be as low as 10%.
Wild parrots are imported as breeding stock. The eggs are removed and placed in an incubator, and when the chicks hatch, they are hand-reared and sold as hand tame pets. Wild parrots may occasionally be sold directly onto the pet market, but as they have not been habituated to humans, they are unsuitable as pets. These birds are extremely stressed in their new alien environment, and have been traumatized by humans during capture and transportation. African grey parrots are extremely intelligent and will not easily forget the bad experience that was inflicted on them by humans along their journey into captivity. They commonly exhibit unsociable or aggressive behavior such as emitting a loud, vocal growling sound or biting when humans try to approach their cage.
Given that captive bred African grey parrots are widely available, there is no need to plunder wild populations to supply the pet market — either for breeding stock or for pet birds.
Wild populations of African grey parrots have declined dramatically in recent years, fueled largely by the trapping of wild parrots, and habitat loss due to deforestation. In some areas they have been declared locally extinct. In 2012, their conservation status was up-listed from “Near Threatened” to “Vulnerable” on the (IUCN) Red Data List of Threatened Species. Just four years later, African grey parrots are now currently being considered for even further up-listing to “Endangered” status, as wild populations continue to decline.
International Trade Ban on Wild Caught African Grey Parrots
World leaders are stepping up to save this iconic species from extinction. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Because the trade in wild animals and plants crosses borders between countries, the effort to regulate it requires international cooperation to safeguard certain species from over-exploitation. CITES was conceived in the spirit of such cooperation. Today, it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live specimens, fur coats or dried herbs.
CITES was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at a meeting of members of IUCN (The World Conservation Union).
According to CITES, international wildlife trade is estimated to be worth in the billions of dollars annually. It involves hundreds of millions of plant and animal specimens, and is highly diverse, ranging from live animals and plants to a vast array of wildlife products derived from them. Wildlife trade products include food, medicines, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, and tourist curios. Some animal and plant species, including African Grey parrots, are so heavily exploited and traded that together with other factors, such as habitat loss, their populations are heavily depleted, bringing some species close to extinction.
At the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to CITES, recently held in Johannesburg, South Africa, world leaders voted in favor of a ban on the international trade in wild-caught African grey parrots.
Conservationists raised concerns regarding the harvesting of unsustainable numbers of wild birds, the low survival rates of captured birds, and the high level of fraud and misidentification associated with the trade in wild-caught birds. Wildlife advocates pushed for a ban in the trade of wild-caught parrots in order to save them from going extinct.
“Fraud and corruption have enabled traffickers to vastly exceed current quotas and continue to harvest unsustainable numbers of African grey parrots from Congo’s forests to feed the illegal trade,” said Dr. O Criodain. “Banning the trade will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to crack down on the poachers and smugglers, and give the remaining wild populations some much-needed breathing space,” said Dr. Colman O Criodain, Global Wildlife Policy Manager for the World Wildlife Fund.
“Current regulations have singularly failed to halt the over-exploitation of the African grey, which is being trapped and traded towards extinction in its last major bastion in the Congo basin: a total trade ban was absolutely essential. But it will not be enough on its own, existing illegal networks will continue to plunder parrots from Central Africa’s forests until countries target the traffickers running the show,” cautions Dr. O Criodain.
A Care2 petition, which was delivered to the attending parties at the CITES meeting to help them guide their vote, garnered widespread support, receiving over 77,000 signatures from concerned individuals.
Future Prospects for Wild Parrots
After considerable debate at the CITES conference in Johannesburg, countries voted 95 to 35 to prohibit all international trade in wild parrots.
Conservation advocates are celebrating that these endearing parrots have been moved from CITES Appendix II to CITES Appendix I, effectively banning the legal trade of wild-caught specimens.
The ban in the legal trade of African Grey parrots will make it that much more difficult to trade in wild-caught birds, essentially shutting down all existing legal markets. However, poachers will continue to illegally capture and trade in these birds until stronger efforts are taken to target illegal trafficking networks operating within Africa’s forests.
“A total ban on international commercial trade in wild African Grey parrots is a huge step forward and will help to protect this extraordinary species from the rampant trapping and trading that has contributed to population collapses and local extinctions across Africa in recent decades,” said Dr. O’Criodain.
It is estimated that the populations of African Greys have decreased by over 50 per cent in many areas. In Ghana, where Grey parrots were once common and widespread, populations have declined between 90 and 99% since the early 1990s. Most exports now originate from the Congo basin, where trappers and traders are moving into new areas following localized collapses in trapping activity in neighboring countries.
The vibrant global trade in captive bred African Grey parrots will likely continue due to demand for these intelligent birds. Breeders will still be able to export their parrots as long as their facility is registered with CITES. South Africa is currently the largest exporter of captive-bred Grey parrots.