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Returning wild-caught Greys to the wild

Expert Question

Once wild caught Greys are identified as such here in the US is there no way to return them to their home? What are the logistics involved? Is it possible?

Expert Answer

At the WPT we often receive questions from individuals who feel that their companion birds might be better off and happier if they were returned to the wild. While we applaud this desire we strongly advise against release, for the sake of the individual birds’ welfare, and for the wellbeing of wild populations. Returning parrots to the wild can be done successfully, and increasingly so, but only when carried out under well-managed programs, most of which cannot be undertaken by individual parrot caregivers.

What works, and what doesn't

In our direct experience with releasing parrots over the past decade we have observed that the birds with the highest probability of survival are those that have been hatched in the wild and only recently been captured, or those birds that have been bred in captivity in carefully managed environments and properly prepared for a life in the wild.

Formerly wild birds retain many important skills needed for survival, such as recognizing wild foods and knowing how to interact with others of their species. Wild birds have well-developed patterns of behavior and are able to successfully participate in complex social hierarchies that allow them to interact as a group, which helps them to successful evade predators, find food, and otherwise prosper.

By comparison, many long-term companion parrots were born in captivity (sometimes for generations), and have been living closely with people. They are often kept alone, and rely heavily on their caregivers to provide the necessities of life (food, water, shelter, companionship, etc.). The skills they have acquired to become good companion birds are often the exact opposite of what is needed to ensure their survival in the wild.

When companion parrots like this are released, they face the very real pressures of possible starvation, getting eaten by predators, encountering extreme weather, being poached or hunted, and being placed in an environment that is completely unlike anything they have experienced before. If they are released alone, the likelihood of their survival is further lowered. Only a very small percentage will survive, unless they undergo extensive preparation and conditioning on how to survive and thrive. For these reasons we strongly advise against returning companion parrots to the wild unless under very special circumstances. 

Permits and disease risks

Most international transport of parrots is governed by CITES, an international convention intended to monitor these activities. In order for a bird to be returned to its country of origin, it must be accompanied the appropriate paperwork, in addition to health profiling, and other assessments. Obtaining the required permits is often complex and time-consuming process.

Your question specifically references the United States; the Wild Bird Conservation act of 1992 was the first big push that shut down direct imports of wild caught birds into the United States, and then the EU trade ban - adopted in 2005 - is the legislation that shut down any remaining indirect imports. As such, any formerly wild birds will assumedly have been in captivity for somewhere between 10 and 23 years, or longer. 

When in captivity for that long, the birds may been exposed to a large number of potential diseases that could be transferred to the wild birds with bad consequences, unless they have been purposely kept separate and with strict biosecurity protocols, which is highly unlikely for most parrot owners. The birds also have also likely long ago abandoned the need to use a great number of their behaviours useful for life in the wild (identifying wild food sources, evading predators, staying away from humans, socially interacting with large groups of others birds, etc). As such, they would need to relearn these behaviours which could take months, or years, depending on individual circumstances.  

A larger concern for birds that have been in captivity for a lengthy period of time, even those under the best of care, is that they may have been exposed to diseases which may not be found in wild bird populations. Releasing a bird with a possible undiagnosed disease may further endanger wild populations. For some species where the wild population may are already under threat for other reasons, the potential disease risk may add to the overall species' demise. Therefore only birds that have been carefully screened for disease and quarantined before release should be considered as suitable release candidates.

What are the alternatives?

In almost all cases, we strongly encourage caregivers to provide their feathered companions with the largest flight area possible, a wide variety of stimulating enrichment items, companionship, and a healthy diet. While captive parrots clearly can't lead the same life as wild parrots, they are safe from predators, starvation, trapping, and violent weather events, and can be provided with a long and interesting life. 

For caregivers who are no longer able to care for their feathered companions, we recommend placing the bird with another caring family, making it available for adoption, or placing it a zoological institute or dedicated bird sanctuary where it can be well looked after. Tamer birds in public facilities can often become terrific ambassadors for their species, and aid in educating the general public about the plight of all parrots.


World Parrot Trust - Staff
About World Parrot Trust - Staff

The World Parrot Trust is a leading, science-based, results-oriented parrot conservation and welfare organization.