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Have you ever encountered a hybrid between a Timneh and a Congo Grey Parrot?

Expert Question

Dear EB, Have you ever encountered a hybrid between a Timneh and a Congo Grey Parrot? The pet store near here has one (they say), which is just now being fledged and looks like a Congo, at least right now with very few feathers, etc. They also have a parasol cockatoo, which apparently is a cross between a umbrella and a Goffin (she’s about 25 percent larger than a Goffin and has the coloration of an unbrella, with an umbrella crest. What are the ethical questions, if any of bringing these animals into the world? On one hand, if they are not found in nature, then perhaps we are wadding too deep into the gene pool,  so to speak. But, of course, there are other hybrids out there that are taken for granted. Then again, these hybrids may not be able to reproduce.

Thanks, Bill C.

Expert Answer

Dear Bill,

I am probably not the best person to be answering this question, and I would welcome comments from Jamie or Dr. Speer, Sam Williams or Eva Sargent or others.  We have encountered hybrid cockatoos in the past; and have hard about Greys being interbred.

There are, of course ethical questions involved—as there are in most areas of the live animal trade. I do not personally approve of hybridization between species of psittacine, nor of subspecies interbreeding when the types are known to be different, though the latter happened all to often in the past between races of parrots that were thought to be identical or mistaken for the same subspecies.

An interesting quote from Catherine A. Toft, Department of Zoology, University of California-Davis:

“Hybridization is the fastest and surest way to destroy the genetic make-up of a species. It breaks up complexes of genes that allow species to be adapted to their natural environment and to be recognized as potential mates.”

Many rationale have been used over the years as justification by those breeders who produce hybrids—from “we are combining the best traits of both species” which of course is absurd, to “they are only being produced for the pet trade,” which is a fallacy as we shall see here.

It is easy for us to see a hybrid Ara macaw, for example, because of the distorted coloration. But in aviaries of breeding birds, I have encountered macaws with faint “ruby” (Greenwing/Scarlet) or mili-gold bloodlines in their past. Such birds may only show only one quarter of the original hybridization because they have descended from lines that were bred back to nominate species. This is where the real hidden long term damage of hybrid production “for the pet trade” enters the scene.

Amateurish breeders with few ethical considerations and even less patience will procure at low price a hybrid former pet, then pair it up for commercial breeding with the first candidate to come along.

“We are trying for new and different colors, I have been told.” I find such reasoning shallow, and such odd colored parrots lacking in the symmetry and beauty that the gods initially gave them.

Of course, money is usually the bottom line when it comes to such ethical decisions as producing hybrids at a facility.

But , when one tries to disassociate captive and pet industry psittacines from those living in the wilds, merely because there is little likelihood that the former will ever be released to help repopulate dwindling numbers, I think one does conservation of these birds a real disservice.

Is it the role of the bird breeder to assume this disassociation and accordingly condemn all captive parrots, with their valuable gene characteristics, to a second rate role in world psittacine conservation?

I think not, and as an aviculturist who tries to propose conservation logic first—I would beg to differ with such a reasoning.

My role as I see it is to protect for the future; to save and guard and conserve all that is possible in my tiny little piece of captive parrotdom. And when it comes to hybrids, this means I will refuse to dilute any of my pure natural species for any minimalist reason—nor will I ever condone it amongst other true aviculturists.

We either face the fact that we are stewards of a precious god-given gift for the generations ahead, or we play at bird breeding and pay lip service to conservation in order to stave off the animal activists who might just see through our ethical ruse.

I hope this sheds some light on your inquiry. As I said, I am not the most capable person to answer this question.
Best, EB

[Editor’s note: As Cathy Toft was noted in the above, we asked her to comment on this issue. Here is her reply.]

Dear Bill:

E.B. has taken a quote from me from one of the articles that I wrote explaining population genetics to aviculturists precisely for the reason of persuading them not to hybridize parrots in captivity. (A comprehensive summary is in Toft, C.A.  1994.  The genetics of captive propagation:  A manual for aviculturists.  Special Publications of Psittacine Research Project, Number 1.  Ann Brice, Ed.  Department of Avian Sciences, University of California, Davis.)  I also wrote several articles for bird publications and proceedings asking whether hybridization has a place in aviculture.

In many ways, I hold E.B.‘s position. As a conservation biologist, ecologist and evolutionary biologist, I prefer parrots in captivity to stay as they are in the wild.

Originally, I took (and still take) the position that private aviculture holds a treasure in the form of established breeding populations of species that are threatened or endangered in the wild. I imagined what would have happened had the aviculturists in Europe had the foresight to maintain a population of Carolina Parakeets Conuropsis carolinensis for long enough, so that their offspring could restore this species to its original range in the United States.  To do so would require a sufficiently large population and sound breeding practices. Importantly, the genetic architecture would still be in place to allow those individuals to survive and reproduce in the environments in which their ancestral populations originally evolved. Hybridization was not the only threat to achieving this goal, but it was certainly the gravest.

Since the early 1990’s, my position has softened somewhat, or should I say, diversified.  My colleague, Jamie Gilardi, has pointed out to me that as many parrot individuals live in captivity as in the wild. As E.B. says, by far most of those individuals would not be released to the wild and moreover could not survive there.  Also, other threats to the feasibility of using captive-bred individuals to augment or re-establish wild populations have become clearer.  One of those is the inevitable transfer of viruses from their original host populations to those of species that the viruses would never encounter in the wild. And, once established, these viruses will never be eradicated.  This spectre of epidemic makes re-introductions all the more problematic.

For these and other reasons, I have changed my position on the domestication of parrots.  Now, I say “Why not?”

For one, captive life is nothing like life in the wild.  If aviculture develops lines of parrots more suited to lives with humans, then those individuals will lead higher quality lives.  Perhaps parrots that are less jealous of their mates will be happier as pets -- in their wild state, by far most parrots are life-long monogamous.  This trait often results in their misery as pets, as well-meaning pet owners keep parrots each in solitary confinement or at least without a same-species companion so that the parrot will bond more to the human.  Unfortunately, the human does not keep his or her end of the bargain and worse, objects to the parrot's natural behaviors related to monogamous bonding with the human.  Parrot with lower metabolic rates or different physiologies might fare better on captive foods, for example, not gain as much weight or need as much protein.  Changing these traits is possible with “artificial selection” which humans have practiced for thousands of years to domesticate many species of plants and animals. And if humans practice this sort of captive selective breeding, then why not make the parrots look really different than their wild counterparts?  As Rick Jordan once challenged me, why not breed a black macaw?  Or a purple, pink polka dot macaw? Their appearance would hardly matter if domesticated parrots had other genetic traits suited for captivity but not for the wild.

Another reason is that espoused by my colleague, Nate Flesness, Science Director of I.S.I.S. Long ago Nate introduced me to the idea that connection with nature through animals in captivity was a good thing, even if there were tradeoffs involved, such as the domestication of parrots might create.  After all, how many of us can travel at will to a rainforest in Peru to see parrots?  Having parrots living in harmony with us in our homes is a powerful conservation tool that I am sure is appreciated also by the staff and members of WPT.

Yet, my bias would still be E.B.‘s viewpoint.  Why lose optimism that captive parrots can be released to re-establish populations in their native ranges? Jamie has told me about many, very successful ventures, quite a few supported by the WPT, to introduce captive-bred and confiscated parrots back to free-living existences. I am thrilled and heartened by these efforts.  Although pristine, primary rainforest and other non-disturbed habitats are vanishing, parrot populations can nevertheless thrive in the presence of humans. Parrots are intelligent, social, and usually generalist in their habits. Released individuals can easily establish healthy populations in the presence of humans, provided that their chicks are not relentlessly poached for the pet trade.  The increasing populations of feral parrots around the world attest to this fact.  Poaching in the native range should decrease with a combination of legal bans (I co-authored a paper with Tim Wright and others that spoke to the efficacy of legal bans) and thriving captive populations of those species maintained to preserve their wild characteristics. 

In the end, I encourage aviculturists to maintain their interest in and support of conservation. One important way that they may do so is to continue to breed parrots with practices aimed to maintain the genetic architecture of wild populations, just in case descendents from their lines may be needed in restoration projects.  While I no longer denounce domestication of parrots, and I even encourage it, I see no reason why we should abandon conservation breeding. It is my hope that many parrot enthusiasts of all stripes will continue to support the conservation of wild parrots in any way that they can.

Cathy Toft
Professor Emerita
Department of Evolution & Ecology
Center for Population Biology
University of California Davis.

EB Cravens
About EB Cravens

“If we TRULY believe our captive-raised hookbills are important to world parrot conservation, we must work ceaselessly to ensure that these same psittacines retain as much of their wild instinctual behavior as is possible,” affirms avicultural writer and hobby breeder EB Cravens, from his small organic farm on the slopes of the Big Island Hawaii.

“Our goal is to birth and raise only a few baby parrots who know that they are parrots, but choose to befriend humans, because humans are nice to them… feed them… and are fun to be with!”

EB has bred, trained, raised, kept and rehabilitated more than 75 species of psittacines during the past twenty plus years both at his home and while managing the notable exotic bird shoppe, Feathered Friends of Santa Fe, New Mexico. His emphasis on natural environments for birds, the urging of babies to fully fledge during the extended weaning process, and the leaving of chicks for many weeks inside the nest box with their parents in order that they may learn the many intangibles of their species, have succeeded in changing for the better the lives of so many captive parrots.

A science writer by training, he was for years a regular contributor for AFA’s Watchbird Magazine and the Companion Parrot Quarterly. EB currently writes a monthly column entitled “The Complete Psittacine” in PARROTS Magazine out of England; and another, “The Hookbill Hobbyist” down under in the well-regarded Australian Birdkeeper. His monthly series of articles “Birdkeeping Naturally,” is sent out to bird clubs and individuals around the U.S.

“As devastating pressures continue upon avian species in the wilds,” he says, “it is critical that those keeping birds in captivity do so with responsibility and foresight.”