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Karen McGovern | Oct 10, 2006


It’s 3:00 am, and I’m feeding one of the rarest Amazon parrots in the world.  He’s tiny, nearly naked and could rest comfortably in the bowl of a teaspoon.  Perhaps it’s the lack of sleep on my part from feeding these newborn creatures every 90 minutes around the clock that causes me to ponder the question, “What the heck am I doing?”

I am a conservation biologist specializing in rare parrots.  Really rare parrots—like almost extinct rare.  So, here I am—up at 3:00, trying to get what looks like pancake batter in the mouth of a creature who’s head is smaller than the tip of my pinkie finger.  Again, what the heck am I doing—and how did I get here? 

I’m crazy about parrots.  Certifiably.  From the first time a parrot looked into my eyes and regurgitated all over my hand (a scarlet macaw to be exact), I was hooked.  That’s part of why I do this, but how I got here is another story.  For the past 10 years, I have been the curator of a wildlife conservation organization specializing in psittacine ecology as it relates to natural resource management.  In other words, we preserve habitat around the world by drawing attention to the endangered parrots that live there.  Oh, and by the way, this actually works.   

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush—really?
I can’t help but wonder—what is it about parrots that we humans find so fascinating to the point of obsession?  I would submit that with few exceptions, no other wild animal has captivated human beings with such intensity.  History has proven this—parrots have been traded, gifted, bought, sold, and collected since the moment humans figured out how to travel to get them.  The Queen of Bavaria’s Conure of Brazil got its name simply because it was a gift for—you guessed it—the Queen of Bavaria.  We know this brilliant yellow bird as the golden conure now, and it is still a highly sought after acquisition for any parrot collection.  This is but one example among thousands of how parrots have been an imbedded part of human history. 

Parrots are incredibly beautiful, amazingly intelligent, and draw us like moths to flame.  The idea that humans collect parrots and term it that way is itself an interesting phenomenon.  No one would refer to his or her neighbor’s dogs, cats, horses, rats, etc. as a “collection”.  Collection infers acquiring a complete set of something—which when you think about it in reference to a living thing is actually pretty creepy.  Not only do people love and own parrots—they strive to own all of them—or at least all of a certain species or family.  The rarer the better, too—like a fine Monet or Renoir.  You could almost say we love them—to death.  Like the Carolina parakeet—a parrot species eradicated for the wont of ladies hats.

“God loved birds and invented trees.  Man loved birds and invented cages.”
So, fast forward from 1492 when Columbus traveled the globe filling his ships with anything he thought remotely interesting, including a pair of Cuban amazons, to take back home for his Queen Isabella.  Here we are, in 2006, and I could now inundate you with statistics, graphs, and perhaps even a chart or two illustrating the sorry state of remaining populations of wild parrots—wild places—left on this planet.  That would make this article scientific.  Well, in my opinion, I’d rather not waste time with material no one really wants to read and just get to the point.  If we as a people love and revere parrots so much, why are we watching as they disappear from the wild and their habitat is destroyed?  Why are we not doing more to protect and preserve them?  When did we loose the connection between “Charlie”, our pet parrot of whatever species living in a cage in the kitchen, and his wild counterparts struggling to survive?  What are we—what are you, going to do about it?

Dr. Paul Reillo, Director of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, said that anyone keeping rare and endangered parrots in captivity without seeing these animals free in the wild cannot say that they have a true understanding of the species they keep.  I agree.  I think parrots in captivity have become too commonplace, and we have lost the connection to parrots in the wild, and therefore lost the incentive to protect them.

So, we’re back to me sitting bleary eyed in the middle of the night carefully syringe feeding a naked blob of pink flesh, and I’m angry.  I shouldn’t have to do this—no one should.  This tiny creature, this little 16-gram wiggling life force should not have to depend on me, or anyone else to ensure its entire species’ survival, and yet here we are.  It’s estimated that less than 900 of this particular parrot remain in the wild.  Yet they, and other critically endangered parrots, are still bought and sold, legally and illegally, every day for countless dollars that should be spent keeping them where they belong—in the forest.  I’d name the species I’m currently describing, but a conservation organization specializing in highly sought after rare parrots has to be careful—parrot theft is a common occurrence in my neck of the woods.  Some folks will do just about anything to acquire a rare parrot.  So not only do I have to go to extremes to simply keep these creatures alive, I can’t even tell anyone about it in any detail.  And they say the field of conservation is glamorous… excuse while I wash baby parrot poop off my hands.

Keep those cards and letters coming…
This is what I want to discuss with you over the course of this blog.  I hope to begin a conversation about the critical issues facing the field of wildlife conservation, and what we can all do to bring about much-needed change and action.  I will be inviting folks who work at this every day to participate and share their perspectives, and we’ll get a glimpse into the daily lives of these on-the-ground field workers and scientists who do what no one else will—whatever it takes to get the job done. 

Some names you will recognize, some you won’t, but all are working tirelessly to protect what remains of nature.  Like long-time parrot conservationist and “environmental cowboy” Dr. Charlie Munn, who gave us the wonderful statistic that if we save the top 50 endangered parrot species we’ll also save over 500 million acres of rainforest; and WPT director, Dr. Jamie Gilardi, who invited me to join this blog, hopefully because he realizes that the voice of conservation needs to be much more active.  I’m also anxious to introduce you to Stephen Durand, a forestry worker on the Caribbean island of Dominica.  He’s been in the forest striving to protect his national bird, the Imperial Amazon, for the past 25 years.  We’ll also hear from private aviculturists—a group whose perspective should to be heard, addressed, and integrated into this discussion of parrot preservation and wildlife conservation.

I’d love to go on, but I have to get back to feeding these babies.  Ninety minutes has flown by and we’re all hungry and exhausted.  Before I go, I’d like to leave you with my favorite quote by Dale Jamieson, from Ethics on the Ark.  The moment I read it I knew it would become my own battle cry—my manifesto, so to speak.  When I’m feeling really rotten, tired, and completely overwhelmed by what seems to be a continually losing battle, I read this.  I live this:

“One hope that I have for the future is that we will recognize that if we keep animals in captivity, then what we owe them is everything.  I hope we can come to the consensus that these animals are in our custody through no wish or fault of their own.  They are refugees from a holocaust that humans have unleashed against nature.  If we are to keep animals in captivity then we must conform to the highest standards of treatment and respect—for these animals themselves have no voice in human affairs, and as nature recedes their voices are ever more silent.”

Until next time…
I could say I hope to inspire readers here.  I could use words like “empower” and “environmental stewardship”.  Personally, I think we’re way beyond that.  Let’s just get mad and get to work to solve some of these problems.  We have the tools, and manpower.  What we lack is enough resources.  I’ve got some ideas about that—like placing a “conservation surcharge” on parrots and related supplies sold in pet shops, to be directed toward in situ conservation programs.  I’d like to hear what other conservationists and interested parties suggest as well.  There are some brilliant and dedicated individuals out there—let’s get together and shake things up.  Give me a couple weeks though—when I’m getting more than an hour and a half of sleep at a time, okay?  In the meantime, to quote the well-known conversationalist Linda Richman, please—talk among yourselves.