Pretty parrots in peril

Poachers snatch parrots from the wild to sell as pets, and about 30 percent of the world’s parrot species are in jeopardy. But do the thieves tend to catch the most attractive parrots, or do they simply go for the birds that are easiest to bag?

To find out, a research team analyzed data on 31,019 parrots from 22 species in Mexico collected from 1981 to 2005. Some of the data came from wildlife agents’ records of 13,375 illegally-caught parrots in Mexico, as well as records of 1,600 parrots intercepted on their way from Mexico to the United States. The researchers also included data on the country’s legal exports of 16,044 parrots.

Each species was scored based on factors such as how easily poachers could reach their nests, how common the birds were, how close they lived to humans, how much they sold for, whether they were threatened with extinction, and attractiveness. A parrot species was considered an attractive pet if it was big, flaunted a variety of bright colors, and could imitate people talking.

Not surprisingly, the team found that attractive parrots sold for higher prices in the United States and Mexico. For example, macaws and amazon parrots were six times more expensive than other species. Attractive species were also more likely to be caught, either legally or illegally.

Poachers capture about 65,000 to 78,000 parrots in Mexico per year, and most of the birds are sold within the country as pets. Parrots are also in high demand in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela. “Urgent research and conservation work is thus required to save parrot populations from decimation,” the authors write. But this won’t be an easy task, they note, “since keeping parrots as pets is a long standing tradition… and the preference for the most attractive species seems to be widespread among cultures.” — Roberta Kwok | 18 September 2014

Source: Tella, J.L. and F. Hiraldo. 2014. Illegal and legal parrot trade shows a long-term, cross-cultural preference for the most attractive species increasing their risk of extinction. PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107546.

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