This blue‑throated macaw is critically endangered.

It’s a wall of sound. There are hundreds of chirping birds at Umgeni River Bird Park. Listen closely. You might hear a blue‑fronted Amazon parrot singing scales. That’s a skill it probably learned from its previous owner.

Many of the parrots in this zoo and breeding center in Durban, South Africa, are rescues. They were given up by people who were unprepared to take care of such needy and long‑living birds. Some parrots can live to be 80 years old.

There are more than 350 species of parrots in the world. The parrot family includes parakeets, macaws, cockatiels, and cockatoos. The draw to keep parrots as pets can be irresistible. They are highly social and intelligent. They can mimic human voices. They are capable of creating meaningful, powerful bonds with their owners. It’s no wonder that parrots are among the most popular pet birds on Earth.

Major Mitchell's cockatoo

Parrots at Risk

Parrots may be popular, but they face a lot of dangers. In the wild, deforestation and habitat loss are major threats. The growing human population takes up space and resources. Rain forest lands, where many live, are cleared for building materials.

Warming trends in the environment can also result in habitat destruction. Climate can affect food sources. It can also disrupt breeding cycles. Pollution from acid rain and pesticides can kill parrots and put future parrots at risk. Disease, too, is a threat.

But there is one risk even greater than these. It’s popularity. Unfortunately, the human demand for parrots as pets seems limitless.

There are many successful parrot breeding programs across the world. They raise parrots in captivity to sell as pets. Despite this, many parrots are still taken illegally from the wild.

“In the United States, if you go buy a parrot, the odds of it being captive bred are 99 percent,” says Donald Brightsmith, a zoologist at Texas A&M University. But “if you’re in Peru, Costa Rica, or Mexico, the chances of it being wild caught are 99 percent.”

Parrot Diversity

Parrot species live in ranges on five continents. The Amazon, New Guinea, and Australia have the greatest variety.

North America

South America





Amazon Basin

New Guinea

African gray parrot range

number of parrot species



Palm cockatoos only lay one egg every two years and have one of the lowest breeding success rates.

Parrot Popularity

One reason wild parrots end up as pets is the illegal wildlife trade. The same organized‑crime groups that have made billions of dollars trafficking animal parts such as elephant tusks and rhino horns have added parrots to their list. For example, a single Australian palm cockatoo has been known to fetch up to $30,000 on the black market.

Currently, all but three of the 350 parrot species qualify for protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. CITES is made up of 179 nations—all with the same goal of fighting the illegal wildlife trade.

The illegal parrot trade is at its worst in Latin America and the Caribbean. Here the laws against it are not always strict or can be difficult to enforce.

However, the most coveted species comes from Africa—the African gray. It’s the best talker of them all. Over the past four decades, at least 1.3 million grays have been exported legally from the 18 countries where they live, according to CITES. Yet hundreds of thousands more have likely died in transit or been taken illegally from the rain forests of West and Central Africa.

African gray parrots

The center of this trade is South Africa. It exports more African grays than any other country. Historically, most orders came from the United States and Europe. However, laws banning the bird trade closed those markets. The Middle East now fills the void. South Africa exported thousands of grays to that region in 2016.

That year, CITES made a controversial decision. It added the African gray to a special list of other animals threatened with extinction. To continue selling birds abroad, breeders must now prove to CITES inspectors that their African grays are raised in captivity, not caught in the wild.

This Alexandrine parakeet looks like it is wearing a mask.