Staying One Step Ahead

CITES faces other challenges to protecting parrots. Most captive‑born chicks have an ID ring placed on their legs. Illegal traders may have figured out how to attach these rings to wild birds. So, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between captive‑bred and wild‑caught birds.

To stay one step ahead of the criminals, geneticists at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu‑Natal are working on a solution. They hope to create a quick and painless genetic test. It would help determine if a bird is wild or not. Such DNA work could allow a breeder, pet buyer, or airport inspector to take a sample from a bird and discover its origins on the spot. A similar approach could analyze certain chemicals in parrot feathers. That test would reveal what the parrots eat, which would tell experts where the birds came from.

There have been other encouraging developments. At first, the countries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said that they would not follow the CITES restrictions. However, they have since agreed not to import wild‑caught African grays.

There are conservation success stories, too. The critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot, for example, was down to 13 individuals in the 1970s. Biologists launched a captive‑breeding program. Wild and captive birds now number in the hundreds.

Conservationists say the long‑term challenge remains. People need to understand that these birds are at risk and are worth protecting.

Like the other captive birds pictured in this article, this Alexandrine parakeet has an ID ring on its leg.

What can you do to help?


Think twice before buying a bird.

Do your research and make sure this is the right kind of pet for you. Are you prepared to be responsible for it? The average pet parrot will go through seven homes in the first 10 years of its life.


If you already have a pet bird, give it a good life.

Try to give your bird the best life possible with you. Offer regular exercise and mental stimulation. Feed it fresh fruits and vegetables. Schedule regular checkups with your vet.


Support groups helping birds.

Many efforts are underway to preserve populations of wild parrots thanks to organizations like:
• World Parrot Trust
• Parrots International
• Wild Bird Trust
• BirdLife International


Learn more about the situation for captive birds and wildlife trafficking.

Start here:


Spread the word.

green‑cheeked conures

Alex, the African Gray

Irene Pepperberg is a scientist who studies the way animals learn. In 1976, she bought an African gray parrot at a pet store and named him Alex. She wanted to teach him a few words.

She did not know that her relationship with Alex would span more than 30 years. She did not know that what she would learn from Alex would change the world’s thinking about parrots. Alex’s vocabulary grew to more than 100 English words. He also created new words of his own! He made up his own word for apple. He called it a “banerry.” That’s a combination of the words “banana” and “cherry.”

He could also describe objects, shapes, and colors; do simple math; and understand basic concepts such as none, same/different, and bigger/smaller.

Alex died at age 31. His last words to Pepperberg were: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.” Alex proved to the world that “birdbrains” are pretty bright after all.