An interview with August von Bayern about endangered parrots and their suitability as pets
Say ‘Laura!’ This classic is actually an insult to every parrot, as it is among the most intelligent creatures on earth. The researchers taught about 500 words to a docile student, Alex’s gray parrot, who was not only echoed by parrots but understood by him. But will wonderful animals survive the species crisis in the coming decades?August von Bayern of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence in Seewiesen, in collaboration with the Loro Parque Foundation, researches the thinking capacity of different species of parrots and knows the threats and needs of animals through her daily research. 2000 and fights to conserve biodiversity.
What is the biggest threat to parrots?
August Bavaria: The greatest threat is the destruction of their habitat. This is not surprising, because most species live in tropical and subtropical rainforests, and unfortunately, these species are especially vulnerable. In Ecuador, for example, approximately three percent of the primary forest is left, from the Brazilian rainforest along the eastern coast, Mata Atlantica, there is only about seven percent. However, parrots cannot survive without their forests, as many species breed hollows and rely on large old specimens of some tree species. In addition, they often feed on very specific fruits and nuts.
Another big problem is the pet trade. A chick of a large green parrot, for example, is sold on the black market for about 900 euros, and an adult animal for breeding costs about 1,500 euros. Even endangered parrot species are hunted for their feathers or just for sport. I recently heard that the great green parrot I’m looking for is still eaten in Panama.
What are the particularly threatened species?
The Brazilian Spix macaw, for example, made famous by the animated movie “Rio” and now extinct in the wild, is especially threatened. Also the Costa Rican Amazon, the Diademlori is likely already extinct from New Caledonia, the Brazilian gray-breasted parrot and the New Zealand kakapo. Of the 387 species of parrots known today, 109 are on the Red List, which is almost a third. Of these, 17 are “extremely at risk” and 38 are “at risk”. There are also 16 species that we know have become extinct in the last few centuries. This makes birds a particularly endangered group of animals.
So parrots are ambassadors for a biodiversity crisis of historical proportions: the rate of human-caused extinction is 100 to 1,000 times the natural biological rate, the largest mass extinction since the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. The International Council on Biological Diversity urgently warns of extreme range and talks about one million species threatened with extinction, but perhaps much more than that, because we are far from knowing all species. In Germany, too, fauna and flora are losing out to an unimaginable extent: more than half of the 259 bird species that breed here permanently are endangered. 14 species are now extinct in Germany, and it is likely that 6 more will be included in the following red list because they no longer exist.
However, parrots are also symbols of protecting species and habitats, as many endangered but less visible or less attractive species benefit from their protection. Its inhabitants also respond well to conservation measures. Examples of successful species protection are the gray-breasted macaw, the Kakapo, the Lear’s Macaw or the Great Green Macaw’s reintroduction.
What organizations are concerned with parrot protection?
Birdlife International, World Parrot Trust, Parrots International, ZGAP to name a few. The Loro Parque Foundation, with whom I work together on my research, is also committed to protecting parrots. The Foundation supports conservation projects from 30 to 40 species of parrots and some marine mammals with the aim of saving endangered species from extinction. Nine species of parrots have been saved from extinction thanks to their commitment, until five have been downgraded from threatened status. An important aspect of their work is responsible breeding to curb illegal trade, as well as breeding in order to conserve genes and reproduce endangered species. That is why it maintains a breeding station in Tenerife, where more than 4,500 animals of more than 200 species live.
What do you explore with parrots?
With the help of birds, my working group wants to better understand the evolution of intelligence and complex communication within vertebrates and to learn to what extent language is related to intelligence. Parrots are not searched. Along with corvids, along with primates and dolphins, they have the largest brain of any vertebrate relative to the body, but with a much higher density of neurons. Birds impress with their highly developed cognitive abilities and complex social lives. Parrots are a rich and diverse animal group that lives in a variety of habitats, from dry savannas to the deepest rainforests or mountainous regions. It is therefore particularly suitable for systematic comparison between species.
In addition, parrots can learn and imitate sounds very easily. They could thus be key to understanding the evolution of human language, because phonemic learning and imitation are also a basic requirement of human language and occur only in a few groups of animals. At the Loro Parque Foundation’s breeding facility, we can systematically compare the cognitive abilities of different species of parrots and thus learn what factors influence the animals’ intelligence and ability to imitate and which can therefore play a role in human evolution.
We also do important educational work. At our research station, which is incorporated into the Loro Parque Zoo, we work with three endangered and two critically endangered parrot species. In an inverted ‘lab’, we conduct behavioral tests in front of nearly 1.4 million zoo visitors each year, unnoticed by the parrots and the researchers themselves. We show people the wonderful thinking skills of these attractive birds. You can almost see animals carefully weighing your decisions according to costs and benefits, automatically helping or imitating other creatures, or planning ahead and solving complex mental tasks.
I am sure that the realization that these animals are on the same level of intelligence as the great apes will give people food for thought and raise their consciences. After all, one cannot allow such wonderful and intelligent animals to go extinct.
How should parrots be kept, what is the minimum required?
Parrots should really only be kept by experts. Through their international breeding programmes, zoos and professional breeders, such as the Loro Parque Foundation, perform important functions to protect the species, which unfortunately are now essential for many species. They do important educational work and make the species they keep tangible as ambassadors for endangered species in the wild and the importance of protecting the species.
On the other hand, many parrot species are completely unsuitable as pets. They are demanding, often very noisy if not relentlessly loud. They easily develop quirks and behavioral abnormalities, such as feather plucking or constant crying, if they cannot represent their normal behavioral inventory and get them to move and nibble, or if they receive little or no attention.
Parrots need a lot of space and should not be kept on their own. They are highly social animals and most species live in lifelong monogamy with one mate. A cage cannot be large enough, and a cage cannot be large enough, or to be kept on a pole with a chain around the leg, as is often the case today, is completely out of the question and should be banned. The right temperature, humidity and the right food are also important, otherwise the birds become susceptible to diseases and die. Saving can be expensive accordingly. So you should think in advance whether you can meet these requirements in the long run – some types can get very old.
In any case, one must realize that parrots are animals with the same cognitive level as chimpanzees or gorillas. You’re basically recording a little kid who never grows old and whose voice is several times louder.