by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
In celebration of National Bird Day 2013, Barry Kent MacKay and Monica Engebretson — senior campaign associates for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiasts — are taking turns in December and January to describe some of their favorite avian species. Below is the sixth installment, written by Monica.
For this week’s blog I have chosen to write about one of my favorite groups of parrots — lorikeets, also known as lories.
These birds, of which there are many species, have special dietary needs, brush-tipped tongues, relatively small, slender beaks, and intense feather coloration. The most common species in captivity are the Rainbow Lorikeet (21 subspecies), Red Lory, Chattering Lory and Blue-streaked Lory.
Lorikeets are admired for their beautiful plumage and amusing antics, yet their food requirements and droppings make them particularly difficult to care for. They are pollen and nectar feeders, and require a very specialized diet that many people find difficult to maintain. This diet results in very watery droppings that the birds tend to squirt out, making cleanliness an issue. Of course, like all birds, they are wild animals and their natural behaviors and activities are constricted when they are kept captive.
Unfortunately, in recent years many zoos have started marketing “lorikeet feeding exhibits” as interactive entertainment to increase gate receipts by offering visitors a chance to interact and feed lorikeets. These exhibits typically allow the birds to experience free flight and socialization, and on the one hand that is superior to the type of situation that would be found in a home environment, so the welfare of the birds on exhibit is comparably good. On the other hand, the primary reaction from those who visit lorikeet exhibits, especially children, is not, “How can I help save these species in the wild?” but rather, “Can I have one?”
Unlike other animals at the zoo who may elicit a similar desire, lorikeets are widely available for private possession and the only criterion for ownership required by the seller is paying the price of the bird. This is bad news for the long-term welfare of the bird, and as many bird rescuers will attest, many end up at their doors.
Moreover, history has shown that the increased popularity of exotic animals as pets, whether wild-caught or captive-bred, often leads to a subsequent increase in the illegal trafficking of their wild counterparts within the United States and abroad for sale to private individuals who will keep them as pets, to dealers who will use them as merchandise, or to aviculturists seeking new genetic diversity for their breeding collections.
I have had some firsthand experience with the wild trade in lorikeets as “pets.” Here is the story of one individual.
The Story of a Lorry
I have twice traveled to Indonesia with the Indonesian Parrot Project/Project Bird Watch, a U.S. nonprofit conservation organization that has worked in coordination with Yayasan Wallacea, an Indonesian nongovernmental organization focused on sustainable community development. Together the two organizations worked to provide sustainable income to villagers in parrot-rich areas of Indonesia to protect parrots and parrot habitats from cruel and destructive trapping and logging activities.
One of the most difficult parts of traveling in Indonesia is witnessing the common practice of keeping wild-caught birds on leg chains attached to perches. The sight of a chained parrot listlessly sitting on a perch, or futilely passing back and forth and calling to his or her wild brethren, is heartbreaking, and the temptation to purchase and release the animal can be overwhelming. But the solution is really not that simple.
Purchasing or “ransoming” birds encourages the trade and likely results in more birds being captured. In addition, most chained birds cannot be immediately returned to the wild. Recently captured birds typically have their wings clipped prior to being chained and birds who have spent months or years on a perch may not be able to fly as a result of atrophied or weakened flight muscles and have become accustomed to humans, thereby increasing the chances that they will be re-captured.
During my last visit to Indonesia in September 2003, The Project Bird Watch Team was faced with a difficult dilemma with the acquisition of Lucky, a wild-caught rainbow lorikeet. Lucky had been trapped in the wild and purchased by Indonesian military officials who hoped to sell him for a profit in Bali. However, the island park and wildlife official prevented the military from removing the bird from the island, so Lucky was given to a local villager who kept him chained his perch in front her restaurant.
Lucky had been chained to this perch for more than a year and had been feed primarily rice and sweet tea; a lorikeet’s natural diet consists of nectar and fruit. Because the restaurant owner had acquired the bird by happenstance and was not in the business of trapping or selling birds, we were confidant that the purchase would not contribute to the wild bird trade and we took Lucky in exchange for the equivalent of $12 U.S. with the intent to release him.
As Lucky devoured the bananas we fed to him back at the village guesthouse, it soon became apparent that he had become quite tame and could not be immediately released into the wild. However, forcing him to spend the rest of his life chained to the perch as a “pet” was not an attractive option. After much deliberation about Lucky’s fate, we ended up with a compromise of sorts. We freed him from the chain with the idea that he could remain in and around the guesthouse compound as long as he wanted and the village leader and his family agreed to provide food and water for him. Ideally he would eventually join a wild flock.
Lucky did remain around the village, climbing and chewing on trees and regaining his flying ability. He seemed genuinely happy to be free of the leg chain, and soon began avoiding human contact — a good sign.
We were not sure how much compliance to expect from those we entrusted with Lucky’s care and there was no guarantee that someone in the village would not re-capture him, thus returning him to the same situation in which we first found him — chained to a perch. There was also no guarantee that he would not make a bid for life in the wild and fail.
However, we felt that by giving Lucky a chance, a choice, and if nothing else, a few days of joy and freedom, we had made the right decision, although we all wished a better more certain option had existed. A month after our departure from the island, we received word that Lucky had left the village for the jungle. He made a break for his freedom and hopefully he won.
A few years later, I wrote a children’s book inspired by Lucky. On the book’s dedicated website you can see a live video of the real Lucky. The website also contains free lesson plans. The goal of the book is to help teach children that birds are more beautiful wild and that wildlife belongs in the wild.