Denver — It seems so harmless. You drive down to your local pet shop and look over all the brightly colored tropical birds.You buy one of these exotic creatures, possibly for companionship or to impress your friends.
Yet each such decision is the tip of an iceberg -- the end point of a process that is decimating many bird populations in South America, Africa, and Asia. In addition, this trade threatens the survival of a number of domestic species of birds and could adversely affect agriculture in a number of developed nations.
These damaging side effects of the international exotic bird trade are spelled out in word and picture by "The Bird Business," a study conducted by Greta Nilson for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.
Drawing heavily on official statistics and sources and quoting the concerns of well-known ornithologists, this study draws a restrained but devastating picture of the impact that the current world trade in birds is having.
"Within the past 20 years . . . bird dealers have created a new demand for an ever-increasing variety of birds. . . . To satisfy this new market . . . world trade in wild birds has recently amounted to a minimum of 7.5 million birds annually," the study reports.
The demand for some species has become so great that a number are becoming rare in their native lands. The scarlet macaw in Central America and the mynah in Thailand are examples of species currently suffering the effects of overhunting.
The demand for rare birds is multiplied by the fact that for every bird that makes it to a pet shop cage, at least five others die in traps or shipping cages , Miss Nilson estimates.
Despite regulations in countries such as the United States and Britain and some recent improvement, shipping conditions remain inhumane. Large numbers of birds are injured or killed by overcrowding, lack of food and water, suffocation , and overheating, the study charges.
Furthermore, many of the birds are unsuited to life in cages and require specialized diets. As a result, many die after only a short time in captivity.
A number of countries have recognized this problem and curtailed or banned exports of their rare and endangered birds. In South and Central America, Colombia, Bolivia, and Costa Rica have stopped all exports. In Asia, India, Japan, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Indonesia have curtailed exports. However, a number of other countries have stepped up their exports.
Not only does this international trade threaten bird species in their homelands, but it also poses a serious threat to domestic species in America and other importing countries, the study points out.
To date, some 25 exotic species have become established in the continental US. The oldest of these are the house sparrow and the European starling -- which were intentionally introduced in the 19th century by homesick Europeans who missed familiar species. Both have had a negative impact on US agriculture and native US bird populations. Starlings, for example, drive woodpeckers and Eastern bluebirds out of their nests and have been a major factor in those birds' decline.
Similarly, a number of the tropical birds imported to the US are serious agricultural pests in their homeland, the study claims. An example is the monk parakeet. These birds spread throughout the Midwest in the late 1960s.* Because of the monk parakeet's voraciousness, 13 Northeastern states cooperated in an apparently successful parakeet eradication program in 1973.
However, the rose-winged parakeet, a major agricultural pest in India, has established breeding populations in Florida. Their relatives, the canary-winged parakeets, are thriving in San Francisco, where they could become a major vineyard pest if they spread into nearby Napa Valley, the study warns.
In 1975, the California Department of Agriculture estimated that three imported species could cause as much as $1.2 million annual damage to the state's fruit, nut, and grain crops.
Many of these birds also carry diseases, some of which threaten the domestic poultry industry. This problem has been recognized since the turn of the century, when Congress passed "injurious wildlife regulations." But only five bird species are banned under these regulations and, according to the Animal Welfare Institute study, several of these have been imported despite this prohibition.
In 1973, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed farreaching regulations that would ban import of all but five species of exotic birds. This plan was attacked by pet industry forces, and the regulations were withdrawn. four years later the Wildlife Service tried again. They suggested adding four species to the regulations. Again they were withdrawn after strenuous opposition.