WASHINGTON — Alex and his colorful talking cousins from South America and Asia fascinate humans with a cacophony of sound and lure the curious into the incredible puzzle of animal intelligence.
But scientists have warned that in human domestication of these animals is a nest of troubles.
The world market for beautiful birds and the destruction of their rain-forest habitat have endangered some species.
Birds taken from the wild by any number of methods, from nets to capture by sticky substances, often die in transport or are so traumatized by being removed from their very social family circles that they make unfriendly - even pathological - pets, say scientists who study them.
The Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992, signed by President Bush on Friday, will greatly restrict the importation of wild birds.
"The aim of the bill is to provide incentives for captive breeding," says Ginette Hemley, director of Traffic U.S.A., the wildlife trade- monitoring program of the World Wildlife Fund.
A parrot smuggled through Mexico might cost $200 to $300, while a parrot bred in captivity can be as much as $1,000, she explains. But the cheaper, wild birds, say scientists, are much less suitable as pets.
Though Alex was bought at a pet store, says his trainer Irene Pepperberg, "I tell people never to buy at a pet store." She suggests instead buying directly from a breeder who has raised the bird by hand.
She notes the difference between Alex and her two new 18-month-old African grays, which were raised by hand. Alex will allow a nose-to-beak kind of closeness but not petting, while the two new birds enjoy being hugged and petted.