This Is For The Birds

This Is For The Birds

Sunday, September 30, 2012

To Denise Russell: ON CAGING BIRDS

“Unfortunately, because of their beauty, these small finches are captured from the wild by trappers in South Florida and smuggled to South America to become pets. This practice not only reduces their numbers, it skews the bird population when the trappers take only the showy adult males. Painted Buntings are currently listed as: Near threatened by the IUCN and are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.”

As one who is guilty of having once caged birds as pets, my conscience compels me to address the issue of trapping, smuggling, and keeping them as pets.

Back in 1962, at the age of five, I came home to discover a new resident in our home. My grandmother had acquired a white parakeet. It was love at first sight for me. She told me that his name was Pretty Boy and that I could teach him to talk. I didn’t, for one second, believe that it could talk; however, I did spend countless hours watching it hop around in its tiny cage. I often begged my grandmother to let it out of its cage so I could watch it fly. She always denied my requests. Of course, I eventually took it upon myself to just open the cage door and watch. After seeing what it took to get Pretty Boy back in his cage, I decided I would never do that again.

In the mid-eighties, I discovered the pet store world of exotic finches, and became addicted to collecting pairs of so-called Australian finches: Masked Finches, Shaft-tail Grassfinches, Black-throated Finches, and  Chestnut-breasted Mannikins just to name a few.  I studied them, studied about them, and spent thousands of dollars and hours in collecting and maintaining them. I turned a spare bedroom of my home into what I called the birdroom. The birdroom contained about twenty relatively large cages. The wall-to-wall carpet was covered with wall-to-wall clear plastic matting, the walls were painted with washable satin paint, Vita-Lite full spectrum lighting was installed, and in the center of the birdroom sat a huge cage lined three quarters up in clear thick plastic. It contained the biggest “exotic finch” I ever acquired: a Dusky Lory.

 I felt great pride, joy, and satisfaction with my birdroom, felt I was doing a good thing by taking such well care of my birds. I maintained that menagerie for quite some time, but then, after being visited by a bird breeder, eventually settled on the breeding a single species: the Double-barred Bicheno Owl Finch. There was nothing like the sound of over a dozen Owl Finches greeting the opening of the blinds and the sudden morning sunlight with what I certainly interpreted as cheers.

As time passed, I soon realized that could not sell them because of the emotional attachment of having watched them go from egg to full feather. Finally, due to job relocation, I ended up giving them to the breeder who had gotten me started and had taught me so much.

Now, decades later, I somewhat—but not totally—regret my contribution to illegal bird trafficking, and although I didn’t personally bring them here from their native countries, I rather shamefully see my birdroom as just a little more than a well-kept bird prison.

I still have a lot of birds at my home, but they now come and go as they please. I especially love it when parents bring their new offspring to my feeders and when I see one of them splashing around in my bird bath on a hot summer day.

As far as bird trappers and smugglers are concerned, I wish I could make them stop endangering every bird species. At the same time, I wish these same trappers could be employed to good use. I wish we could capture and facilitate the breeding of endangered bird species to the point where they would no longer be even remotely endangered. I wish secure environments could be created to facilitate the proliferation of endangered bird species regardless of source of threat. I know that many species of birds will not breed in captivity; however, if humans can build a ski resort in the middle of the desert, why can’t humans build a Painted Bunting habitat in Florida. The question is really not a question, because I know the answer: money.

If I were King of the World, though, a bird’s life would be more coveted than money: sort of like the age-old reality of money being more coveted than human life.

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.                                   ---Paul Laurence Dunbar

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