Parrots are like drugs. People crave them. People smuggle them. The government tries to stop it, but smugglers are smart, and people demand parrots. After drugs, people make more money smuggling wildlife across the U.S. border than any other items. People pay thousands of dollars for parrots -- and people die for them.
But not as often as parrots die for people. Smugglers and dealers kill millions of birds every year to supply Americans' demand for parrots. Until the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act prohibited the importation of all species of parrots into the United States, more than 700,000 birds a year were imported legally to the United States. Experts estimate that three to nine birds die for every one that makes it into a cage in the United States. Assuming that five wild-captured birds died for every one now in a U.S. cage, that's 35 million birds taken from the wild in a decade, just for the legal trade in the United States -- and illegal bird traffic swamps the legal trade.
No one knows how many parrots are left in the wild, but more than 70 of the 332 surviving species may be extinct within ten years, wildlife specialists estimate. At least ten species of parrots have been listed as threatened or endangered in the 1990s, and the Paradise Parrot of Australia may have become extinct. America's only native parrot, the Carolina parakeet, became extinct more than a century ago because of a craze to put their feathers in ladies' hats.
Today, there is just one place a prospective pet owner or bird breeder can legally buy a wild-caught parrot -- from the U.S. government. Two or three times a year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture auctions off birds impounded from smugglers, at the Otay Mesa commercial truck border crossing. At the last auction, Saturday, November 22, the USDA pocketed $7870 from the sale of 61 birds, 56 of them psittacines -- members of the parrot family, which includes parakeets and macaws. The other five birds auctioned off were canaries.
The priciest bird was a double yellowhead Amazon that went for $500 -- to its original owner. Nancy Lopez, 34, and her family got up early to make the drive from Los Angeles to buy back the bird they had owned for more than a decade.
"My father-in-law took him across [the border] for two days [to visit family], and when we tried to bring him back, they took him from us," Lopez said tearfully as she waited for the auction to begin. She was so nervous she couldn't bear to approach the bird, for fear she would lose him again.
Lopez's story had a happy ending. She drove the price up quickly to $500 and bought her bird back. Together with the $750 fine she was assessed for trying to bring him in, Lopez ended up paying $1250 for a bird she was given as a gift. "We treat him like one of the family," she said. "We've had him since he was a baby."
Most bird stories don't have such happy endings. Thousands of parrots die of shock, thirst, malnutrition, and general abuse on their trip north. "I'd like to think that the people who smuggle these birds specialize in it," a Border Patrol intelligence agent says, "but as far as the conditions they're in -- the birds, lizards, and snakes I've seen -- I don't think they know anything about it."
"They bring them in rolled up in toothpaste tubes...in any way possible," says a USDA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. "It's really distressing."
Many of the 80 or so people who attended the bird auction at Otay Mesa are bird breeders or pet-store owners looking for new bloodlines to improve their stock. Though the Wild Bird Conservation Act made it more difficult for them to do this, no one spoke against the act.
"It helps protect the birds," said Liz Clark, a bird breeder who flew down from Chino for the auction. "I'd like to see [parrots] stay in the wild, though."
The Wild Bird Conservation Act has had little effect on smugglers, says John Grice, the local USDA quarantine enforcement officer who was the auctioneer on November 22. "Its major effect is in [stopping] the legal imports," the 700,000 to 7 million birds that were removed from the wild legally each year until the act put a stop to their legal importation.
The maximum penalty for smuggling a single parrot into the United States is five years in prison and a $5000 fine. Few people face such stiff penalties, though. "It's hard to get a U.S. attorney to try to prosecute someone for bringing in a bird," says U.S. Customs spokeswoman Bobby Cassidy. "There's only so much room in the jails."
Cassidy and spokesmen for the USDA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service feel that parrot smuggling has decreased since the bird conservation act was passed -- though they do not attribute the decrease to the legislation.
"The bottom line is, all the rain forests are getting burned up, and either the birds are getting burned up with them or they're getting exported," Grice says, "because they need those rain forests to live.
"They cut the rain forests down [to create pasturage] for cattle. But at least there's plenty of beef on the table."
Habitat destruction is a primary cause of the decimation of parrot species. "The lack of habitat is what's slowing it [parrot smuggling] down," says John Brooks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent in San Diego. "They're not there anymore."
Logging in Brazil has reduced the gold-capped conure's range to a tiny pocket in the Amazon rain forest. An entire species of Caribbean parrot could be wiped out by a hurricane that batters its home island.
Americans' fondness for barbecues contributes to the problem. Until recently, Latin American farmers and landowners would leave the tops of hillocks in natural vegetation -- mesquite, bushes, and grasses -- when they cleared land for farming. But no more.
"Always before, the tops of the little hills would have native plants, so when the land started to reclaim itself, you'd have a repopulation," says Patrick Burchfield, editor of a multivolume series on endangered wildlife and deputy director of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. Then mesquite charcoal became a lucrative business, as trendy restaurants promoted it to push $7 hamburgers. "So now they clear-cut everything, and that's the end of it forever," Burchfield says. "All the plants and animals and seeds are gone forever, for a one-time cash crop."
The Argentine campesino who cuts down trees to steal blue-fronted Amazon parrots from the nest selectively destroys their breeding habitat. The nest-robber sells them to a smuggler for $3 or $5 each. The birds that survive will be sold wholesale for around $350 in the United States and retail for $650 or more.
With such tremendous profits, a load of 100 parrot chicks can earn a smuggler $50,000 -- enough money to kill for. An Orange County parrot breeder was shot to death in his backyard aviary in 1992, and at least five people have been shot to death in south Texas in the past decade in disputes arising from parrot smuggling.
Last year, Southern California bird breeders were devastated by a theft ring that walked off with more than 5000 birds in a matter of months. Concentrating on breeders in Riverside County, the thieves stole up to 400 birds a night in a series of thefts that targeted low-dollar birds: canaries and cockatiels, as well as pricey Amazons. The thieves also took birdseed, fencing, breeding boxes -- anything they could find. The alarmed bird breeders banded together and hired a private eye, Mike Stuhler of Pomona, to find out who was doing it and stop them. Then just as suddenly as the thefts started, they stopped.
The breeders were stumped. Why would anyone stoop to stealing cockatiels and parakeets, which sell for $10 to $35 apiece in U.S. stores?
To smuggle them the other way, into Mexico, says Joe Ramos, the United States' leading authority on bird smuggling. "Cockatiels that go for $25 here you can sell for $50 in Mexico City," says Ramos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife senior resident agent in Houston. "See, Mexico has the big birds, but they don't have cockatiels and canaries."
Ramos is a bird smuggler's nightmare. He's brought more than 100 criminal cases against bird smugglers -- more than the rest of the U.S. law enforcement community combined -- "and out of all of those, only one was found not guilty," he says. "I'd say about 20 have served time. The rest got fines and probation."
Yet despite the possibility of stiff fines and prison time, people keep smuggling parrots. "They're beautiful, intelligent, affectionate, and good companions," Burchfield says. "That's exactly the problem."
Wildlife agents urge prospective parrot owners to consider buying a dog or cat instead. But if you must buy a parrot, they say, buy one that was captive-bred. They are tamer, probably healthier, less traumatized, and will live longer.
"The only solution is education," Ramos says. "It's for us in the United States to slow down on the demand for pet birds.... People need to give up on buying parrots.
"If you like parrots, you're going to buy a parrot, and you're going to love him to death. And because of that love, it's the most detrimental thing you could do to those animals. You know that expression, 'love them to death'? That's what you're doing. You're loving them to extinction."