"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."