This is a Scarlet Macaw – one of the many magnificent species of parrot endemic to south and central America. An Australian Government study is considering whether it is appropriate to allow imports of these birds, following pressure from the local pet trade.
Importing parrots from overseas has been banned since 1995. This is because importing birds, even when they’re spectacular, is a spectacularly terrible idea. I spoke to the ecologists in our group and they gave me some clear reasons why.
First – and this is the one the government is looking at seriously – moving birds internationally might mean we see movement of diseases too.
The risks include avian infuenza, parasites and mosquito-borne diseases. These diseases aren’t just a risk to humans, but also our wildlife, and there have been disasters in past. The fungal plant disease, Myrtle Rust (Austropuccinia psidii) passed all of our border controls in 2010, and spread through the country, killing substantial areas of native vegetation. Several native plant species went from common to critically endangered as a result. For the 12 species of Australian parrots that are already endangered, any outbreak could lead to extinction. The government notes quarantine as a key risk management strategy – which we have recently learned the limitations of quite intimately, being a Melbourne-based lab in the age of COVID-19.
On top of disease risk, there’s the damage that the pet trade can do by promoting poaching and smuggling. This hasn’t been addressed directly by the Australian government’s enquiry, but for a number of South American parrot species, trapping for the pet trade has compounded the enormous pressures these birds face from deforestation, with many species already at the brink of disappearing altogether. Spix’s Macaw (star of the 2011 film Rio) is now extinct in the wild, and over 40 species of parrot in the region are endangered or critically endangered. Opening new markets that could encourage poaching is the last thing these birds need.
On top of that, we’ve got a long history of disastrous examples of imported species getting out and going feral (you’ve probably seen a common or Indian mynah today, and then there’s the infamous cane toad). There is also the ethical question of whether it’s fair to take wild, sociable tropical birds with large home ranges and keep them alone in cages.
Stack up all these considerations and a pet macaw isn’t just risky – it’s unconscionable.
The good news is that we’re an island with masses of amazing endemic species, including some truly spectacular parrots and cockatoos. Really, with locals like this, why would you go abroad?
While you’d need to take a bit of a drive to see the magnificent Pink Cockatoo in its mostly arid inland habitat, you don’t need to go far to have wonderful experiences with nature. Even for city dwellers, there are a lot of positive, rewarding ways you can get into contact with our bird life, sometimes without even leaving the house. This week, members of our lab engaged in Birdlife Australia’s ‘backyard bird count’ – spotting species including black cockatoos, musk lorikeets and galahs. If you want to learn more about the wildlife right on your doorstep, a great way is to get involved with one of the accessible citizen science projects running across Australia as we speak. Spring is a great time for this, as other national recording events are taking place, including Frog ID week (6th – 15th November) and the national pollinator count (8th-15th November). Many of these citizen science projects have free identification apps attached, helping you recognise common species and making it easy to record your findings. The most famous of these is iNaturalist, but there are others you might not know about: BirdCount, Spidentify, FrogID, and Butterflies Australia. For each Australian state you can also find excellent free field guide apps to all groups of common fauna.
If you have a keen green thumb, you can also start cultivating your own little patch of wilderness that the birds will love. Many native species rely on private gardens for foraging or nesting resources, and you can do your bit by increasing the number of native plants, building a bird box or providing water (especially during the next hot, dry summer). Check if your local council has a wildlife gardening program, which often have free resources and sometimes offer free plants to help get you started.
If you have a bit of extra time, or a bit of extra space, there are a range of active volunteer groups that you can join – whether it be providing care for injured wildlife through Wildlife Victoria/WIRES NSW, or maintaining habitat through the ‘friends of’ group for your local park (e.g. Friends of Westgate Park, Royal Park or the RBG in Melbourne, or similar groups in Perth and Sydney). Not only will you learn loads about the local wildlife in your area, but you can actively participate in programs to encourage them to be healthy and thriving – while making like-minded friends along the way!
Once you know a little more about who lives in your backyard or local park, the best way to connect with your local wildlife community is to spend some time outside. Take 5 minutes to look closely at a flowering plant, or watch a patch of water and you might be surprised at what you notice! Tiny native hoverflies visiting for a meal, or a family of wood ducks washing. Taking a little more time to watch the world around you will open a whole new window onto your own personal wildlife documentary. Check out some of the special and unexpected connections people have made with urban nature here.
Getting to know your locals can also prevent unfriendly encounters – magpies, for example, are less likely to swoop you during breeding season if you’ve got to know them beforehand, and sometimes will even introduce you to their babies!
Of course, having a pet in the house is lovely too. For many of us that have faced loneliness through lockdown, companion animals are something we value more than ever. The thing is, there are plenty of loving animals that really need homes – we really don’t need to plunder distant jungles (at risk of plague, extinctions, feral outbreaks and general animal cruelty) to find a bit of company. Adopt a pet at your local shelter instead; it’s much less likely to learn to swear at you.