Where Are All the Females?

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Q: We are having problems getting our birds paired up. There seems to be a shortage of females. The birds that we are working with are wild-caught, and we would prefer to put them with wild-caught mates. For some reason, every bird we run into happens to be a male. Many more experienced people tell us that this has always been a problem.

During the days of importation, did they trap birds only during the breeding season when the females were in the nest? If so, what happened to all those hens and babies when the males never returned?

A: In the vast majority of cases, parrots were never trapped during the breeding season. In some countries, this was the law. In others, the trappers themselves, through “peer pressure,” enforced a moratorium on trapping during the breeding season. Most of the trappers who I met throughout Central and South America were enterprising, intelligent individuals. They were all well aware that the parrots were a valuable resource, a resource that could be never-ending if it was managed correctly. They all realized that if the birds were not permitted to replace themselves on a yearly basis, there would be no future harvests. In exporting countries like Guyana, they all agreed to laws that prohibited the capture of any birds during the breeding season. In order to create compliance, all exportation was stopped every year during this time frame. It did not pay to hold a bird and feed it so you could export it the following season. In Paraguay, the professional trappers were the enforcers of the unwritten laws that they themselves set up for the correct harvesting of these valuable resources, resources that they depended on to feed their families. This was a very serious game. Those trappers who did not wish to play by the rules always seemed to mysteriously disappear in the jungle, never to return. If they were found, it was always with a bullet hole in them. Just as many Americans would not hesitate to shoot someone who was robbing their convenience store; these people felt the same justification when someone threatened the sustained harvest of “their” parrots.

The habits of wild parrots go hand in hand with all of this. During the breeding season, all the flocks split up into pairs that go their own way. After the breeding season is over, they reorganize into large flocks again. This is the only time of the year that it really “paid” to trap. After all, it does not take much intelligence to figure out that trying to catch a few birds out of a flock of 300 is a lot easier than trying to catch a few birds from isolated pairs. Hence, the trappers would wait until after the breeding season was over, and the large flocks were formed before they would begin the year’s harvest. This is where the female problem comes from. The trapping season comes at the time of the year when the female is at her highest point of stress. She is underweight and over stressed from raising her babies with only marginal help from her mate. Unfortunately, there is one thing that most newly trapped wild parrots have in common: It takes them several days to get over the trauma of capture. During this time period, they do not eat. When you add this to the stress of raising a clutch of babies, it all adds up to death. The result is that the majority of mortality that occurred between capture and quarantine were females. Hence, the majority of wild-caught birds that were offered for sale after quarantine were mature males, nonproductive females and immature birds of both sexes. This has gone a long way in solidifying the false belief that parrots are difficult to breed in captivity.