Birds in cage - Your desire for a live toy that keeps breeders in business

I was in Nagpur last week. I was told of an illegal bird market and so I went on Sunday morning. I saw hundreds of small cages with budgerigars and pigeons in them. Of course the team of People for Animals, Nagpur took the birds and went to the police station. The police helped them – even though they had been mute spectators of this market every week. But as usual the forest department people, who are illiterate and wicked most of the time, refused to take the birds as they were foreign – obviously they had never heard of the Gujarat judgment which says that no birds can be sold – specially not love birds or budgerigars.

But what broke my heart was this: I was looking at the bird cages and I saw a budgie crouching in the corner. She looked unwell so I put my hand in and took her out. She had no legs at all; obviously the result of inbreeding and over-breeding. As I held her in my palm, she flew off to a tree in front. This brave little creature could not sit on the branch because she had no legs so she clung with her mouth to a leaf till her grasp weakened and she fell down on the road. We picked her up and she tried weakly to fly again but she went back into a special cage and I do not think she lasted the day.

Do not buy love birds and budgerigars. Both originally came from Australia and Africa but they are now grown by dealers in Kolkata and sent illegally through the railways, in packed cardboard boxes with little holes for breathing, all over India. Many of them die from the lack of oxygen.

Lovebirds are social and affectionate small parrots. They live, in nature, in small flocks and are monogamous. They pair for life, sitting only with their mates. They do not live very long when separated: like humans they pine. But the dealers and you the buyer, encourage this terrible hardship on them. In nature, they live upto 15 years. In captivity, one to two at the most. They are bred by dealers for their colours. If blue is the fashion or the order placed, then all the babies that are not blue are killed by the breeder.

Many lovebirds are captured and brought into India by smuggling them through the Kolkata port. Captured wild lovebirds don’t last very long and they die mourning the loss of a mate or a flock.

Many people keep lovebirds without understanding their needs. Single-sex birds are bought because they look pretty together. They can’t mate, don’t interact and die of loneliness. Determining a lovebird’s sex is difficult. After it is a year old it may show behavioural signs - females rip papers and males vomit. But this is mainly hearsay and is not a reliable indicator. The only sure method is DNA testing. No seller knows anything at all and he will say anything to get the bird off his hands.

Birds kept individually or brought up hand-fed require frequent attention to stay happy, and if the owner has limited time to spend daily with a single lovebird, they wilt. Since they are social birds, they require companionship the entire day. No one who keeps a bird spends any time at all with it except to call its name while passing by and occasionally poke a finger into its cage.

Lovebirds require large cages of more than a metre each way per bird. Their beaks are made of keratin, which grows continuously. Chewing and destroying wood toys and perches helps to keep beaks trim. They need cuttlefish bones to help provide beak-trimming, calcium and other necessary minerals. They require plenty of toys, such as branches, swings, tunnels, boxes and safe things to chew on and play with. Lack of toys, keeping the birdcage covered too many hours, and lack of companionship or social stimulation leads to boredom, stress and psychological or behavioural problems (nervousness, aggression, feather-plucking, screaming, depression, illness). Lovebirds are intelligent, enjoy baths and like to sun themselves daily. No buyer knows this or cares. He simply wants a noisy pretty bird to keep his children amused – till it dies.

Lovebirds are vegetarian. A fresh mix of various seeds, grains and nuts: millets, canary seeds, peeled oats, safflower, barley, amaranth, uncooked rice, linseed , hempseed , buckwheat, wholegrain bread, cereals, fruits, lentils, weeds, pulses and vegetables, peas, beans ,cauliflower leaves, cabbage leaves, chicory, collard greens, dandelion leaves, endives, mustard leaves, wild grass, sprouted beans, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds – are to be given everyday. How many owners do this? They eat flowers : carnations, chives, herbs' blossoms, hibiscus, honeysuckle, impatiens, lilac, nasturtiums, pansies, passion flowers, roses, sunflowers. Many lovebirds die of malnutrition.

So many of the lovebirds are children of different species. They are sterile hybrids – and the breeder deliberately does this so that no more are born to the buyer. People are so strange that when their bird dies, they immediately want to buy more – because otherwise the cage will go waste - and the breeder needs that to happen.

Everything I have said so far applies to the budgerigar, also commonly sold in illegal pet shops and bazaars. It is a small, long-tailed, seed eating parrot which is captured from Australia and brought here where it is grown in the slums of Kolkata. Budgerigars are naturally green and yellow with black, markings on the nape, back, and wings, but have been bred in captivity to become blue, white, yellow, grey– more than 32 different shades. They are the most mutilated birds and, like dogs, those that are not exactly as the breeder wants them to be are killed immediately. You will see them with crests and mixes of strange colours – all of this is unnatural. So many have now eyes that are bigger than normal and squashed faces and tiny legs. Budgerigars in their natural habitat in Australia are noticeably smaller than those that have been bred. Since these are bred to be bigger and fatter with puffier head feathers, their legs can hardly hold them up and the eyes and beak are sometimes completely obscured by the feathers. In the wild they live 20 years. In captivity, under the best conditions of diet and exercise, 2-4 years. They do not produce children without a nest box.

These birds will be eaten by kites and other large predators if you release them. So they are condemned to a life in captivity. It is your desire for a live toy that keeps breeders in business.

Please don’t buy lovebirds or budgies, and inform me about any markets that they are sold in.

Maneka Gandhi

*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*