One of the risks of traveling for birding is that sometimes you are going to see birds in cages and it's going to gut you. One of the most brutal examples for me was in Honduras. We had spent the morning in arid and remote habitat looking for the Honduran emerald, a hummingbird only found in Honduras. We saw several other species, but the day was hot and we couldn't get enough water. Because we were far from out lodge and all the villages nearby were small, arrangements had been made to have lunch at a local rancher's house. His wife prepared us a hard meal of chicken, salad, rice, beans and freshly squeezed juice. Her home was lovely and we ate indoors, while her kitchen was outdoors.
Afterwards we were allowed to wander the yard, take pictures of her kitchen or nap in her many hammocks. I grabbed a few photos of her stove and then settled in a hammock. I had a vague awareness of her animals around the property, most notably chickens but then I noticed a bird cage leaning against a tree with three white-fronted amazons inside. I tried to will myself to not pay them further attention and to let myself fall into a nap. Then I overheard two women from my group discussing the birds. "Oh, look at that! Mom, dad and a baby!" My brain snapped awake.
"They're not babies," I called over and the women looked confused. I walked to the cage and noted the overturned water dish, the empty food dish and complete and utter lack of toys for the birds to chew. I noted the bark of the tree that the cage leaned against was covered in chew marks. And I noted two birds hunkered together while a third--the odd man out had chewed most of his body feathers away. "That's not a baby, that is a bird bored with it's captivity that is chewing it's feathers because it has nothing to do."
I could feel rage and frustration coming over me...followed by the inevitable welling of tears. We'd seen these parrots throughout our trip living in the wild. There's nothing like seeing the parrot brain and beak navigate in the wild. They're so smart at figuring out how to crack open hard nuts for finding food and establishing long term pair bonds. After seeing them in the wild that morning and now to see three bored in a cage was gut wrenching. I noted the chickens freely roaming the yard--soon to be food. The food chickens had a better life than the three birds living in bored torture that were kept out of love.
I walked around the yard trying to force the emotion back. This was a birding tour, not my time to be some white lady telling a woman trying to get by in Honduras on how to raise her pets. But I also thought of the bird I had at home and how miserable he'd be in cage with nothing to chew and no water on a miserably hot day.
I went back into the home and grabbed a napkin from my lunch to try and hide what I'd been thinking. I decided to force myself back to the cage and confront the situation. I wanted to look the plucked bird in the eye and just acknowledge that I see the life it's living and I know that it sucks. As I looked at the plucked bird, it walked over to where my hands were and its beak reached through the bars toward my hand holding my slightly damp napkin...it wanted to chew it.
My Spanish is terrible so I asked my local guid to ask the woman if she'd mind if I gave her bird a napkin to chew. She nodded it was ok. I brought it forward and the bird greedily snatched the napkin away and started tearing it apart. Its cage mates came down to explore as well.
I asked my guide to translate for me. "This bird needs a job. This bird sees how hard you and your family works and it wants to work too. Because it has nothing to work on, he gets bored and plucks his feathers. If you give him some rope or coconut husk to chew on, it might stop chewing its feathers and be beautiful again."
She seemed to consider the suggestion, but I have no idea of it worked and left embarrassed that I'd gotten emotional in front of the group. I especially don't enjoy being the person visiting and learning about another country and telling people how to live their lives. I've built a thick skin when it comes to nature. Life in the wild is brutal. Most animals don't die quiet deaths in their sleep, they're eaten alive, they can live for days starving after receiving a crippling injury, babies are plucked from their nests...it's horrifying. When I see animals in awful domestic situations I try to remind myself that life may not be much better for them in the wild. But a parrot that can live for decades sitting bored in a cage...that torture seems far too long.
And this doesn't only happen to parrots. It happens to birds we can see in our backyards..
Our first day walking around Old Havana, I heard an indigo bunting singing. It didn't seem to be the right habitat but maybe it was a bird caught in the city during migration. We looked for the source of the song and found a balcony covered in bird cages full of illegal birds: Cuban bullfinch, indigo buntings and painted buntings. We would end up seeing wild birds illegally kept in cages every day. The most common was the painted bunting. To learn more about the bunting trade in Cuba, read this fascinating article the bunting black market.
Part of our trip included a visit to a tobacco farm. As the farmer explained his process for trying leaves, a painted bunting new to captivity frantically flitting around the cage looking for an escape. We also passed a mocking bird which sat with its foot tucked, a relaxed posture. It had seemed to accept its place in a cage. The farm was huge and there were several other buntings in cages.
I took our cultural guide aside and said, "Look, if you are going to bring birders here, you should maybe tell the farmer to at least hide his illegal birds."
She looked surprised and I explained that even in Cuba, buntings were not allowed as pets. I also explained that while our group was chill, some birding groups would raise a big fuss and get angry at seeing that. Our guide marched right up to the farmer and started yelling at him. He smiled, answered her and walked away.
"What did you tell him," I asked.
"I told him that birds do not belong in cages and he needs to let them go," she said angrily.
"What did he answer," I asked.
"He said how can he see them otherwise," she replied.
Indeed, how could he? The concept of watching birds in the wild as well owning binoculars and spotting scopes is not a thing in Cuba--yet. And when the painted bunting are there, they are secretive, hidden in grasses feeding. Not the flashy bird on a perch singing his beautiful song.
That night at the bar we were having drinks with our ornithologist guide Hiram. We were discussing all the illegal birds and in cages. I mentioned how it was clear from the bunting's frantic hopping in the cage that it was a recent capture, but the mockingbird had clearly accepted its captivity. It seemed very relaxed and even at one point tucked its foot--something birds do when completely relaxed.
Hiram said that it's custom to take mockingbirds from the nest when they are young and then teach them the Cuban anthem making them a beloved bird. The Cuban people love their birds. They want them nearby and singing all the time. Hiram also mentioned that people have tried caging the Cuban trogon and it dies in captivity...which is why it's so beloved and a national symbol. Like the Cuban people it cannot be contained. It prefers death to life in captivity.
These are not problems I can fix. People love birds. Sometimes that translates into living conditions that aren't the best for the birds. This is not a problem that can be fixed today, next week or even next year. Maybe over time with some education this might be minimized. But for the current time many of the bird species we know face odds and dangers we can't imagine.