How Escaped Exotic Pet Birds Could Help Save Threatened Species

Though usually seen as a threat to local populations, these escapees could also help in the recovery of creatures in trouble

Javan Myna
The Javan myna is critically endangered in its natural Indonesian habitat, but exploding populations in Singapore have made it a nuisance there. Lip Kee via Flickr

Pets escaping is a sad state of affairs—both for the owner and for the environment.

Cats, for example, may not seem like strange beasts, but since they were first introduced to Australia by the original British colonists they have taken over most of the country and driven several species to extinction. But the story becomes more complex when it comes to birds, particularly exotic birds captured from the wild. 

Over the last several decades, the yellow-crested cockatoo has become extremely popular as household pets, both for their beautiful plumage and their intelligence. But this popularity has led to decimation of wild populations—with less than 7,000 known individuals remaining in the wild today, Dennis Normile reports for Science.

But not all hope is lost. According to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, communities of escaped exotic birds could be the key to save their wild counterparts. By escaping the pet trade, these creatures can often establish new populations far from their original home grounds.

"Introduced species are usually considered a problem,” University of Hong Kong conservation biologist Luke Gibson, an author on the study, tells Normile. “In these cases we consider them to be an opportunity to help buffer declining populations in their native ranges.”

For the yellow-crested cockatoo, escaped pets have established thriving populations where the Indonesian birds were sold in Hong Kong and China. And though these invasives compete with local populations, they could be trapped and relocated back to their native lands, Normile writes.

In the study, Gibson and his colleague identified 49 different species, including mammals, birds and reptiles, that are critically threatened in their natural habitat due to capture for the pet trade but have thrived in other places as invasive creatures. "In some cases, captured feral animals could replenish the native populations; in others they could be funneled into the pet trade, hopefully replacing those captured illegally in their native habitat," Normile writes.

Given how widespread the exotic bird trade is (and how easy it is for winged pets to simply fly away), it’s become one of the major drivers behind their spread around the world. In the last few centuries, birds like the American ruddy duck and Asian ring-necked parakeets have horned in on their European cousins’ habitats after individuals managed to escape into the wild, Briggs reports. Even the brilliantly-colored monk parakeet has established a significant wild population amongst the trees and buildings of Brooklyn, New York.

As these exotic species move in on unprepared local populations, they could pose a threat as invasive species—and the problem is only getting worse, according to another recent study published in the journal PLOS Biology. "Areas that are good for native birds are also good for alien birds," Tim Blackburn, a researcher with University College London and an author on that study, tells Helen Briggs for the BBC. "It's a worry because aliens may threaten the survival of native species."

Increasing wealth in many places around the world drives the demand for the global pet trade, Blackburn tells Briggs. "For a variety of reasons, those species can get out into the wild and they can establish populations in areas where they haven't naturally occurred," he says. But whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is how it is managed.

Though these species could be “backups” for threatened species back home the concept doesn’t address the reason why the species are endangered in the first place. Habitat loss and poaching are both major causes for the destruction of these animals in their native environments and without addressing those basic problems transplanting wild animals from one habitat to another won’t work, Normile reports. In some cases, it could even make the problem with poaching worse by encouraging animal thieves to keep taking more.

All things considered, Gibson’s proposal to think of invasive populations of threatened species as buffers is intriguing, but won’t solve either problem on its own.

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