Habitat Immersion - The New Wave

By Bob and Liz Johnson

Fifty years ago it was considered standard for zoos to confine animals to small cages, but as people have become enlightened to the physiological and psychological needs and feelings of animals, zoos have responded by providing spacious natural habitats.

Parrots, naturally creatures of the air and boundless space, seem to be the last captive animals for whom a natural lifestyle is being considered. Many still spend their entire lives within the confines of a cage.

Habitat immersion is the trend in the zoo world now and, happily, there is a growing trend among aviculturists and pet guardians to respond to the same (if not greater) psychological needs and feelings of these flying spirits of the rainforest by providing large natural habitats where the birds can live at least to some degree in the way nature intended . .... really flying, interacting with the trees, the ground, the rain, and each other.

DR. Theodore Barber's book, The Human Nature of Birds (page 167) tells us, "Birds not only use flight as a natural means of locomotion, but in beautiful forms as a means of expression. Many species spend hours of the day in the recreation of flight as others spend hours in song. Flight is an art akin to music, with rhythm and feeling of movement as its foundation, a glorious means of expression that birds know well how to use." Birds were designed to fly and flight muscles, like all other muscles, tend to atrophy when not used for long periods.

A bird sitting alone, or even with a mate he did not choose, in a cubicle barely large enough to spread his wings, even though he may be fed a nutritious diet, given quality veterinary care, and kept immaculately clean, is both physically and psychologically a far cry from the bird flying free among the trees and interacting with his environment. Additionally, the exercise plus the psychological benefits of the exhilaration of freedom are strong immune system enhancers.

Concern for conservation should include preserving the spirit of the bird as well as merely the physical form. Many avicultural articles are replete with advice about the importance of keeping the gene pool intact by not hybridizing, thus retaining the physical form as nature designed, should reintroduction become feasible. According to these same publications, however, it seems perfectly acceptable to alter all other aspects of the bird. We are inundated on advice on how to edit them to our standards and how to teach them not to behave like a bird — how to stop chewing, biting, screaming, making a mess and flying. Then we wonder why birds pluck their feathers, mutilate themselves, or become aggressive. Seldom addressed is how to maintain and enjoy them as a bird. Observing their social interactions and seeing how much fun they have in a natural setting, flying freely, functioning as a part of nature while still enjoying interacting with people is truly a learning experience and gives one an insight into the true marvels and capacities of these incredible beings.

As one spends more time with the birds in their habitat, they begin to see you as a co-inhabitant who can share in their games and play and participate in their various social interactions, rather than as a captor who restricts their activities. Thus a level of love, understanding and interaction rarely experienced by any pet owner is often attained.

In free-flight habitats birds changes "buddies" frequently before deciding on a mate, much as humans do. Once they truly bond, however, they must be separated from the group, as fights can ensue.

Charles Munn tells us ("New Yorker", July 30, 1990) that captive birds forget how to live; all of their cultural transmission is lost. They lose what he calls their parrotness and therefore most captive bred birds are not suitable for reintroduction.

Survival skills are not transmitted by osmosis but through experience. Even parent birds who are allowed to raise their offspring in a cage have no way of teaching them how to survive in the wild.

No social, curious, active, and intelligent being can remain happy or physiologically and psychologically stable when permanently restricted to a small sterile environment. Not only is it illegal, but it is cosidered cruel and inhumane to cage native American songbirds. Why, then, is it considered perfectly acceptable to cage native birds of other countries, particularly those with the intelligence of a parrot?

Someday, in a more enlightened age, the practice of confining any bird to a life limited to the synthetic environment of a cage will be viewed as morally and ethically unthinkable, much as slavery is looked back on today. Zoo animals had the voice of the viewing public to speak out for them. The fate of these birds, breeders as well as pets, rests with the conscience of the individual who has them in his care.

Clipped wings or confining cages are not the only alternatives to extinction. Habitat immersion is becoming the wave of the future. Those who have economic interests as their primary concern will argue that this is not the most economically efficient use of space, but even they would have to agree that it is the most compassionate. It is also the most pragmatic and realistic way to assure survival, should reintroduction into the wild become an actuality.

Without exception, every bird lover who has seen our habitat has said that they would love to have something like it, but that they: 1) don't have the money or 2) don't have the space or 3) both of the above. There are various designs and construction methods for habitats and mini habitats to fit almost any space or budget. With imagination and initiative, plus a large helping of commitment, captive birds can be living life to the fullest in a mini or micro rainforest setting and would be a lot happier for it.

From: PsittaScene, August, 1996

"...and once you have tasted flight
you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward,
for there you have been and there you long to return."
-- Leonardo da Vinci