13th February 2023

Love is in the air this Valentine’s Day – and love birds will be celebrating by spending time with their special partners. Lovebirds (the feathered variety), are small colourful members of the parrot family who have often been depicted as a symbol of eternal love because they form strong bonds with their partners and are monogamous. This, along with their incredibly beautiful colours, has sadly resulted in them being commonly kept as ‘pets’. But what impact does the exotic pet trade have on lovebirds and other parrot species? Over a third of parrot species are endangered largely due to collection for the ‘exotic pet’ trade. Parrots are extremely intelligent birds with complex welfare needs and are simply not suited to a life in captivity.

There are nine species of lovebirds on the continent of Africa but the most commonly traded and kept is Fischer’s lovebird Agapornis fischeri, but some coloured mutations have been bred in captivity. In the wild, Fischer’s lovebirds, endemic to north Tanzania, inhabit grasslands, open-woodlands and savannahs. Found in groups of up to 100 birds and measuring just 12 – 15cm in height, with a wingspan of just 9cm, lovebirds can live for up to 25 years in the wild, but are less long-lived in captivity. First described to science in the 19th century by Gustav Fischer, lovebirds are known for their strong bonds – they mate for life and are monogamous. Their bonds are so strong that if a pair is separated, the physical (and mental) health of both birds will suffer. Described as Near Threatened by Birdlife International, the population of Fischer’s lovebirds has declined by about 30% over just three generations since the 1970s and it has been estimated that there are between 200,000 and 1,000,000 remaining in the wild. If this decline continues it will not be long before they are threatened with extinction. By the 1980s, Fischer’s lovebird was the most commonly traded bird species in the world. Legal trade was stopped in 1987 but illegal trade continues today with birds being taken from the wild illegally and shipped across the world to be laundered in the pet trade as ‘captive-bred’. Between 1975 and 2016 (most recent data estimates), almost 4.3 million lovebirds were traded, with almost 2 million of these being Fischer’s lovebird.

Lovebirds are considered by many as easy to ‘keep’ and, because of their strong bonds with their partners, are often given as Valentine’s Day presents, but many captive lovebirds suffer in captivity. Like most birds, lovebirds and other parrot species are very good at hiding illness. In the wild this helps protect them from predators, but in captivity it means that when their ‘owners’ first notice that the birds are unwell, they are already seriously ill and require immediate veterinary treatment. Not all vets are experienced in treating ‘exotic’ animals, and parrots really require vets who specialise in birds, which are few and far between, meaning that many birds may not get prompt treatment, which is of course an animal welfare problem. 

Lovebirds suffer from a number of common and not-so-common conditions in captivity. One of the most common is malnutrition – Vitamin A and calcium deficiencies are common due to a poor diet. Vitamin A is vital to ensure that the birds have a proper appetite, it aids digestion and helps protect birds from parasites. Calcium is a vital component of the diet and is required to ensure strong, healthy bones. Obesity is also a problem in captive lovebirds; the high fat content of seeds in the diet means that the birds, which will not be as active as they would be in the wild, are susceptible to arthritis and fatty livers.

Other common conditions include conjunctivitis, pneumonia, diarrhoea and constipation. Symptoms are wide and varied including feather loss, birds self-harming or self-plucking, difficulty breathing, regurgitating food, vomiting, discharge from the beak, nostrils or eyes and behavioural signs and body posture, including exhibiting a hunched posture or have drooped wings. Sometimes, sick birds will attempt to hide at the bottom of the cage. 

Lovebirds, like all members of the parrot family, can spread psittacosis, caused by the bacterium Chlamydia psittaci. Psittacosis can be passed to humans who are in close contact with infected birds and can cause severe illness with symptoms including fever, headache, chills, muscle pains, cough, breathing difficulties or pneumonia. If not promptly treated with antibiotics it can be fatal in humans, particularly the elderly and the immune-compromised.

Parrots do not belong in cages. They should be flying free in tropical and sub-tropical habitats around the globe where they provide colourful spectacles for wildlife lovers. Over 16 million parrots are traded every year around the world, including lovebirds, cockatiels, budgerigars, cockatoos and African grey parrots. Of the 390 or so species over a third are threatened with extinction, largely due to collection for the ‘exotic pet’ trade. Remember that exotic pets are wild animals, even if they are bred in captivity – parrots are no different. Not only is captivity cruel as it compromises the birds’ welfare and robs them of their right to express natural behaviours which have evolved over thousands of years, but keeping parrots (and other wild species) in captivity can impact on public health too. 

So, this Valentine’s Day, if you have a special someone - say it with flowers and a lovely vegan meal, don’t say it with lovebirds!

Did you know?

Freedom for Animals campaigns for an end to the keeping of wild animals as pets. We work with other like-minded organisations to lobby national and local governments for an end to the breeding, keeping, sale or supply of wild animals in the pet trade, including captive-bred animals as they are still essentially wild animals. We also investigate illegal behaviour within the exotic pet trade and bring it to the attention of local authorities. We have recently been working with our friends at the Animal Protection Agency and World Animal Protection to investigate illegal sales of reptiles at reptile markets in the UK, and working with the Better Deal for Animals Coalition which includes over 60 animal protection organisations in the UK, to call on the government to support the Kept Animals Bill, which as well as banning the export of live ‘farmed’ animals, and ending cruel puppy farming, would also prohibit the keeping of primates (such as marmosets) as pets.

Become a Freedom Champion today and help us in our fight to end the abuse and exploitation of captive wild animals!

- 13th February 2023