'There I was, swinging on my perch, and this man just grabbed me'

Apile of feathers on the floor. That was all that was left of Anne Hunt's favourite parrots. The thieves stole a green macaw (pounds 1,500) and a blue and gold macaw (pounds 1,000). "The parrots must have put up a real struggle judging by the mess in the shop," says Ms Hunt, who owns a pet shop in Guildford. "I've still got 40 other macaws, African greys and cockatoos, but I still think of those two," she says. "I knew them, you see - their flaws, their feathers, their characters ... I keep the rest of my parrots in an aviary built like a fortress now. If I go out in the evening, I get a parrot sitter in."

Yesterday Peter Price, an aviary owner in Shipley, Shropshire, told Stafford Crown Court how he too found his aviary broken into and a pounds 3,000 hoard of Australian parrots stolen. He spotted his parrots at a bird fair just hours after the discovery and used DNA tests to prove ownership. He was one of the lucky ones.

Britain's 60,000 parrot-owners are desperately worried about these parrot heists. In the past year, the number of parrots stolen from people's homes has increased fourfold - from 40 to 168 in the first six months of the year, according to the National Council of Aviculture, the industry's regulatory body which keeps a register of stolen parrots. Most are sold at the 50 or so auctions held in village halls every week up and down the country.

But John Catchpole, editor of Just Parrots, a magazine with a circulation of 20,000, says:"Many of the parrots sold at auctions are either stolen, illegally imported or diseased."

Ten years ago, he says, bird auctions were "virtually unheard of". But the increase in demand for parrots (now recognised as playful, loyal and intelligent companions) has led to a sudden spurt in the black market. To the thief, auctions can be a means of earning a fast buck (they are rarely asked where the parrots come from, nor do they have to give their address or telephone number).

At Snaresbrook Crown Court last month, a man was accused of stealing six parrots worth pounds 4,850 from zoological researcher John Fitzgibbons (one of the parrots has since died and - to the delight of the public gallery - was produced frozen in court). In Liverpool, a 43-year-old man was lured into a block of flats and robbed of his macaw; in Leicester, Binny, a 15-year-old English and Gujurati-speaking parrot was stolen from a house; in Northwich, Arnie, the pounds 700 African grey parrot, who could whistle the theme tune to the Archers, was nabbed at a pet shop; and in Manchester, Silver, a blue-fronted amazon with one eye and one claw was grabbed from a house. These incidents happened in the last year.

Bird parks are particularly worried about the thefts. According to the theft register, Battersea Park's Children's Zoo in South London had a pair of keas (worth pounds 4,000) stolen in January; Child Beale Wildlife Park, near Reading, lost two pairs of parrots worth pounds 7,000 in the same month; West Hill Farm in Yorkshire had 10 parrots stolen in February, and the MJS garden centre in Twyford, Berkshire, had two separate batches taken in April.

Most bird parks have now installed elaborate security systems. According to Graham Wellstead, administrator at the National Council for Aviculture, private breeders are most at risk. "I can think of three parrot collections worth around pounds 10,000 which have been stolen this year," he says. "Most would have been sold in the car parks at auctions. Or they are advertised in the free newspapers. These parrots are put into cardboard boxes, often so small that the parrot cannot stretch his wings. Or else they are not fed properly."

Last month, a half-dead African grey parrot (usually worth pounds 600 plus) surfaced at an auction and was sold for pounds 72 to a woman who couldn't get close enough to the bird to inspect it. When she got home, she found that its legs were broken and its claws oozing pus. A dislocated leg had been set at a 75-degree angle, the bird was emaciated and there were wounds on its chest. The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, decided to put the bird down.

The thieves usually steal to demand - especially when it comes to parrots worth pounds 7,000 or more. Or they visit an aviary with a video camera, filming the most exotic birds, producing a video of their own "private collection" and distribute it to potential buyers. Some owners know who the thieves are. Some even know where their parrots have been taken - exotic breeds can be so rare that word soon flies around. But proving ownership can be difficult: thieves are adept at cutting off distinguishing features such as tattooed claws.

Microchips, the size of a grain of rice, inserted into the muscular area of the bird are the most reliable way of identifying a stolen parrot. DNA tests can also be used as a means of proving identity - as Peter Price's case shows - as long as the owner has taken a blood sample. But, says Mr Catchpole, until harsh penalties are introduced the problem will not ease: "Most of the time they are just let off with a fine or the option of community work."

Meanwhile the only option is a fortress like the one in Ms Hunt's back garden. "My parrots are kept behind a 16ft wall with iron gates," she says. As she talks, you hear the parrots: "Aren't you going to get up today?" says one. "Shut the door!" parrots another.

The National Council for Aviculture would like to speak to anyone who has had a parrot stolen. 01483 776801

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