'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

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
people
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Sport
football
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?