Ban protecting wildlife means exotic parrots are now the theft of choice

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The Independent Online

Their iridescent plumage and uncanny ability to mimic human speech has made them objects of desire for centuries. But parrots and other exotic birds in Britain are the target of thieves eager to exploit the massive demand from collectors caused by an import ban after the avian flu outbreak in Asia.

Their iridescent plumage and uncanny ability to mimic human speech has made them objects of desire for centuries. But parrots and other exotic birds in Britain are the target of thieves eager to exploit the massive demand from collectors caused by an import ban after the avian flu outbreak in Asia.

A report for the insurance industry has noted a surge in thefts and attempted thefts after ban by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) last year. Barrie Wells, managing director of Premier Line, said the number of claims for stolen birds has grown rapidly.

"In 2003, more than 100,000 ornamental birds were brought into Europe. That makes for 100,000 fewer birds available this year in an already high-demand market, so values are rising. In one case, burglars broke down an internal wall at a pet shop to get at an African grey parrot worth £750. Another parrot was stolen from a local authority-owned aviary. It was valued at £1,000."

Some 400 parrots were stolen in the UK last year, the National Theft Register (NTR), which monitors and investigates wildlife crime, shows. African grey parrots can cost up to £800, cockatoos £3,000 and rare macaws, such as the scarlet - or green-winged varieties £10,000. And 2,000 canaries and finches are stolen every year. But these figures could rise with the ban.

John Hayward, who runs the NTR, said: "There appears to be an increasing demand for parrots and exotic pets, and whenever there are added restrictions, particularly about taking animals from the wild, animals in captivity become even more vulnerable to theft.

"Parrots were put on the protected species register in the 1970s, which means they cannot be taken from the wild. They can be sold legally if they have been bred in captivity, so the knock-on effect of the protective measures mean the prices of parrots has gone up."

Mr Hayward says there are three types of parrot thief. First, the romantic, casual thief who has "fallen in love with the bird and wants to keep it for themselves". And there is the amateur local thief. "They will just want ready cash and risk having their fingers bitten off to steal a bird," he says. "Then there are the professional parrot thieves, stealing to order for specialist collectors. They can clean out aviaries in one hit. They steal them for breeding because every clutch of eggs is a lot of money."

Parrots and other valuable animals are often kept in low-security environments designed to keep birds in, rather than keep people out. A parrot beak can crunch through a brazil nut, and a finger, and even with their head in a bag, all birds will resist captors.

"We are not worried about how much the birds cost," Mr Hayward says. "We worry about their welfare. Many do not survive the shock and trauma of being smothered and stolen. They are very sensitive, intelligent creatures,"

Several years ago, there was a spate of tortoise thefts after they were put on the protected species list. Tortoise eggs are now worth up to £200 each. Koi carp are being stolen from ponds in increasing numbers; they can sell for more than £2,000 apiece. A small squirrel monkey worth £1,000 was stolen from a zoo in the South-west but an effort by police and the local community resulted in its return.But the birds often make a break for freedom. Flocks of rose-ringed parakeets adorn the trees of Richmond Park and Kew Gardens in London, originating from a handful of escapees in the 1960s. Estimates put Britain's wild parakeet population at 6,000 and rising, and there are fears they could become pests. The NRT handled 300 cases of lost or escaped parrots last year, although most are found. "Pet parrots are tame," Mr Hayward said. "A few days after they escape, they'll come down and sit on the shoulders of passers-by."

WHO'S WORTH A PRETTY PACKET, THEN?

Scarlet macaw: Native to the rainforest of Central and South America, it grows to an awesome 3ft and boasts brilliant red, yellow and blue plumage. Endangered because of poaching, it is monogamous and enjoys a bath.

Greenwinged macaw: This gentle giant is a tolerant and amicable - if noisy - pet. Mainly dark red, it grows to more than 3ft but has poor mimicking skills.

Rose-ringed parakeet: The quiet man of the parrot world has many colour variations. Males are extremely nervous of their female companions.

African grey: Famed for its intelligence and talkative nature, it grows to about a foot long and needs attention and affection to stop it becoming bored.