The Heartbreaking World of Captive Exotic Birds

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Exotic birds: Sugar

All photos: Oliver Regueiro

In his evocative "Earthbound" series, photographer Oliver Regueiro pulls back the curtain on what it means to own an exotic bird — warts and all. This male citron cockatoo named Scruffy Joe was surrendered to a sanctuary after his former owner realized the bird needed more time and attention than he could manage.

Sadly, this is an all too common fate for exotic birds. While they might seem like interesting pets, the truth is that when people decide to buy cockatoos and macaws from pet stores or breeders, they often don't consider all the effort required to create a stable, enriched environment for such complex animals.

Like primates, parrots have large brains and complex social lives, and nurturing those qualities in a typical human household can be difficult. In the wild, these animals can live to around 70 to 80 years and they often spend the vast majority of their adult life bonded to a lifelong mate — much like Chloe and Merlot (below), a pair of blue-and-yellow macaws who never leave each other's side.

Exotic birds: Chloe and Merlot

Although we think of these animals as domestic pets, many bird rescuers and enthusiasts are quick to point out that these are, without a doubt, wild animals. In fact, many of these birds were poached straight from the wilds of South America, Africa and Asia.

"Most of the bird species photographed in this series are now endangered in the wild," Regueiro writes. "Several are highly or critically endangered, [and] others are threatened with extinction mainly due to deforestation, hunting and the illegal pet trade."

Even if some parrots were born in captivity and hand-reared by humans, they are only a handful of generations removed from their wild cousins, and as such, they still exhibit wild-like behaviors. This includes territorial behavior, intense bonding needs, seasonal aggression and loud vocalizations. These characteristics are not always welcome in a bustling human household, which is why so many of these birds are surrendered or, in the worst cases, abandoned.

In the PBS documentary "Parrot Confidential," viewers are given a glimpse into this troubling reality:

The feathery critters featured in Regueiro's photo project — many of which are recovering from decades of neglect and abuse — are all residents of specialized exotic bird sanctuaries, like the Mollywood Avian Sanctuary and Zazu's House Parrot Sanctuary.

Exotic birds: Chicki

In the photo above, we see Chicky, a female Moluccan cockatoo, spreading her sparsely feathered wings to reveal her extensively plucked body. Parrots often begin plucking their plumage in response to boredom or stress, but the behavior can also be an indicator that the bird is dealing with underlying an medical condition or is suffering from poor environmental conditions.

In the case of Chicky, Regueiro explains that after her arrival at the sanctuary in 2009, a thorough veterinarian exam revealed that she had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a heart murmur and a small piece of metal lodged in her gizzard. She recovered remarkably well in the years since those problems were resolved. (However, Regueiro is sad to share that Chicky passed away only four days after this photo was taken.)

Regueiro hopes these striking (and at times, shocking) portraits of birds like Chicky will shine a light on the plight of these beautiful creatures.

Continue below to read some of the stories behind these magnificent animals, and visit the Regueiro's website to see the whole collection and buy prints to help support the project.

Exotic birds: Buddha

Buddha is a 21-year-old Moluccan cockatoo who must wear a special collar to prevent her from plucking and self-mutilating. Although the collar gets taken off regularly for preening, it cannot stay off for long or she'll start picking at herself. As Regueiro explains on his website:

"Her first owners loved [Buddha] dearly but clearly didn't know about the needs of a cockatoo. They raised her to be a surrogate child. She wasn't caged. She was 'worn.' They raised her on their shoulders, shared meals with her, she slept on their head board at night. At some point, that family fell on hard times. We were told that Buddha had to be put in a cage so that they could go out looking for work, and Buddha went a little crazy at that time. She didn't understand cage bars or seeds or pellets. She didn't understand any of cage life. So, she began screaming. Eventually that got her nowhere so she turned to obsessive feather preening. This became plucking and the plucking led to mutilation."

Exotic birds: Bubba

For many years, Bubba, a 35-year-old male African gray parrot, was immersed in a flock environment with other birds. Sadly, he and his flockmates were eventually split up. The abrupt separation led Bubba to start plucking himself furiously, so he was sent to a sanctuary.

Exotic birds: Simba

In addition to being a plucker, this 36-year-old Moluccan cockatoo named Simba is also a "major mutilator." According to Regueiro, "[Simba] had a large crater like wound in her chest, right across her keel bone. Upon examination by the local veterinarian, who also took X-rays, it was discovered that her keel bone had at one time been shattered beyond repair. And judging from the bone shards and calcification, [she also] never had any medical care."

Today, her caretakers say that she is probably as healthy and happy as she will ever be, and she will likely spend the rest of her life wearing special body armor to protect her chest from further harm.

Exotic birds: Mosley

Not all the birds you see in sanctuaries are in dire straits. Mosley, a healthy 12-year-old hyacinth macaw, is sometimes boarded at a sanctuary to give his owner a break every now and then. Caring for exotic birds can be quite a handful (and an earful), so it's important to know your limits and get help if you need it.

Exotic birds: Bella Rose

Bella Rose, a 16-year-old Goffin cockatoo, was first brought to a sanctuary by an owner who had purchased her as a chick but was unable to keep her. She was later adopted out of the sanctuary, but she inexplicably began over-plucking in her new home and was returned out of concern for her well-being.

Exotic birds: Grandpa

At 72 years of age, Grandpa is the oldest bird photographed for Regueiro's series. He was brought to the sanctuary at the age of 60, after spending 20 years in a wildlife park, 20 years in a sea life park and 20 years in various in-home settings.

Exotic birds: Malcolm

Malcolm is a 25-year-old red-vented cockatoo who was brought to a sanctuary after his owner passed away. The state of his wings are pretty alarming — one wing is completely frozen, while the other wing was broken at some point but later healed without "obvious medical intervention."

Exotic birds: Einstein

Einstein is a 40-year-old yellow crown amazon who loves to hang upside down and make people laugh. He was brought to the sanctuary after his owner died and is doing quite well in his new home!

Exotic birds: Baby

Although she slightly resembles a fluffy duckling in this photo, Baby is a 22-year-old Goffin cockatoo who loves to dance. She was brought to a sanctuary after her owners divorced — and neither of them wanted to keep her.