On a recent weeknight in Punta Gorda, Florida, a bird thief cut the power at a strip mall. It was roughly 2 a.m., a time when cockatoos and cockatiels are asleep; and also when, with its security cameras knocked offline, one might slip inside the coral-stucco storefront of the Parrot Outreach Society, a local rescue-and-adoption group with close to 100 animals on-site. “They knew how to grab ’em, that’s for sure,” says Susan Jennings, the society’s executive director and a former police officer. “They knew what they wanted, and they came and took it.”
As Jennings tells it, the thief, or thieves, walked right past the macaws—the Society’s highest-valued birds—to get to the smaller conures and Amazons. By 3 o’clock, they’d snagged Emerald and Jade, who shared a cage, and also Paco, Sammy, Maxine, Paco II, and Whiteboy. They birdnapped Kori, who can whinny like a horse; and Nakita, who can say “Oh my God” and “I’m sorry”; and also Birdie Bird, who is elderly. In all, 28 birds were taken that night, Jennings told me, including two with missing appendages, one with balance problems, and another being watched for prolapse. “There’s no rhyme or reason that we can figure out,” she said. “We don’t get it.”
Whatever the motive, Jennings told me, incidents like these are not unusual. Just last year, she said, someone smashed the front window of a pet store in Fort Myers and made off with all the birds; she’s also heard that an Orlando store got hit. Parrot pirates have long been a threat to bird sellers and collectors—but Jennings thinks crime is on the rise in the community. Thefts are multiplying. They’re getting more audacious. And aviculturists are taking notice.
As it happens, I’ve been tracking this phenomenon for years. Not as a journalist, exactly; more like a hobbyist, a birder counting species of bird-related larceny. My Google Alert for stolen parrot, which I set up in the early 2010s, has delivered a long and steady run of colorful reports: small-time parrot robberies and major parrot heists; planned-out parrot capers and cage-smash parrot grabs; parrot thefts of passion, parrot thefts of vengeance, and parrot thefts of odd compulsion. After a decade’s worth of monitoring this feed, I can confirm that parrot-napping is indeed a common crime throughout the English-speaking world. In fact, it’s a weirdly common crime—and also, commonly, a weird one.
Who would ever steal a parrot, and why, and how, and … what? Parrots comprise some 350 different species, and according to my notes, parrot thieves are equally diverse. If one bird-napping crew shows up, incognito, in dark clothes and a black sedan, another will pretend to be your neighbors—and make their getaway in a horse-drawn carriage. If men with guns can steal a parrot from your patio, a pregnant woman with a stroller might steal one from your boat. And when someone takes away your bird, they might decide to leave a smaller one behind. “It’s as if they’ve got fed up with the parakeet and swapped it for my African Grey parrot,” that particular victim told reporters at the time. “It’s bonkers.”
The Punta Gorda heist falls in the clade of bigger scores, like the loss of 50 parrots from a macaw sanctuary in Carnation, Washington, or the robbery of $150,000 worth of parrots from a backyard in Fort Myers. These birds are almost certainly stolen in order to be sold: Some varieties of parrots, raised carefully and socialized, are worth thousands of dollars. If a stolen parrot could fetch just a fraction of that market price, it might still return enough to make the crime worthwhile. Especially these days, says Lynda Giuliani, the South Florida coordinator for the American Federation of Aviculture. She bought a golden conure not that long ago for $3,500; today, the same bird would go for $4,500. Parrot theft “is happening more,” she told me, because “the prices are going up.”
As usual, COVID is a factor. Giuliani put me in touch with Tony Silva, a parrot breeder based in Homestead, Florida, who has written many books on birds and bird husbandry, and gives lectures all around the world. She said that he’s also been targeted by parrot thieves. When I reached out to Silva, he was in Dubai, in meetings for his day job at a fuel-logistics company, and could only respond by text and email. “Bird thefts have been occurring forever,” he said, “but during the PANDEMIC the number of thefts spiked.” As he sees it, the loneliness and boredom of 2020 caused a surge of interest in birds and aviculture, which in turn produced a booming market and inspired crime. Breeders have responded by adding cameras and guard dogs but thefts are rampant nonetheless. “Rescues felt they were safe,” Silva wrote. “In reality anyone that owns a pet bird is not safe.” (Giuliani, who keeps seven parrots at her home, told me that she has cameras and a German shepherd for protection. She also wouldn’t tell me where she lives; giving out that information would be like painting targets on her parrots’ beaks!)
The pandemic increased demand for many kinds of pets. Sandy Moore, the president of Segrest Inc., a live-animal wholesale business based in Florida, told me that tropical-fish sales have been up by 20 to 25 percent worldwide on account of the “COVID effect.” To get a sense of COVID-era parrot prices, I checked two online marketplaces, BirdBreeders.com and Birds Now. Every species that I looked at had increased in value by a few hundred percent in recent years. Baby African greys were selling for $1,000 to $1,500 in 2015; now they’re listed for $6,000. Baby scarlet macaws have also tripled or quadrupled in price, and so have baby rose-breasted cockatoos. Meanwhile, the internet is littered with websites claiming to sell the eggs of threatened species, such as the hyacinth macaw, at super-discounted prices. “Established since 2009, we are Steadily a very renowned and proven Mega Bird Store,” one such site explains. For more information, customers are invited to call +1 (111) 111-1111.
My parrot-market research raised some questions, though. It seemed like parrot prices were already going up, quite dramatically, during the 2010s, before the pandemic was in play. Also, Silva insisted that the recent parrot boom was finished, even if the criminals are “unaware of this.” (“They will believe an African grey will fetch $6k,” he texted, “when the real price is half of that.”) But when the bubble burst, wouldn’t the underworld have shifted to easier, more lucrative misdeeds? A parrot, after all, represents a highly inconvenient, sometimes painful stolen good. (From my bird-thief-watching life list: the one in Taiwan who became so overwhelmed by raucous squawking that he turned himself in.)
If I’ve learned anything from years of bird-theft studies, it’s that a parrot-napper’s motivation is opaque. Certainly pet-store pricing isn’t always top of mind: Some parrot burglars seem to burgle parrots as an afterthought, or lagniappe. You’re already snatching someone’s cash and their cologne; why not take their cockatiels? Others simply seize the chance to stuff a bird into their pocket. But most I’ve come across behave as though they’re on a mission. They’ll identify an easy target—a 92-year-old parrot on a porch, let’s say—and grab it, cage and all, before escaping in a pickup truck or an Uber. Are these people only out to make a buck? Or could they be acting on a more essential need? Perhaps the bird’s magnificence felt like an affront. Maybe it angered them with foul language. Or else a crook might hope a stolen bird will be his friend, perching on his shoulder as he takes part in further crime.
Even in this context, the Punta Gorda robbery was an enigma. The thieves strolled by the macaws to reach the conures, Jennings, the director of the rescue, told me. Then they had to go all the way to the back of the room to get the Amazon, and all the way into a different room to get the cockatoos. Why’d they take these 28 birds, and not the 68 others? “It wasn’t random; I’m sure of it,” Jennings said. But it also made no sense.
Local police are investigating the Punta Gorda incident, but as far as I can tell, these crimes are rarely solved. As a legal matter, parrot thefts are minor property crimes. For a parrot’s owner—as for the bird itself—they’re acts of intimate violence. The victim may end up with broken bones, discarded at a bus stop; or even hurled in desperation at a cop. After one British parrot breeder had her door kicked in and her reggae-loving parrot, Joe Joe, taken, she told reporters, “It feels to me that my child has been kidnapped.” Just like a kidnapper, the burglar reportedly left behind a ransom note collaged from cut-out letters: Don’t go to the police, it warned, or “biRd DIEs a SLow AGOniSiNG DEATh!!”
When a thief is caught, as a rule he’ll get far less attention than the bird he’s napped. I recall the case from 2013 of a blue-fronted Amazon named Schooner, carried off one night in Nova Scotia for reasons that would never be reported. Acting on a tip, the police recovered him from a home in Bridgewater; and a suspect was released on $200 bail, on condition that he remained at least 10 meters away from any pet stores. The next day, CBC News broadcast an interview with … not the criminal, but Schooner. Here’s the transcript from my notes:
REPORTER: What happened in Bridgewater?
REPORTER: Hello. Hello.
REPORTER: How are you? Hello, pretty bird. Hello. Hello.
SCHOONER: (Chews microphone.)
That exchange now seemed an ugly mirror of my own reporting on the trend. Hello, why is this happening? Hello? Hello! Hello. Hello. Then, suddenly one evening, I found my most important expert witness—or rather, she found me. A message showed up on my cellphone from a number that I didn’t recognize. “Hi Dan,” the voicemail auto-transcript read. “This is Dr. Constant Fluttering from Texas A&M University.” She said she’d heard that I was making inquiries into parrot theft. She thought that she could help.
Her (actual) name was Constance Woodman, and she would be the one to guide me through the story’s deeper thickets. A working parrot breeder, conservationist, and agricultural economist, Woodman spoke with me by cellphone from the field. She agreed with Silva that fencing a stolen parrot—especially one advanced in age or poorly socialized—would return very little money in practice. But the crime itself, she said, can be surprisingly easy to carry out, especially in Florida and California, where people have their aviaries outside. Guard dogs help, but they also introduce what Woodman called an “inherent problem,” i.e., “a dog is a predator, and your bird is tasty.”
The issue is, she said, that the rise in prices for large parrots has “vastly outpaced” the rise in price of other pets, for reasons that date back 30 years. The passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992 ended the large-scale importation of wild parrots, which left domestic breeders as the only major source. Because large parrots have a long generation time, breeders plan years ahead to make their business work. When prices spike, some end up selling off birds that could be bred, which in turn depresses their supply of birds in future years, driving prices even higher. As a result of these continuing pressures, Woodman said, certain species could end up disappearing altogether from the U.S. captive population. In the meantime, their value soars, attracting “educated thieves who understand the market.”
I thought back to Tony Silva, the well-known parrot expert who was texting from Dubai. He’d had his own small part to play in the history of the parrot-import ban. In January 1992, Silva’s home was searched by federal agents, in the culmination of a high-profile, three-year investigation of U.S. parrot smugglers. Two years later, based on evidence assembled in that raid and otherwise, Silva was among those indicted for conspiring to sneak more than 100 endangered hyacinth macaws into the country, stuffed into false-bottomed suitcases and stowed in PVC pipes. In 1996, Silva pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison. He later tried to withdraw his plea, arguing that the government had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence, and that he’d had inadequate counsel. He also said he’d only pretended to be part of the conspiracy to prevent his birds from being abandoned.
In his emails to me, Silva had complained about the authorities’ lack of interest in the recent spate of parrot heists. “Sadly police and courts simply laugh when they hear about bird thefts,” he told me. “They simply do not prosecute. They do not realize that sometimes these bird thefts can turn violent.” I wrote back to ask about his own experiences with a criminal-justice system that seemed very interested in parrot crime. Why would illegal parrot importation be taken so much more seriously than parrot theft? And how did Silva’s experience as a long-ago convicted parrot smuggler inform his views on the current wave of parrot crimes? He did not reply.
He must know, more than anyone, that bird enthusiasts come in many forms: breeders, curators, collectors, smugglers, and thieves. It’s a big cage, and Silva has seen every part of it: He’s a “self-taught prodigy on parrots,” as the science program Nova once described Silva, who started writing articles and books on birds while still a teenager; he’s a parrot expert who campaigned against the evils of illegal trafficking before he was imprisoned for the same; he’s a parrot educator who teaches people about how to keep their parrots healthy and engaged; and he’s an aviculturist who worries over violent parrot crime.
Most of all, he’s a parrot lover, and he understands a parrot lover’s needs. Silva is said to have objected to how he was portrayed by Nova, but he did tell the program that collecting birds is “like when you’re a baby and you first try a candy. You need more … And then once you become a full-fledged breeder, then you don’t care if they’re wild-caught, or if they’re aviary-bred, or if they’re parent-reared or hand-reared. At that point it doesn’t matter. You just have to have more.”