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Captive Bird Breeding

Can Breeding Birds in Captivity Help Wild Birds?


Harpy Eagle

Captive breeding programs can help preserve rare bird species.

Perry Quan

Breeding birds may seem uninteresting to birders because captive birds do not count on a life list, but captive bird breeding can actually be very beneficial to wild birds. Understanding the importance of captive bird programs can help birders support programs to sustain wild populations even while they enjoy birds in captivity.

About Captive Breeding

While some organizations maintain breeding programs independently, it is far more common for captive bird breeding to be a part of zoos, aviaries, aquariums, botanical gardens or other facilities that house bird populations.

Mature birds can be captured and brought into captivity to breed, or wild eggs can be taken into captivity to be hatched and raised. Once a program has begun, however, it is far more common for the already captive birds to be bred and their resulting offspring to be either used for further breeding or released back into the wild. For many captive bird breeding programs, the mature birds may themselves be unreleasable, either from debilitating injuries or because they have already imprinted on humans and would not behave appropriately in the wild, which would make them more vulnerable to predators.

When birds are raised in captivity, they are treated with great care so their natural instincts are not impaired. Minimal human contact is essential so the birds do not inadvertently imprint and associate humans with care and food, or else the birds will be unable to forage effectively in the wild.

Captive-bred birds can be returned to the wild in two ways. If they are reintroduced to the wild, that means the birds have been returned to a suitable habitat in their traditional range, either where the bird species previous existed or where it still exists but populations are low and captive birds can help bolster the wild numbers. If the birds are simply introduced to the wild, that means they are being released in a suitable habitat but not in their traditional range. This may be because there is no appropriate habitat in their traditional range or because their chances of survival are greater in a new range.

Whether captive-bred birds are reintroduced to their ancestral range or introduced to a new region, they can help restore wild populations and preserve the diversity of an area's avifauna. More than 100 bird species have been successfully bred in captivity, and the more well-known success stories of birds bred in captivity helping restore wild populations include:

How Captive Breeding Helps Wild Birds

While the most obvious way captive bird breeding helps wild birds is releasing the captive-bred birds into the wild, there are other ways that breeding birds in captivity can help preserve wild birds.

  • Captive-bred birds account for the majority of birds in zoos, which help introduce new bird species to visitors and educate them about the necessity for conservation.

  • Falconry birds are bred in captivity so they can imprint on their handlers and be trained to hunt, which is a more responsible alternative than the illegal poaching of raptor eggs or chicks.

  • Birds meant to be pets are bred in captivity, which reduces the demand for illegally imported finches, doves and other species for the pet trade.

  • Game preserves captive-breed waterfowl and game birds for hunting seasons, so sport hunters do not strongly impact wild populations of target birds.

The research that goes in to captive breeding programs and the opportunity to observe many threatened and endangered species and what they need for successfully producing and raising chicks can also help ornithologists better understand the needs of wild birds and devise more effective conservation measures to protect all wild species.

Drawbacks of Captive Bird Breeding

While captive bird breeding does have benefits, these programs are not without their critics, even among conservationists. The most popular arguments against captive breeding include:

  • High costs to focus on individual birds when the money may be better spent on large scale bird conservation projects, such as habitat preservation that can help many species at once.

  • The genetic diversity of some species in captive breeding may already be too low to create sufficient viable offspring so the species can return to the wild successfully.

  • Captive breeding programs focus attention on only a few notable species but neglect education for the necessity to work on preservation of all bird species.

While there are drawbacks to captive bird breeding programs, the education these programs provide and the successes they see with returning birds to the wild make them an essential part of many bird conservation initiatives. With care, captive-bred birds can thrive in the wild, helping preserve species that might otherwise disappear.

Photo – Captive Harpy Eagle © Perry Quan

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