Increasingly rare scarlet macaws in flight and on a high perch in the wild in Belize.

PBS special calls attention to the plight of unwanted parrots

On a trip to Belize in 2010, one of our goals was to see a scarlet macaw, a dynamic, large bird that has become increasingly rare as poachers invade their nests and steal the young for the illegal pet trade. We were fortunate to see several of these spectacularly plumed birds as they flew above a mountainous forest canopy, but our joy was tinged with sadness by the knowledge that these incredible creatures might someday become extinct.

The new TV program "Parrot Confidential," a sobering look at the predicament of the thousands of unwanted and abandoned "pet" parrots in the United States, brings the plight of the macaw and other exotic birds into sharp focus.

The hourlong documentary, the latest installment in the long-running series "Nature," airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Channel 13. It should be required viewing for anyone toying with the notion of bringing one of these incredibly intelligent and complicated birds into their homes — especially if they are thinking of buying one from a pet shop.

The main thrust of the program is thus: "It is the predicament of the parrot: As numbers dwindle in the wild, the number of rescued birds in captivity continues to increase."

Nearly a third of parrots in the wild, including the scarlet macaw, are endangered, yet many of the millions of wild parrots that have become household pets are discarded. These birds may seem the perfect companion at first, but they can be unruly when they reach adolescence or the household dynamic changes. What's more, as the show points out, a species of parrot that talks and doesn't squawk or bite "hasn't been discovered yet."

And since they can live up to 90 years, they will in all likelihood be separated from the human they bonded with at some point in their life.

Part of the parrots' appeal, as the show recounts, dates from the 1970s, when the TV cop show "Baretta" featured a charismatic cockatoo named Fred as Robert Blake's sidekick. The show was so popular that the demand for parrots took off.

Much of "Parrot Confidential" deals with parrot rescuers who have established shelters and sanctuaries to care for hundreds upon hundreds of unwanted birds — including an umbrella cockatoo named Lou that was found in an abandoned house and a nicotine-addicted African gray named Fagan, whose chain-smoking owner had died.

The good news is that importing exotic birds to America has been illegal since 1992. By one estimate, 70 percent of the wild parrots in the international trade die before they reach market. The bad news is that there are still more parrots in America than people willing or able to care for them properly. I know of many caring parrot owners. Too bad not everyone who brings a parrot into their home is as devoted.

Like so much of "Nature," the documentary provides lots of fascinating information about parrots, including how they learn to speak (much like humans do). Some learn regional parrot dialects and are even bilingual. Encouragingly, efforts are under way in Costa Rica to take the hatchlings of mated domestic scarlet macaws, raise them and release them into the wild.

Seeing a young macaw named Geoffrey as it flies the coop and joins its wild cousins is the high point of the show.

The most telling moment in "Parrot Confidential" comes when a rescuer is asked what's the right size for a macaw cage. His reply: "It's 35 square miles ... it's the sky."

After the broadcast, "Parrot Confidential" can be streamed at