USDA finalizes standards to include birds under Animal Welfare Act

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has established welfare standards for certain birds, which were previously excluded under the Animal Welfare Act.

APHIS published a Federal Register notice on Feb. 21 to provide for the humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of birds—excluding birds bred in captivity for use in research, teaching, testing, and experimentation—that are handled by breeders, dealers, exhibitors, and transporters. The rule was effective March 23.

Two cockateils
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed welfare standards for birds to ensure physical and behavioral health under the Animal Welfare Act.

In 2002, Congress amended the definition of “animal” in the AWA so that the only birds excluded from that definition were those “bred for use in research.” The amendment placed all other birds handled by breeders, dealers, exhibitors, and transporters under the protection of the AWA.

In a 2020 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the USDA to publish a proposal in the Federal Register to establish regulatory standards for birds no later than Feb. 22, 2022, and to publish a final rule no later than one year after publication of the proposal.

The USDA received more than 19,000 comments in response to the proposed rule, which was published on February 21. According to a USDA spokesperson, this input was used to inform many important parameters of the final rule.

“There were a variety of factors that affected the timeline [to publication], including agency priorities, lawsuits, the regulatory process, and ensuring we gave all interested parties a chance to provide input,” the USDA spokesperson said. “We believe that the time spent on this rule will result in a fair and clear set of regulations and standards that promote welfare across the wide range of bird species.”

USDA reports the standards were developed on the basis of scientific understanding of the biology and behavior of birds across all species and consideration of current practices and operations of the various avian industries.

Their spokesperson explained that to obtain a thorough knowledge of avian welfare, the department sought input from experts in ornithology and avian medicine, including veterinarians with special training and expertise with birds.

In the final regulations, the USDA indicates that it seeks to guarantee that each bird subject to the AWA is raised and maintained in conditions that ensure good health and well-being and that meet the birds’ physical and behavioral needs.

Substantive revisions that the department made in response to comments are as follows:

  • Excluding falconry under the definition of “animal” in the regulations.
  • Revising the proposed definition of “bred for use in research” to mean “an animal that is bred in captivity and used for research, teaching, testing, or experimentation purposes” to clarify that the definition pertains to actual use of birds in research rather than stated intended use at the time of breeding.
  • Establishing a minimum threshold exemption for annual sales of 200 or fewer pet birds, each weighing 250 grams or less, and annual sales of eight or fewer birds, each weighing over 250 grams annually.
  • Establishing a minimum threshold exemption for exhibition of four or fewer raptors.

A version of this article appears in the June 2023 print issue of JAVMA.