Sunday, October 30, 2005

Feathered family

Gently whispering and calling the colorful birds by name, John Lege removed Poppy, Nicky, Lee Lee and Alvie from their cages. They quickly climbed onto an arm, or perched upon a shoulder, emitting an occasional squawk.

The birds, two macaws, one umbrella cockatiel and one African gray parrot, ranged in age from 4 to 32 years. Lege said there are more than 300 living species in the parrot family.
Lege has a thing about birds.

"I have had a passion for birds ever since I was a young boy," he said. "At 4 years old I had a little parakeet."

More than 20 years ago, he started a rescue operation for abused and neglected parrots, eventually building an addition onto his North Apollo, Armstrong County, home. His own little aviary, he said, is now home to more than 70 parrots.

Lege believes parrots are the worst pet impulse buy.

"Someone goes into the pet store, sees this beautiful creature, the bird comes over to the side of the cage and says, 'Hello.' People think, 'I have to have it. It talked to me,'" Lege said.
But people taken with their bright colors and singing may not be aware of the amount of care and time the birds require.

"They can be a lifetime companion," he said, noting some of the birds can live to be 80 or older. "And they are a lifetime commitment."

Lege, who regularly appears with his birds at schools, festivals, before church groups and for birthday parties, recently entertained the crowds at September's Murrysville Community Day.
Dubbed "That Guy With the Birds" by people in his community, Lege, 52, emphasizes education as much as entertainment to his audiences.

Those who attend the programs learn about the birds' habitat, adaptation and communication skills.

Lege has volunteered with the National Aviary in Pittsburgh and is a member of the national volunteer organization Parrot Education & Adoption Center.

Amy Padolf, curator of education at the National Aviary, said volunteers such as Lege are always needed. And they do not necessarily need to know a great deal about birds.
"It's all about interest and passion," she said. "They do everything from care and feeding and husbandry to guided tours of the facility.

"They are an incredible help," she said, noting that Lege started as a docent.

After learning how to handle the Aviary's birds, he began assisting with visitor programs.
"He's an incredible, incredible presenter," Padolf said. "He has a way with children."

His own efforts at caring for abused and neglected birds and his business have kept him from spending a lot of time volunteering lately, she said.
More than simply feeding and caring for his rescued birds, Padolf said, "he engages them. We're pretty proud of him."

He is still educating people, she said, "in his own way."

Programs such as Lege's, she said, "keep people interested in birds and in conservation."
Parrots, Lege said, are very social birds, and require their owners to pay attention to them and to interact with them.

"They are flock animals," he said. "... You are caging it . It's meant to be free."

Also, he said, birds are vocal two times a day, sunup and sundown.
"They start to scream for attention, and they can be very loud," Lege said. "You may ask it to quiet down and give it a treat. You've just reinforced the scream."

Regularly covering up birds' cages is one way people abuse them without realizing it.
Covering their cages is very stressful for the birds, he said.

"It takes away their vision, their world," Lege said.
Some parrots are very family friendly; some are more "one-person" birds.
People considering adding a parrot to their home, he said, should "do the research and talk to the right people."

Spreading the message
Lege said he worked for Sterling Industries as a regional parts manager for 28 years. The company's headquarters were located in the World Trade Center in New York City. After Sept. 11, 2001, he said, he was out of a job.

Many people suggested he turn his education program into a business, and "That Guy with the Birds" was born.

A good friend, Linda Kirkman, assists him with many of his shows, and his parents, John and Betty Lege, of Vandergrift, also help out with the business.

Lege's biggest reward is seeing his audience's response.
"It's amazing how much kids remember," he said, "from the bird's name to where they come from to what they eat."

He regularly travels with an assortment of birds to New York, Ohio, Washington, D.C., as well as all over Western Pennsylvania.

Averaging three programs a week, his audiences are as small as eight children for a birthday party to 600 children at a school assembly.

He plays the guitar and does some magic tricks as part of his show, and some of the birds play ring toss or ride tiny bicycles.

"They have their own personalities and do different things," Lege said.
Lee Lee, he said, is descended from entertainment royalty. She is the granddaughter of a bird who performed with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Sometimes, he said, people approach him at events and offer to buy one of the birds.
"They are my family," he said. "There is not enough money in the world to buy any of these birds."

And though he cautions people to think carefully before taking one home, he added, "For the right person, there's nothing like it."

Lege does not plan to stop "touring" any time soon.

"I'm making a living at it and I couldn't be happier," he said. "They are my kids."

Sunday, October 16, 2005

EDGEWATER - They talked about their "little green friends."

They made loud noises: "Ack! Ack! Ack!"

They marched up and down River Road, these parrot fans, spied on a nest they call "the love shack," stared at a W-shaped bird condo and hung out beneath a sign to see how feathered types of all kinds can get along with a non-native species.

The first Parrots of Edgewater tour was Sunday. That the crowd was sparse - three people plus a reporter - was of little matter to the organizers, a 20-year borough resident and a guy who keeps tabs on a similar flock in Brooklyn.

"A lot of bird people don't really approve of this," confided Steve Baldwin, the Brooklynite. "The parrots are considered to be an invasive species. As far as the state is concerned, they're a potentially dangerous species. That's just not so. These little green friends, these creatures, are a wonderful feature in town."

Truly, the birds - called Quaker parrots or monk parakeets - have some enemies. In Edgewater, Public Service Electric and Gas Co. crews routinely remove the birds' twig nests - some of them the size of filing cabinets — from utility poles. In the birds' native Argentina, government officials say they decimate corn crops.

No one is sure how the birds arrived in America, but it's generally believed that in 1967 they escaped from a shipping crate at John F. Kennedy International Airport and flew to Brooklyn; later, some settled in Edgewater. Soon after, New Jersey wildlife officials said the birds were nothing but bad news, and extended them no protection.

On Sunday, Alison Evans-Fragale, the tour organizer, said the parrots' reputation was undeserved. The tour, she said, was to show how the birds can thrive in places other than utility poles, how they feed and live alongside sparrows, starlings and pigeons - themselves non-native species - and how they inspire delight and wonder amid some of the densest real estate in New Jersey.

In January, Evans-Fragale founded EdgwaterParrots.com, which tells the birds' story, urges action to foster them and lists contact information for free tours.

"We have a bill in the Assembly that's to be voted on in November," she said. "It says that if and when the utilities do tear-downs, we can receive any of the babies. And they won't be able to tear them down during breeding."

In the meantime, Baldwin, Evans-Fragale and other parrot fans are experimenting with nesting platforms, made with plywood and chicken wire, to encourage the birds to build away from the poles. As it is, the parrots have colonized trees along River Road. They've turned a four-sided covered sign at the entrance to a high-rise into a model of species relations, sharing living space with pigeons and smaller birds.

"This is the Empire State Building of nests," Baldwin said near "the W tree," the pigeon fanciers' name for a three-trunked monstrosity a block west of River Road.
"Look!" he called as a dozen pigeons flew to the tree. "The flyover!"
"Good timing!" called Deborah Alperin, who had ridden the bus from Manhattan just for the tour.

Evans-Fragale explained the birds' calls.
"This kind of greeting is 'Hey, hi! I'm here!'Ÿ" she said. "That 'Ack! Ack! Ack!' is 'C'mon, there's food here!'Ÿ" A pause, and then she and Baldwin cried: "Ack! Ack! Ack!"
Ten minutes at "the W tree" and it was time to move along. The talk turned to the parrots' diet, and Baldwin ticked off a list: grain, nuts, dandelion shoots and leaves, and baked goods of all kinds.
"They like bagels," he said. "These are urban birds."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Visitors flock to Woodland Park Zoo aviary

Madison Fougere embarked on a mission Sunday. The intrepid 7-year -old circled, stalked and -- finally -- succeeded in feeding an elusive blue "budgie" at Woodland Park Zoo.

"The blue ones are my favorite," he said, kneeling in one corner with seed sticks extended in his hand toward a trio of the palm-size birds.

Amid a cacophony of high-pitched squawks from hundreds of Australian parrots, some of which whooshed past his head, Madison retained his focus and sense of awe in his miniquest to find and feed at least one of each of the distinct varieties of colorful birds at the zoo's Willawong Station.

The popular exhibit has attracted more than 1,000 people every weekend since it opened in late May, said the zoo's collections manager, Helen Shewman.
It has proved to be such a success that the zoo is opening the exhibit for free strolls -- sans seed sticks -- during the week.

"This will be really nice in the winter," Shewman said. "It'll be warm in here."
Families like Madison's poured through the door Sunday into the indoor habitat -- which was made to resemble the sparse grasslands of Australia -- and repeated the seek-and-feed routine, with birds sometimes suddenly swooping down onto waiting hands.

Shocked looks dissolved into smiles as visitors got used to the feather-light birds on their shoulders and arms. Other parents hoisted sticks up into trees and brought down perched birds to pass on to their children.

The birds seemed unfazed by squeals of delight from toddlers, but a dropped heavy bag could startle them into enormous flutters of protective flocking laps near the ceiling.

Madison had no hesitation in approaching the birds, which have grown accustomed to perching on the small sticks and pecking away at their mobile meals. He fed the very common green budgies, as well as cockatiels, princess parrots, Bourke's parrots and big rainbow-colored Eastern Rosellas, before finally getting to the blue budgie. Mission accomplished.

Kaya Fletcher, 10, of Port Orchard echoed the same preference in a similar quest to get one to fly onto her stick.

Those with Hitchcockian-fueled fears of our feathered friends need not worry; beaks are baby-small on the ubiquitous budgies, and the larger birds shy away to the highest branches. Those splattered by birdie bombs can ask for Handi Wipes from attendants.

Madison speculated about whether the different-colored birds were of the same species, and more than friends. "I think the blue one and green one are loving on each other."
Yes, it's true -- birds do it in this aviary.

One amorous couple of green budgies -- a female and an overprotective boyfriend fending off advances from the other males -- swooped on Ron North, a Lynnwood man visiting the zoo with his wife, Karla, and their two young children.

Keeper Jean Ragland explained that the two budgies make regular rounds onto visitors, looking for a suitable love nest.

Karla North said her kids loved their first visit to Willawong.
"There's never an opportunity to see the animals like this," she said. "They can interact with them in here, instead of seeing them sitting in a cage."