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."

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