Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A 70-year commitment

"There is a bird over-population problem just like the dog and cat over-population problem." Meredith Wilhelmi, With Exotic Bird Rescue of Oregon

At the Macaw Landing Foundation in Northeast Portland, about 70 parrots fly free in a huge aviary. The birds are an incredible swirl of brilliant colors: red, orange, green, turquoise, yellow. Some of them have wingspans of more than 3 feet. The screeching is overwhelming. On a hot summer day, it's easy to feel transported for a moment to the Amazon, where macaws live in the wild.

"This is a playroom full of 2-year-olds who never grow up," says Jack Devine, founder of the foundation. As charming as that may seem, perpetual childhood is a problem. Living for decades with a noisy, high-strung toddler isn't for most of us.

In the past decade, parrots have become one of America's most popular pets. The result is predictable: Rescue organizations are awash in parrots.

"There is a bird overpopulation problem just like the dog and cat overpopulation problem," says Meredith Wilhelmi, foster home and adoption coordinator for Exotic Bird Rescue of Oregon ( Exotic Bird Rescue has 250 parrots in foster care, looking for good homes.

Every bird at Macaw Landing used to be somebody's pet. The owners turned over the birds when they ended up too big, aggressive, noisy -- or just too much work. The macaws here will live out their lives with the foundation. But the sanctuary is full.

"I get four or five calls a week from people looking for a home for their macaws," Devine says. There are few places for the birds to go.

Rescuers say the problem will only get worse. Parrots live for up to 70 years, and over the course of those long lives, most will go through multiple homes.

The plea from rescuers is for parrot lovers to think, and think again, before they buy. For most people, parrots aren't a good fit. For homes that have the time and energy to give to a bird, a rescue parrot can be a better alternative than buying a baby bird.

Here are some things to consider before bringing home a feathered friend.

Think before you buy: "Parrots tend to be such an impulse purchase," says Pamela Clark, an avian behaviorist who lives in Independence.

She says bird behavior changes dramatically at sexual maturity, and that too few people who buy a sweet baby bird are prepared for the realities of life with a mature adult. When birds grow up, they become more aggressive, energetic and noisy. There is no safe way to neuter birds.

"They reach sexual maturity and it's all over," Clark says.

When once-sweet birds become adults, many people can't handle them. They turn to rescue organizations, or even euthanize the animals.

Many birds also mutilate themselves, plucking out their feathers, biting their feathers or even biting themselves. About half of pet parrots show some level of feather-picking behaviors.

Devine admits that the Macaw Landing Foundation traces its roots back to guilt he feels over his feather-plucking green-wing macaw, Scarlet. For years, Scarlet was a happy companion, spending hours every day with Devine. Then, 15 years ago, Devine went on a weeklong vacation. He came home to a bird that was tearing her feathers out. She still feather-plucks, her breast a naked symbol of stress.

"I've almost cried myself to sleep at many nights over what I did to this bird," Devine says.

Clark says many parrot behavior problems can be traced back to the breeders. "Parrots aren't that difficult to breed. There are people who present themselves as authorities merely because they can breed them," she says.

Birds teach their young social skills, just like advanced mammals do. When the breeders sell young birds before they're emotionally ready to leave the nest, those birds pay a price. She gives the example of Moluccan cockatoos, which some breeders sell at age 15 weeks. These birds don't leave a nest naturally until they are about a year old. Force-fed commercial babies aren't likely to have the coping skills necessary to live as pets.

While breeders who care more about the bottom line than the birds' welfare are bad, smugglers are worse. Although it's been illegal to import wild-caught birds into the United States since 1992, the high price of rare parrots encourages an underground economy in smuggled birds.

"Ounce for ounce, a hyacinth macaw is more valuable to smugglers than cocaine," Devine says.

Provide a great environment: Once a bird comes to your home, he will need a lot of care. It starts with a cage. "The bird's cage should be like a kid's bedroom -- an exciting, colorful place to be with lots of stuff to do," Wilhelmi says. Cages need to be big enough for the bird to move and flap his wings. A parrot also needs time outside of his cage for at least an hour a day.

Diet is also important, helping birds cope with the stress of living a captive life. Sadly, few parrots get what they need.

"Malnutrition is the norm," Clark says. A decade ago, most birds were fed seeds. Diets improved with bird pellets -- the avian equivalent of kibble. But one-size-fits-all food doesn't work for parrots. These birds aren't just different breeds -- they also are different species. There is a vast difference between what an African grey parrot eats in the wild and what a macaw eats in South America. The best bet is to learn as much as possible about the native habitat of each bird, and try to replicate that diet.

Parrots are as intelligent as chimpanzees and dolphins. These sentient, curious creatures need toys and mental stimulation. There are puzzle toys for parrots, where they have to work to get food treats. Color is important to parrots, who can see color variations that humans can't. Most of all, parrots need interaction every day.

Clark says one of her friends likes to point out that cleaning cages isn't much fun in the second decade. These sensitive, complex animals have needs that don't diminish for years. It's a pact between human and bird that is hard to keep.

Try "recycling": The average parrot will go through about five homes in its lifetime. Rather than buy a baby, advocates suggest getting a "recycled" bird.

The birds available through adoption groups are stunning in their beauty. Many are very tame and loving. The Exotic Bird Rescue of Oregon Web site has a rainbow of birds available, from animals well-suited to first-time bird owners to ones that are better in experienced hands.

"There's an advantage to adopting an older bird. They've gone through sexual maturity and leveled out. There are no hidden surprises," Wilhelmi says. "Plus, you know you're doing the responsible thing."

Exotic Bird Rescue helps people find the right birds for their homes. The group requires people to attend a bird behavior class, does home visits and gives the bird and human a chance to meet a few times before the bird goes home. There is support for behavior issues that may come up. If the bird doesn't work out, the group will issue a refund.

That's a bargain for both bird and human.

Macaws in the wild: Jack Devine wants people to see the "real macaws" -- in the wild where they belong. The Macaw Landing Web site,, has links to an eco-tourism group that supports bird habitats and indigenous people in those areas. He says it's a great alternative to buying a bird from a breeder or store.

"If you can afford to buy a macaw and cage, you can afford to go see them in their native habitats," he says. "Once you see these birds in the wild, you never want to see them in a cage again."

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