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Nature | Parrot Confidential

Watch Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 8pm on WMHT TV.

Talk to enough owners of parrots about their experiences raising an African gray or yellow-naped Amazon and, while their stories may differ, there seems to be a consensus that not everyone is cut out for the task. Unlike dogs and cats, parrots have not been domesticated — they are still wild. This can have consequences, often unforeseen, for the continued care of parrots by their owners.

Unpredictable behavior or ear-shattering squawks, for example, can result in frustrated owners trying to find new homes for their highly intelligent birds, turning to already overcrowded shelters and sanctuaries for help, or in some cases, abandoning their pets.

From the wilds of Costa Rica to the suburbs of our own country, Nature explores the difficulties of raising parrots, why some breeders and owners become rescuers, and conservation efforts in the wild. After the broadcast, the episode will be available for online streaming at pbs.org/nature.                                                                           

Parrots can reach the age of 80 to 90 years old, outliving many of their owners. Their intense need to form what for them is a mate bond with their human caregivers can lead to problems if the parameters of that close relationship change. The extended absence of a family member or the addition of a child to the household can tip the balance. Boston area residents Liz and Russ Hartman experienced first-hand how Basil, their yellow-naped Amazon, reacted after Russ returned from a long business trip. Basil had plucked all of the feathers off his chest, something he had never done before. “It was devastating to us because we didn’t know what was going on,” Russ explained. “We later determined he was so angry that he was willing to go through the pain of pulling his own feathers out. I think he was making a point. You have to be there for them. They are social animals.”

Jamie McLeod of the Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary and a former breeder agrees that parrots are “not just part of your life: they become your life.” McLeod says the average person keeps a bird two to four years, which creates a lot of unwanted parrots. “People come in,” McLeod continues, “and they’ll say, ‘I want a bird that talks, that’s quiet and that doesn’t bite,’ and that species has not yet been discovered.”

Some breeders, like Phoebe and Harry Linden, felt that if they bred parrots, not as many would be taken from the wild. They started the Santa Barbara Bird Farm around the time of the debut of the TV series “Baretta,” which featured actor Robert Blake and his medium sulfur-crested cockatoo, which seemed like a cool pet. Demand increased overnight, but it wasn’t long before the Lindens heard about the subsequent rescues or surrenders of parrots to sanctuaries. That led to their decision to stop breeding parrots, care for the ones they had, and take back any bird they raised who needs a home.

Although Marc Johnson hadn’t planned to be a bird rescuer, once he purchased a blue and gold macaw to keep in his pottery studio, he kept getting asked if he would take in other people’s parrots. He and his wife, Karen Windsor, had to transform an abandoned chicken farm in Hope Valley, R.I., into a permanent sanctuary for unwanted parrots after the number of birds in their home grew to 300. They founded Foster Parrots, Ltd., which provides life-long care to over 500 displaced, captive birds with the help of a small staff and a squad of dedicated volunteers.

There are no sanctuaries for parrots in Michigan, so Marie Charon-Crowley takes unwanted birds into her home and cares for them as best she can. They are fed and watered three to four times a day, their cages cleaned; they need to be nurtured, not ignored. But being overlooked and damaged emotionally is what happened to Dolly, a Moluccan cockatoo, until Lavanya Michel adopted her when she was three years old. Lavanya and Dolly are inseparable, but human carers need regular breaks to see friends and run errands. That’s when Dolly happily greets gift shop visitors at the Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary in the care of Lavanya’s friend Jamie McLeod.

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