Pet birds, parrots require special knowledge and care

Pet birds, parrots require special knowledge and care
Kelly MacDade

Exotic, brilliantly colored parrots with their unique intelligence, speech abilities and personalities have fascinated people for centuries and were documented as pets in the earliest writings and artwork of ancient civilizations. Typically portrayed perched on the shoulders of pirates in movies or novels, this stereotype of parrots is actually based upon historical fact.  Pirates stole prized parrots from the tropics and transported them around the globe to be sold and traded just like other valuable goods. 

 Fast-forward to modern times when parrots are commonly seen in popular media, television, commercials, and movies. In the 1970s pet cockatoos were the entertaining sidekicks of actor Robert Blake in the television series “Baretta” and of actor Al Pacino as undercover New York City detective in the movie “Serpico.” 

Other famous parrots were the specially trained blue-crowned conures who starred in “Paulie,” the hilarious, heartwarming 1998 film that captured the hearts of moviegoers.  In 2011 and 2014, the blockbuster “Rio” animated films introduced Brazil’s now-extinct, brilliant blue Spix’s macaws to the world. Parrots are favorites on YouTube – Snowball, the dancing cockatoo, and Einstein, the talking African gray parrot, have millions of views.

The term, “bird brain,” a descriptive insult to imply low or no intelligence, was scientifically debunked in an important 30-year study of Alex (named for Avian Language Experiment), an African gray parrot purchased at age 1.  Research conducted by animal psychologist Dr. Irene Pepperberg at the University of Arizona, Harvard, and Brandeis University documented Alex’s astonishing ability to communicate and understand complex ideas. The study disproved the previously accepted scientific theory that only large-brained primates possess heightened intelligence. 

On the contrary, at the time of Alex’s death at age 31 in 2007, his intelligence was comparable to a dolphin or great ape. Pepperberg believed he had not reached his full potential. Alex demonstrated the intelligence level of a 5-year-old human with the emotional level of a 2-year-old child. Alex was also the subject of Pepperberg’s New York Times bestseller, “Alex and Me.”

Of the more than 350 species of parrots, many possess an ability to mimic, learn words, human and animal sounds, noises, tasks, and tricks. Some are highly musical; they sing or whistle. Owners value their intelligence, teachability, companionship, and desire to interact with people, other birds or animals. Parrots can be extremely affectionate, even cuddly.

Common parrot pets include: parakeets, macaws, cockatiels, cockatoos, Amazons, lorikeets (seen in zoo & aquarium aviaries) and lovebirds. One of the most popular small parrots is the parakeet, also called a budgie in the United States. These birds are inexpensive, easily tamed and are not as messy as many other parrots.

 Like all animals that are highly valued in the pet trade, parrots and other birds are often obtained illegally when they are captured in the wild, which has caused many to become critically endangered or extinct. This situation poses as great a threat to the survival of bird species as is commercial logging and habitat destruction, according to leading global conservation groups, Bird Life International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Organizations like Northeast Florida Chapter of Phoenix Landing Parrot Rescue urge the public to first consider parrot foster care or adoption from reputable bird rescue groups instead of buying from pet stores or breeders. Thousands of parrots and other popular pet bird chicks are unethically bred each year for quick profit, just like dogs obtained from puppy mills.

The non-profit, all-volunteer Phoenix Landing Parrot Rescue is dedicated to the welfare of all parrot species. They coordinate with private citizens and other conservation organizations to end the illegal trade of wild birds and help endangered species recover and survive. Phoenix Landing offers parrot educational information, live online events, archived past events, owner support, parrot rescue, and rehabilitation. They accept applications for parrot foster and adoptions.  

Christi Bamford, longtime Riverside resident, was like many first-time bird owners who lived in housing that only permitted a pet bird. She had her first pet parakeet for three years during graduate school.  During her Ph.D. program she owned two cockatiels. This past year, after both cockatiels passed away after 11 years, she discovered Florida parrot rescue groups and the Bird Nerds of Jacksonville Facebook Group.

Christi Bamford
Christi Bamford

“So many birds need adoption or foster because of their long lives or other circumstances. I fostered a parakeet for six months until it was adopted. Then I contacted Phoenix Landing Parrot Rescue and I now foster Patches, a cockatiel. Patches was owned by a woman who died, leaving Patches to her daughter. When the daughter passed, her husband did not want Patches and kept the poor bird locked alone in a bathroom where it started screaming from stress and loneliness. Patches is also fearful of hands. I’ve been helping him overcome those negative behaviors because he is a precious bird who has a wonderful happy dance,” Bamford said.

Bamford and her partner Scott Nickell have adopted another rescue parrot, Watson, who was also left alone in a room and began to pluck out his feathers from stress. Although he has some health issues, if Watson bonds with Patches, they plan to keep both birds. Bamford said it is extremely important to understand that birds need social interaction. They are emotionally and physically hypersensitive compared to other pets and most negative behaviors result from mishandling or neglect. She recommended owners buy the largest parrot cage possible and view free online educational classes. Bamford is a Jacksonville University Psychology Professor and Nickell works in cybersecurity.

Kelly MacDade of San Marco adopted two rescue cockatoos, Francis and Julian. Now she and her fiancé, Ameen Pirksteh, try to help homeless birds by caring for a foster-to-adopt bird whenever possible.  She takes advantage of educational classes and events offered by Phoenix Landing for parrot owners or anyone interested in parrot foster or adoption.” 

MacDade has successfully combined parrot foster care with dog foster care as her serious hobby. She is an active dog foster with Florida Urgent Rescue (FUR). Her specialty is care for dogs with medical or surgical needs, severe illness, injury recovery or hospice care. MacDade is a life insurance underwriter with Lincoln Financial and her fiancé, Pirksteh, is a pharmacist.

Sadly, both Bamford and MacDade said that if pet parrots survive their first year of life, many may be mishandled or abused by pet owners clueless about their requirements and life span which is 20 – 85 years. Some pet stores and unscrupulous breeders motivated by sales, fail to provide accurate information about the requirements of parrot ownership that could discourage buyers. 

Pet parrots present real challenges as their long lives normally require a succession of good homes. Specific foods and avian medical care can be expensive, and parrots need more attention than other pets. They can be messy, and their cages can require more cleaning. Parrots thrive with frequent time spent outside of their cage and need the largest cage possible. Healthy parrot noise is normal, not bad behavior. Small parrots may scream or repeat sounds, while large parrots might make raucous, loud noises. Loud parrot calls necessary to communicate with mates or flock across long distances in the wild, may become intolerable in apartments or homes. Sharp, strong parrot beaks can inflict pain or serious injury. Large macaws have a bite strength of 500-700 pounds per square inch. Even tame parrots may bite or fly away if startled, which is an instinctive survival response they will never lose.

Readers interested in more information,  or who care to donate, volunteer, help with transport, or wish to apply to foster or adopt can visit the Phoenix Landing Parrot Rescue website online at www.phoenixlanding.org or email contact@phoenixlanding.org.  Donations can also be made to Jacksonville’s Exotic Bird Hospital, to be used solely for medical care of local Phoenix Landing birds.

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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