Archive for April 22nd, 2007

I never planned to be a rescuer of parrots. Yet, in a small way, that’s what Ive been for much of my adult life.

I first became fascinated by parrots when I met Coquette, a yellow nape dwarf macaw owned by a couple in Seattle. What intrigued me about Coquette was her sentience. It was obviously so much greater than even the most intelligent dogs and cats I’d kept or met throughout my life. Years later, I read Irene Pepperberg’s papers on Alex and African Greys, which prove that at least some parrots have problem-solving abilities comparable to a six year old child’s, but, even on first meeting Coquette, I knew that I wasn’t just being anthropomorphic. She had a sense of self, and of humor, too.

Both were a revelation. I’d always thought that a parrot just sat in a cage and squawked. I didn’t know that they romped, and preened, or purred when happy.

Besides, a dog or cat seemed impractical in our townhouse. After a few visits with Coquette, whom we grew to like better than her owners, we started looking for our own parrot, deciding early on that,while we couldn’t afford a macaw, a conure would have much the same personality, and need less space as well. We contemplated a blue-crown conure, of the sort seen in the movie Paulie, then found a young nanday in another pet store. He was completely wild, but, within two weeks, he was marching back and forth between us on the couch so that he could preen us. We called him Ningauble, after a wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series.

In those days, before the CITES treaty prevent the importation of wild birds, hundreds of birds were being dumped on the North American pet market every year. Many of these birds had been seized from the nest when young and malnourished and maltreated. Many had died before arriving in North America. Ning, we realized to our horror, was one of the lucky ones, having permanently lost a claw on each foot, but being otherwise healthy. We felt we owed him a life as close as possible to the one he would have lived in the wild.

Part of that life, we decided, would be a mate. However, we were also growing increasingly reluctant to deal with pet shops, so we had to wait a couple of years for the right opportunity. Our bird sitter told us of a nanday that she thought was a hen, who needed rescuing, and we went to see her.

If anything, the birdsitter had understated the case. The hen had been in a tiny, ramshackle cage, and overpreened herself badly. She had plucked her entire front bald, and her eye rings were black instead of white – a sure sign of malnutrition in nandays, we had discovered. When we took her from the cage for a closer look, she fluttered to the floor, and her tail feathers fell out at the gentlest of touches. The only sound she knew had to make was an outraged squawk, although parrots are among the most expressive of birds, with a wide range of sounds. We almost had to take the fact that she was a nanday on faith, she was in such poor condition. We later learned that she had been fed exclusively on a diet of sunflower seeds, and had had shoes thrown on her cage when she made a noise.

We took her home on trial, putting her in the spare room. But Ning made such excited attempts to communicate that after a couple of days, we decided to make introductions. Nng instantly started regurgitating to her, and she looked surprised and pleased. Within moments, they had become a couple.

The hen’s name was Sophie, which seemed not at all a parrot’s name – something more grandiloquent and silly seemed more appropriate. But she responded to the name, so we tarted it up by dubbing her Sophie J. Bandersnatch (the “J” being for Jabberwock).

Following this name choice, when Sophie and Ning started producing chicks, naturally their firstborn was named Frumious and the secondborn Jabberwock. The third in the clutch was Rambunctious Honorious Blunderbuss (“Ram” for short). In other clutches, Rogue and Rapscallion and Madigral followed.

Having parrots hatch in our living room was exciting, but also heartbreaking. Despite our best efforts to select caring buyers and give them advice, we didn’t always find good homes for Ning and Sophie’s offspring. Many people don’t realize the commitment of time and attention that having a parrot represents, and we soon hear that several of the offspring had been already passed to their second owners before they were a year old. We tried to help, but the only thing that would have worked for sure was to keep them all at home, and we had neither the room nor time for that.

One of the offspring we could help directly was Jabberwock. Somehow, he was let loose in the wild – we think deliberately. But he was recaptured and we heard about it, knowing him by his two albino claws. When we found he was in a home of heavy smokers who didn’t know what to do with him, what could we do except buy him back? But he was no longer the affectionate bird who had left our house. He remained a timid bird for the rest of his life, and died young of a lung tumor that was almost certainly caused by the smoke he had been forced to breath in his temporary owners’ home.

Another of Sophie and Ning’s chicks had problems, too. Ram had a leg injury in the nest, so we pulled him from the nest to hand-feed him. For a few weeks, the effort was harrowing, since he needed feeding every few hours, but he grew into a sturdy cripple and a strong flier. After all that effort, of course there was no way we would sell him. He started hanging out with Jabberwock, and, in the last years before Jabberwock’s death, became his preening partner.

After Jabberwock died, we started looking for another companion for Ram. Through the Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary, we heard of Beaudin, a nanday who had been confined for several years to a laundry room and who had recently lost his mate and a cockatiel companion. Last year, after an adoption process that included a home visit by Greyhaven officials, we brought him home, and he has thrived wonderfully, proving the smartest of our birds by far, especially in the matter of lifting the latch on his cage and finding other ways to escape.

We don’t have room for more than four birds, so future rescues are unlikely, but we continue to contribute to Greyhaven and other parrot rescue societies. Humans have power over animals, and, the fact that many people abuse that power is one of the distressing facts of our species. And parrots feel that abuse even worse than dogs or cats, because human ignorance adds to their distress. So we feel we have to do something.

Of course, had we known then what we know now about the pet bird industry, we would never have bought Ning. However, had we never bought Ning, we never would have been in the position to help other birds, so I can only hope that our karma balances.

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