Efforts afoot to help neglected parrots

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LOS ANGELES — With lots of smarts and long lives, parrots were once favored by Baby Boomers, but more of the former pets are now wild, passed from owner to owner or ignored altogether in cramped cages without the feathered mates they crave, rescuers said.

Karen Windsor, executive director of Foster Parrots, which runs a sanctuary in Hope Valley, R.I., hears just about every excuse for giving up a parrot: divorce, marriage, babies, kids leaving home, kids moving back, “the bird hates me,” age, disease.

So has Mira Tweti, executive director of the national Parrot Care Project, based in Los Angeles.

“The lucky ones end up in rescues. Others are released to fend for themselves. But the vast majority are neglected to death or passed around from home to home and then neglected, sometimes relegated to garages where no one hears them screaming for attention,” Tweti said.

The sanctuary Windsor runs with her husband, Marc Johnson, is full, like hundreds of other parrot rescues and sanctuaries around the country.

Part of the problem is the larger varieties of parrots can live from 25 to 100 years or longer (the bigger the bird, the longer its life). And they can be demanding, aggressive, loud and in need of a lot of space.

No one has exact numbers, but millions of parrots were bought between the 1960s and 1995, when the pet bird boom subsided, said Tweti, who owns one herself and wrote a book, “Of Parrots and People,” in 2008.

There are about 370 known species of parrots. The most common is the parakeet, but Macaws and African greys are also popular, Tweti said.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said medium and large parrots such as macaws, cockatoos, Amazons and African greys are smart (parrots have the intelligence of a 5-year-old child) and social animals that need a place to fly, climb and exercise. They need mental stimulation and at least one companion. They are extremely loyal to their mates, though both males and females might have trysts.

Cage swaps around the country

To improve their lot in captivity, Tweti’s group will launch a five-year campaign March 25 at a bird shop, Omar’s Exotic Birds, in Santa Monica offering to exchange too-small parrot cages for larger ones. She said experts will also spend time in 50 cities around the country offering free and low-cost cage swaps and to show owners how to make over their own cages.

There will be avian nutrition experts, bird behaviorists, rescuers to promote adoptions and builders to conduct workshops on making simple and inexpensive aviaries, Tweti said.

“A lot of people say no cage is big enough,” said Windsor, whose group runs the New England Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary. “But baby steps are important. It’s not easy to take care of a bird. A $15 cage and a bowl of seed is not enough. The right size cage is a rainforest, but what Mira is pushing is doable.”

There are at least 1,500 parrot rescues in the country, and most run at maximum capacity, Tweti said.

Windsor, who got her first parrot at a garage sale in San Diego, said she gets at least a call a day from someone trying to find a home for their bird. And that doesn’t count calls for help with raids and seizures. Last year, Windsor’s group helped with 800 parrots taken from a Texas parrot mill, 165 seized at a Tennessee mill and 130 taken from an Ohio hoarder, Windsor said.

“We are all completely overwhelmed, overfilled and underfunded,” she said.

Some people, unable to find homes for their birds, will let them loose. It’s illegal to release non-native birds, but there are hundreds of thousands of feral birds in self-sustaining, noisy flocks in cities across the country. They are thriving and breeding, Tweti said.

Despite the increasing wild numbers, some people are buying, so parrot mills pump them out and smugglers sneak them in from other countries.

Foster Parents’ mascot is Lola, a green-winged macaw who lived in a dog crate in a basement for several years, Windsor said. He arrived in 2001 with one eye, a brain injury, a seizure disorder and broken bones in his wing and feet.

The vet said put him down, but they chose medicine instead. “Today, he is a vital, wonderful, happy bird. He is a symbol for all the birds that live in dark and forgotten places and need their place in the sun,” Windsor said.