Nattie’s a tough case. The 4-year-old spends most days lingering in the cavernous dark of Kris Craig’s backpack, which gets stowed under Craig’s work desk.
If Craig had her druthers, Nattie, a rose-breasted cockatoo, would spend his days at their Tualatin, Ore., home, chirping from inside his cage alongside her two Macaws. But the bird, which Craig adopted from a rescue group, doesn’t walk, although a bird behaviorist is working on that. He’s also minus a wing, the result of an amputation after he injured himself “popcorning.”
“Just out of the blue, like a piece of popcorn, he’ll shoot straight up in the air and hurt himself,” Craig said. “I call him psycho bird.”
All of which makes it tough on Craig, who’s owned birds for some 20 years, to leave Nattie alone for fear he’d injure himself. At least in the secure backpack lodging, Nattie feels safe.
“Most people don’t have the confidence to handle him,” Craig said. “He won’t step up onto a finger. He flips out easily.”
Unlike dogs or cats, birds, even ones without Nattie’s special needs, require a heaping helping of care and attention — especially when their owners hope to leave town for a weekend, week or longer.
“They require special food,” Craig said. “It’s not like opening a bag of dog food and throwing it in a bowl.”
That’s where Christa Kangas and people like her come in. Kangas, 37, started Parrots Only Pet Sitting after she was laid off from her information technology job with a retailer in May 2008. She cares for Craig’s birds, including special-needs Nattie, when an out-of-town trip pops up.
Even though Kangas tacked “parrots only” to her Vancouver business’s title, she’ll tell you that parrot is a sweeping term to describe a number of hook-billed birds, such as cockatoos, cockatiels and more. She’ll also take care of Fluffy and Fido, too.
So far she’s got 10 clients, which account for about 69 pet birds, which range from African Greys to love birds. She charges $25 per visit and spends about an hour at each stop, tending the birds on her watch.
The bird bug hatches
It was 2002 when Kangas developed her affinity for birds. She was a student in a Clark College English class. Required reading that term: “Trifles,” a 1916 one-act play by Susan Glaspell about a woman who murders her husband. But it was the canary’s sad fate — apparently killed at the husband’s hands — that moved Kangas.
“That really touched me,” Kangas said. “What I got out of it was the whole bird connection.”
Enter a friend who had birds and introduced Kangas to her flock. Soon, Kangas had her first bird, an African Grey. The rest of her 10 birds have come from adoptions and rescues.
Caring for birds isn’t a casual endeavor. Birds can be more difficult for owners and caregivers to read than other pets.
“Typically, people are good at reading the body English of a dog,” said Donna Getty, owner of Parrot Perch in Vancouver, a store that also boards birds for $7 a day. “Birds are in a confined cage and you have to be familiar with their body English. If they’re terrified, they will hurt you.”
Kangas learned that the hard way, mostly by caring for birds that were rescued before they were adopted.
“You can tell by the bird’s behavior, body language, eyes pinning, that you probably shouldn’t pick them up or have much interaction with them,” Kangas said. “I have a lot of scars on my hand. It’s better to take a moment and see how they’re feeling, how they’re behaving. It spares a lot of human bloodshed.”
Kangas avoids bites these days — something that both she and her clients (beaked and otherwise) appreciate. One bad experience can change a bird forever.
Laura Olson, a Portland woman who has had birds for 12 years, tells the story of Bumpy, the traumatized African Grey who was left in the hands of an untrained pet sitter two years ago. Bumpy was left covered and in the dark for five days. When Olson, who now uses Kangas’ pet sitting, returned, he had plucked out all of his chest feathers.
“Once you start plucking like that, you don’t stop,” Olson said. “Now, two years later, he still plucks. He’s emotionally traumatized from the experience.”
Caring for birds can be a complex affair.
On a recent afternoon Kangas demonstrated a typical routine with her client, Ellen Gyberg, who keeps 19 birds at her Vancouver home.
Kangas will often meet with clients and get to know their birds ahead of time. In Gyberg’s case, she provides a printed instruction list of what she’ll do.
Birds play in and soil their water. So water dishes get hand scrubbed daily. Greens are attached to the cage for added nutrition. Two types of bird food gets dished up. Paper is changed daily. Medications are dispensed and attention lavished.
“Hi birdies! Hi pretty birdies,” Kangas coos on a recent visit.
“They really do enjoy interaction with the family,” Kangas said.
A cockatiel nuzzles his beak into another’s neck. Kangas explains: “Birds, when their feathers come in, what they do is preen each other so their feathers are nice and soft and pretty.”
She looks over the birds and explains the body language again: A bird that’s hunkered down is in distress. Fluffed-up feathers is another sign of trouble.
Knowing those telltale signs saved one of Olson’s birds when Kangas cared for them recently.
One of Olson’s birds broke a tail feather the day before she was to leave on vacation. Most times, feathers aren’t connected to a bird’s blood vessels. But when it’s a blood feather, it’s bad news.
“When they break off, they can start bleeding to death,” Olson said.
Kangas saw the blood drop and got the parrot, who has now recovered, to the vet for treatment.
But even with the special care — and Olson warns that parrots are like needy 2-year-olds who live for 40 years — bird lovers say their flocks are worth the trouble. They come to know personalities, watch their birds interact and become part of the flock. Which is why leaving them — and finding someone to care for them — is such a big deal.
“It’s definitely the most stressful part of going out of town,” Olson said.