Forget the cracker; Polly wants a home

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 6, 2011 - 9:04 PM

Rescuers say abandoned exotic birds are becoming more common.

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Renee Quimby, director of Parrot Adoption Education Program, nuzzled a parrot as it bit her finger. She keeps more than two dozen rescue parrots in her Lino Lakes home. “I never wanted it to get this big, but the need is there,” she said. Her organization took in about 100 parrots this year.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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A puppy's saucer eyes and a kitten's plaintive meow are ubiquitous in the world of animal rescue. The ear-splitting screech of a parrot doesn't inspire the same sympathy.

Unwanted exotic birds are a daunting problem in the Twin Cities, though they don't get the publicity of other pets. As a result, birds sometimes wait for years before they get a new home. Many are currently waiting.

"I don't count [the number of parrots], because it would make me insane," said Renee Quimby, director of Parrot Adoption Education Program (PAEP). "We just do what we have to do and try not to think about the enormity of it."

Rescuing exotic birds is a calling relegated to the margins, where a committed few labor under a cloud of misunderstanding and a host of unique challenges.

In a dog vs. cat world, birds are thought weird, and the people who love them, sometimes weirder.

Harley, a large, partially naked Harlequin macaw, perched politely on Quimby's shoulder on a recent afternoon as she squeezed past several cages in her Lino Lakes home, which doubles as a rescue for unwanted parrots.

Like many who work in parrot rescue, Quimby got involved after owning a single pet parrot. She volunteered with PAEP when it was founded in 2000 and took in about 10 birds a year. This year, her group took in about 100 unwanted birds, due largely to owners' economic hardships. Sixty is an average year.

"I never wanted it to get this big, but the need is there," said Quimby, who took over the organization in 2004.

In addition to the more than two dozen parrots in her spacious house, several more live in foster homes. The number may sound small, but parrots can be hard to place for a number of reasons:

• Parrots can live anywhere from 12 to 100 years depending on the species. They can outlive their owners, necessitating multiple homes.

• People are less inclined to adopt them than they are other pets.

• Many have behavioral issues that are aggravating to humans, but normal for parrots. Those include regular screeching, destructive chewing and throwing food.

"Bad behavior almost goes along with parrots," said Sabra Khan, owner of a parrot supply store and rescue, Avalon Parrots, in Mahtomedi. "It's the nature of taking essentially wild animals and making them pets."

Many also develop bad behaviors because of mistreatment by previous owners.

Khan's adopted cockatoo of almost 15 years, Gilligan, still gets upset when someone says, "Shut up," and answers with screaming and swearing. As prey animals, she said, they hold onto negative associations more tightly as a survival instinct.

Although parrots have been kept as pets since ancient Egyptian and Greek times, Kahn said they are far removed from most people's idea of a pet. Unlike dogs or cats, they aren't domesticated. (Most parrots sold in the pet trade were likely removed from their parents as babies and hand-fed by humans.)

Yet their toddler-level intelligence, mimicry skills, beauty and affection continue to capture human imaginations. About 4.5 million households in the United States have pet birds, compared to about 43 million that have dogs and 37 million that have cats, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Parrots can work as companions, Khan said, when people treat them as individuals and accept their ingrained, wild behaviors.

A handful of rescuers

Besides the rescues run by Quimby and Khan, a new St. Paul-based group with more than 100 birds rounds out the small network of Twin Cities parrot rescues. The new group recently spun off of PAEP along with Midwest Avian Adoption and Rescue Services Inc.

To help meet the demand, Khan is getting the rescue portion of Avalon officially recognized in 2011 as a nonprofit (likely as Parrot Rescue Services) so donations can be tax-deductible.

About 30 birds are awaiting new homes at Avalon, where they enjoy free time outside their cages, interacting with humans and other birds.

Lucy, a ruby-colored Eclectus that has plucked herself nearly naked, has been at Avalon the longest, waiting nine years for a new home. She was given up when she was about a year old because she mutilates her feathers. It doesn't help that Lucy simply doesn't like people. Read: She bites.

"She was never a nice bird," Khan said.

Lucy's case might be extreme, but it illustrates the unique challenges faced by parrot rescues: They don't euthanize parrots that bite, although that kind of behavior would doom most dogs.

There is a second biter at Avalon -- Birdie -- who became that way after children continually poked her with pencils through the bars of a cage she wasn't let out of for seven years. On a recent afternoon, Birdie roamed the rescue, climbing across cages, cuddling next to a bird friend and shuffling along the floor to greet a visitor.

Although parrots are given up for many reasons, some issues are specific to them. For example, they can form extreme attachments to one person in a household at the expense of others. Kiwi, a double yellow-headed Amazon, did that.

"It liked the man of the house, it bit the wife and it hated the children," Quimby said.

Another Amazon surrendered to PAEP had hot oil thrown on it whenever it vocalized. It has feather loss and fluid leakage from one eye. Some also pluck their own feathers, which can be triggered by environmental, health or diet issues, and also by the stress or boredom of captivity. The problems can seem endless.

"It's very overwhelming," Khan said. "I don't think people realize how many unwanted birds there are out there."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

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