Rena walked proudly across the floor, stopped for a snack at the counter, then crawled down into the cabinet’s drawer. Rena is a large blue parrot, one of 85 rescued exotic birds at Seymour Bird Refuge in Cumberland. Andrea, who runs the center, has another 12 birds at her home. She knows each one of the bird’s needs, their diet, their quirks and their stories. Andrea’s own story is one marked by birds, devotion and family.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST BIRD THAT YOU EVER HAD?
When I was six years old, I caught a finch. My grandmother had a cage in her shed. We put a wild birdseed in there and I put a stick on the door and I sat on the front steps and sure enough he went in to eat the seeds and I caught him! I had him for four years. And then, when I was about eight, I wanted more birds, so I took my allowance money and went to K-Mart in Falmouth and I bought a parakeet in a cage. There were two parakeets and they were kissing – or I thought they were, but they were fighting. The woman at K-Mart didn’t know the difference either so we got both of them, got them home and they were definitely fighting! So we separated them. They lived to be 18 years old. When I turned 18, the birds were only 10 years old and I moved to North Carolina and left my mother with the two parakeets. When they passed away, she went and got a mynah bird. His name was Seymour and that’s where the name Seymour Bird Refuge comes from. Everything’s named after him. My mother and I were suckers for birds for years.
WHAT HAVE BIRDS MEANT TO YOUR FAMILY?
Birds are very intelligent, very emotional. And when it snows you don’t have to worry about walking them, like a dog. But you have to be tolerant of them screaming, because in nature, they’re going to scream. When you hear a flock that gets louder and louder, they’re just communicating with each other and one’s trying to be heard over the others. When a bird owner gets on the phone, they’ll say, “My bird started screaming, so I have to go in the other room.” The bird’s just trying to be part of that conversation, because he talks to you and you’re talking into this thing and he doesn’t understand there is a person on the other end. You talk louder, he talks louder, you talk louder again. It’s not competition over the phone, he’s just trying to be part of the flock.
As far as the birds at my house, I have a lot of older birds right now, so one room is sort of a little geriatric room and then I have an evil, evil African grey. Just cleaning his house means I have to put him in a carrier to really scrub down his cage because he will try to attack. He was wild caught and he just will never be friendly. He’ll let me pet his beak and I can pet his toes and he’ll blow kisses to me, but that’s as far as it goes.
TELL ME A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THE PERSONALITIES OF YOUR BIRDS
I have a scarlet macaw, Simon, that loves to steal the buttons off your clothes. So if you’re going to hold him, you want to make sure you don’t have anything that’s buttoned,because he doesn’t just pop them off, he breaks them in two! You can’t sew them back on, you have to go out and buy new buttons and re-attach them. And he’s moody, he growls like a dog sometimes and he shakes his head and wags his tail. He was around a big dog previously, plus we had a dog for a few years, so he learned dog behavior.
Chucky’s a double yellow Amazon; she was an egg layer. She’s close to 50 years old right now. Some birds will just start laying eggs and just trying to get them to stop laying eggs is impossible. Her previous owner was an elderly woman, so she talks in a little old lady’s voice. She is on birth control so she doesn’t lay eggs anymore, which is the same as humans. She gets a shot every three years so she won’t produce any eggs and she’s much happier than she was being down at the bottom of her cage laying eggs constantly. And she’s healthier because it takes a lot of calcium out of her system to lay an egg.
I’ve got a blind cockatiel that’s handicapped in one foot. Her last stroke left the foot sideways and all balled up, so she walks on one side. I’ve got a ramp for her so she can climb over on her perch. For her, it’s all by feel, so obviously nothing can be changed in her cage. As soon as I lay the butter lid with her food on the floor every day, she senses the difference in the paper. She’ll feel with her beak and start eating. In nature, other birds would have killed her by now, she’s 24. I also have a 29-year-old that’s so arthritic that, when he stretches in the morning, when the wings come down, they come down real slow and then they stop about halfway. They’ll eventually get there. I’ll just let gravity do the rest of the work. He can’t grip anymore with his feet so he climbs with his beak. He has no grip anymore. But he’s happy.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE RAISING AND WORKING WITH ANIMALS WHOSE LIFE SPAN IS LONGER THAN SOME HUMANS?
It’s heartbreaking because I know a lot of these guys are going to outlive me, which means that there’s going to be at least one more home in their life. Simon hatched in 1999, he came to us when he was only two years old, so technically he’s up for adoption, but he’s not super hand-friendly like Rena. I can put her in my lap and I can read her body language, but Simon’s like that puppy that never gets the hyperness out of him. So you can be petting him and rubbing his head one minute and the next thing you know he does the little puppy growl and he grabs you and he doesn’t realize his strength. So you have to hold him when it’s quiet and there’s nobody else around.
People that want him are young people with children and they bond with one person, not the whole family. It’s not like a dog, whoever’s sitting on the couch they’re going to have the dog in their lap. And dogs are a much smaller time commitment. I’ve had older people come in and try to adopt a young bird that will live to be 60 years older than the person. That wouldn’t be a good experience for either the bird or the person. But they don’t care. They really don’t care. It’s part of that “me culture” that’s going on right now.
WHAT ARE THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH BIRDS END UP AT THE REFUGE?
We’ve had birds come in because they were given as Christmas gifts and the person really wanted a cat not a bird. We’ve had a lot of birds come in that people inherited and they didn’t know that they were going to inherit this thing and their lifestyle was way too busy to handle an animal of any kind. For someone to realize that is a good thing, instead of sticking it in a back room. Then you have the impulse buys. They get home they didn’t realize how loud it was how much dander it created. Not all birds create dander. Cockatiels are dandruff producers – basically the smaller downing feathers don’t fall out,they deteriorate ,which causes dander. So when they puff up you’ll see this puffy cloud, especially when the sun’s on them emanating off of them and you can literally rub your hand down their cage and get that silky pelt on your hand. That’s not typical dust. So if you have a cockatoo or two and you’re walking in socks over a hardwood floor you get by the cage, it’s like a skating rink. You will fall in a heartbeat if you’re not watching.
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT THEIR FEATHERS IN GENERAL
All their feathers on the underneath side have iridescent markings and they’re all unique. They can’t be seen with the naked eye unless you take them into a dark room with a black light. And there’s a distinctive difference on every feather on every bird.
They bond with one flock mate their entire life, which is their bonding mate. Unfortunately, the United States is the only country that doesn’t allow importation of birds anymore, so you’re still having smuggling going on into Europe, Australia, countries that don’t have specific species of birds like cockatiels, cockatoos, they’re still trading birds. Japan’s a big one for the bird market right now.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE WILD CAUGHT AND THE DOMESTICALLY BRED BIRDS?
They’re healthier. Wild caught birds are healthier birds. Unfortunately, breeders think a hand-fed baby bird is going to be better, but they’re not healthier because being fed by mom and dad, they’re getting all the nutrition. It’s like a human baby. Breast milk is more nutritious than what you get out of a can. The mother will continue to feed them for six months, a breeder will only feed them for two months and then sell them to a pet store, so you’re talking a much shorter span.
Umbrella cockatoos, or any of the cockatoo family, the mother bird actually feeds them for six years, so when you have a hand-raised cockatoo, you’re talking the rest of your life you’re going to be spoon-feeding this bird. And if by chance you got another one and you thought they were the same sex, well come to find out one was a boy, one was a girl. If they have babies, they’re not going to know enough to feed the babies, because it’s a learned instinct. There are more exotic birds in the United States than in their native countries now. If that’s not enough to make you sad.
There is a group that has taken a lot of these hand-raised babies, which aren’t really good pets since they don’t have the disposition to be a good family member, and they’ve taken them back down to their home country and they’re breeding them in these huge outdoor shelters. They’re still protected, but they’re not in the wild and there’s still a lot of human interaction within their native landscape. They’re trying to have them learn how to feed their young. A lot of them haven’t caught on to how to feed their young so there are other female birds and male birds that are willing to adopt and take over the feeding or the rearing of the young. And when they get to the point of being weaned, these people go out and literally cut down a tree of what their food should look like with the nuts on their and the type of leaves and type of bark and they put it in their habitats so they can identify their food. Where importation used to have only a 30 percent survival rate coming into this country, they’re having a 70 percent success rate bringing these birds back into their native habitat. They are trying to repopulate their native habitats because one day, these birds are going to be gone.
ARE YOU ABLE TO SEE THE TRAUMA OF SOME BIRD’S PAST HOMES AND LIVES?
We have a lot of birds that come in you can tell when their cages are hit with things usually sticks, typically. When you first come to sweep around their cages, they start thrashing, almost hurting themselves trying to get away from the broom. And so you’re trying to sweep and you let them see the broom a little bit more and we have brooms that have daisies on the handle, we have a green one, brown one, yellow one, so we try to find the color broom that we can sweep around a cage with. After a while they realize the broom’s not going to hurt them.
Sammy – the one without the cape on – he’s a sweetheart. He’s so emotional and that’s partly why he plucks his feathers. When he first got to us, the plucking wasn’t as bad as it is now, but it’s become a compulsive disorder with him and he was absolutely in love with his previous owner. She would walk out of the room and he would scream. The husband would throw things at the cage. His old cage was black and he had a lot of perches in his cage. Oh my god, there were so many toys in his cage the bird could hardly move. She was trying to find things to keep him busy and you could tell that she loved him. So I found him the white cage that he’s in and there’s no wooden perches in his cage because he can’t stand wood. If I walk by any of the play stands out here and he’s on my shoulder he’ll start hitting me with his wings like he’s going to take flight, because wood perches panic him. It’s got to be where the husband of his owner was either hitting his cage or swinging it at him with wood. Who knows.
WHAT DO YOU WISH PEOPLE KNEW ABOUT EXOTIC BIRDS?
They’re loud. If you see the beautiful conure in the acrylic tanks and they’re coming over and following your finger, they’re not in the acrylic tanks for health reasons, they’re in the acrylic tanks because they scream up to 130 decibels, which is equal to a jet engine. So if you’re the type of person who wakes up with a migraine headache, or just headaches then birds are definitely not your thing. Cockatoos scream for their flock numbers in the morning to announce feeding time and again at dusk when they’re calling all their flock to come to bed. Parakeets don’t stop screaming.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR MOTHER, NANCY’S, INVOLVEMENT HERE AT THE REFUGE
She’s the one that started the shelter in 2000 out of her own home. She added two additions to her home for the birds. They finally decided they would build a shelter where they could move the birds and get them out of the house. This building was finished in October 2010 and we moved everything into it, but we didn’t think that in a month’s time we were going to be at capacity. By having a bigger building we were getting more phone calls and as soon as they saw that we were open we were inundated again, but she was able to come here up until that March. She turned 65 and as soon as she turned 65 she got Medicare coverage, so she went to the doctor and they diagnosed her with stage four uterine cancer. And it already spread to her liver and her lungs and she started going through radiation and chemotherapy. She did four treatments of radiation and 26 treatments of chemo. Her lungs were clear, her liver was clear and the doctor decided to put her on an experimental treatment. Three weeks later she was gone. She was able to come here until March, and she passed away in June.
I’M SO TERRIBLY SORRY
When she had gone, I want to say she had four birds at home, she had mynah bird, an Amazon, and I think a grey. I came to visit once, and I brought my kids and she’s said, “If anything ever happens to me you know you’re going to have to be on a plane within 24 hours or these birds are going to starve.” And this was when she four birds of her own the shelter was not even an idea. She was still working full-time then. So that was always an understanding that we had. So when I found out she was sick I quit my job. I was making over $100,000 a year then, and I had two children that were already out of the house and I had one that was a junior in high school. She was going to the early college program – they didn’t have it up here so I couldn’t transfer her. So I left my daughter down there with my ex-husband so she could finish out the year down there and I moved up here and just cashed out my 401K, got a townhouse in Falmouth, not knowing what was going to happen. I was here now, helping my mother out and just hoping that I had enough money.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO STAY HERE?
Where would all these birds go? She was getting phone calls up until a month before she passed away, “Can you take one more bird?” She’d say, “Bring it on, he needs a home.” If she hadn’t started the store, we wouldn’t be here because the store does pay for a lot of it, it doesn’t cover the vet expenses, it doesn’t cover the birds that come in and cages that are not bird safe there’s so much rust and filth and way too small. So we do try to salvage what we can in cages.
WHAT IS IT LIKE HAVING AN EXOTIC BIRD RESCUE IN MAINE?
I wish there was more. There really needs to be more. Still working on trying to be a 501c3. Right now it takes more money to feed them than the store will ever bring in. The biggest problem I have is during school vacations everyone thinks that we’re a petting zoo and they can bring their kids and they get very upset when I say well there’s a viewing window. They want to go back, they want to touch and hold the birds. They don’t realize that it’s not a puppy you can’t sit the child down and put it in its lap and everything be okay.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT BIRDS THAT YOU THINK YOU LOVE SO MUCH?
The amount of love that they can give you. Because I can hold my bird Crackers out here and she’ll sit in my lap while I’ll place my orders on the computer. And yeah she does go to the bathroom on me occasionally she’s not as good as some of the other ones that’ll back up and go on the floor, but every once in a while she’ll just coo and look up at you and snuggle back into your lap and sit there and she’s just as happy sitting there. And Tuy is awesome. He loves my husband to death, loves to hide in his flannel shirt. A lot of times if he’s in a real playful mood he’ll start down your shirt, he’ll go around your back, he’ll come up, he’ll go down through your sleeve and then you’ll see him stick his head out and he’ll laugh at you! He has this really cute giggle. You’re just a human jungle gym to him! And if he’s got to go to the bathroom, he’ll come up and just nibble on your earlobe so you just take him and hold him over the trashcan or the toilet, he’ll go the bathroom. And they all have their own body language they can tell you things it’s just you have to be open enough realize what it is.
WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
I would probably say family.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
The greatest blessing is my husband because I could have a husband that didn’t really care about all this. I think he could take or leave the birds, but he really does care about them here and you can tell when he holds them.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
The greatest struggle would probably be the finances on this and finding the time to take care of everything. Don’t look too carefully there’s dust bunnies everywhere!
WHAT’S A LESSON YOU’RE LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE BEEN LEARNING RECENTLY?
I’ve been finding lately that I’ve been having a lot more customers coming in here that have been finding out about us, people that you would have never pegged to be a bird owner have had birds for years and a lot more of them are men. Before it was always the person who took care of the house pets was always the woman of the house, but you’re finding now it’s more men, single men specifically, that have the birds. Birds don’t demand a lot. They’re easy to clean up after, you just roll up the newspaper and put new sheet down. You learn where they sit so you put a piece of newspaper down where they’re sitting. That’s it, it’s easy. If you’re eating a snack, watching TV, you share it with your bird it’s something that bonds the two of you together because they realize, oh it’s movie time. They get popcorn.
IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR A MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Treat the birds how you want to be treated.
WHAT’S THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
The best moment is I have a few of them back there that know how to say “I love you.” Rena’s one of them and if I take her out, she’ll look up at me and say, “I love you,” in this sweet little voice and she’ll put her head against me. It makes it worthwhile, because she knows what it means because her response with her action.