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Bird-lovers flock with their lifelong friends

Polly want a cracker?

Nicole Swanson and her pet parrot BG are inseparable, it seems.

You might have seen the latter on the former’s shoulder at the market or while they’re out rollerblading in St. Albert. Visit their home, and BG might show you her skills at dunking tiny basketballs, scoot about on tiny roller skates, or introduce you to the other 35 parrots in the place.

“They’re my life,” Swanson said of her flock.

“My kids have grown up, so these are my kids.”

Swanson, 56, and BG, 25, were two of the handful of birds and owners representing the Edmonton Pet Parrot Association Jan. 25 during the Edmonton Pet Expo.

When she wasn’t preening Swanson’s hair, BG, a macaw, was flaunting her golden yellow chest and blue-green wings to the crowds, and delighting them by showing how she could grasp a walnut in her claws and messily demolish it with her massive beak. Next to her was a pirate-red macaw named Tiko, who seemed to enjoy biting chunks out of their shared wooden perch. Nearby, a rather regal sulphur-crested cockatoo named Niko allowed visitors to pet his cloud-white feathers as his human made kissy-faces at him.

Parrots and their people

A bird lover for over 30 years, Swanson said BG was just a chick being raised by a friend when they first met. BG looked like an ugly alien at first, but got her feathers in eight weeks and was more or less fully grown in four months. Most of Swanson’s other birds are charity cases taken in from owners who couldn’t care for them anymore.

Like many of the parrot owners at the expo, Swanson had close ties with Tiko’s minder, Janine Couture, co-founder of the Meika’s Birdhouse store and bird shelter in Sherwood Park.

Earlier in January, Couture and her husband Ian Sprague were busy at the store trying to coax a loose pigeon down from a display using a stick. The horde of parrots, finches and other birds in the store served as a cheering section, chipping, chattering, squawking and going, “Wah!”, “Hi bud!”, and “*telephone noise*” to no one in particular.

It’s usually pretty noisy in here, said Sprague, whose booming voice might partially be the result of many years of shouting over parrots.

“I might have some hearing loss,” he said.

Couture said she got into parrots as a youth because her dad owned an African grey named Jaco.

“We had a bond,” she said, and he would call her by name.

Couture and Sprague started taking in unwanted birds from others more than a decade ago. They started Meika’s Birdhouse in 2011 as they couldn’t find the bird accessories they wanted, and registered as a bird shelter shortly thereafter. The shelter typically houses about 60 residents, most of which are parrots or finches, many of which are up for adoption.

Parrot association member Tyrone Loutan said he met one of his parrots, the orange-cheeked yellow-headed cockatiel Tikal, through Meika’s Birdhouse.

“He actually picked us,” Loutan said – store staff didn’t know the bird could talk until it saw him and started saying, “Pretty bird! Pretty bird!” and singing the Addams Family theme song.

“He’s been an active member of our flock since,” he said, and now has his own Facebook page.

Loutan, who was dressed as a dapper pirate with Tikal riding on his shoulder at the pet expo, said his parrot habit started when he inherited a bird named Tequila from his mother-in-law. Now, he has eight parrots and a dove in his home.

“It’s almost like a disease,” he jokes – he’ll see a bird that’s had a rough life, feel bad for it, and take it in.

“One bird is never enough and a thousand is too many.”

Parrot pros and cons

A parrot is a bird that has a hooked beak and a bone in their tongue that serves as a sort of finger, Sprague said. They’re zygodactyls, which means they have four toes on their feet – two forward, two backward. There are about 400 varieties of them, covering everything from itty-bitty budgies to massive macaws.

Most parrots live in equatorial regions such as India, Africa, Australia and the Caribbean, Sprague said. Most of the ones you find in Canada are locally bred, but illegal poached ones are still common in some parts of the world. A parrot can cost anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the species, and set you back about $1,500 a year for food and medical care.

And to answer that age-old question, Polly may want a cracker, but will do best on a mixed diet of fruit and vegetables, Sprague said.

Besides their beautiful rainbow-hued plumage, most people are drawn to parrots for their intelligence, Sprague said. Some parrots can use tools or count, and many are accomplished mimics, able to learn scores of sounds and phrases and speak them in context.

Jamie Minshull, who has lived in St. Albert with an African grey parrot named Reuban for 28 years, said Reuban will say “good night” and “good morning” at the appropriate times of day, and will call the kids to supper when she hears the clank of plates. She’ll also bark like a dog, laugh at jokes and mimic the “pew-pew” sound effects their vacuum cleaner makes.

“She makes me laugh constantly,” Minshull said, and she’s great entertainment for the guests.

Parrots have the intellect of a four-year-old human, and require frequent stimulation, Sprague said. A bored parrot will often start pulling out its own feathers or pace back and forth like a zoo animal. Sprague and Couture spend much of their days talking with their parrots, and make sure they have plenty of toys and a radio to listen to when they’re not around.

Parrots can be pretty loud and destructive. Sprague said his macaws ate his basement’s floorboards the one time he let them out unsupervised, and Minshull’s windowsill has a few chunks missing because she let Reuban get too close to it.

Parrots are extremely long-lived compared to other pets, with some varieties known to survive up to 80 years, Sprague said.

“Some of these birds could very well outlive you,” he said, and owners need to have plans in place in case that happens.

Parrots also have many vulnerabilities, Minshull and Sprague said. They can get calcium deficiencies if they lay eggs, and have to be kept at a certain temperature. Febreze, Teflon and other common household chemicals can kill them. Health care can also be a challenge, as there are very few veterinarians around Edmonton who can care for birds.

Pets or not?

Sprague and Couture say they struggle with recommending parrots as pets after seeing so many of them given up by their owners.

“The majority of the birds we get into care are here simply because people didn’t do the research,” Sprague said, and didn’t realize the long-term commitment a parrot involves.

“It’s just like having a kid that stays four years old for 65 years.”

Parrots aren’t for everyone, Swanson said. They bite, scream and poop. They don’t always like you, and your friends might not like them. At the same time, they’re very affectionate, smart and beautiful, and will laugh, dance, sing and even play tricks on you.

Swanson said she doesn’t regret getting into parrots, and often jokes with Couture on how they’d turn the old Northlands Coliseum into a bird reserve if they won the lottery.

“I would have like a billion if I could.”

The Edmonton Pet Parrot Association is holding its sixth annual show March 28 in Edmonton. Visit @EdmontonPetParrot on Facebook for details.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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