Sunday, April 30, 2006

Save the Old Birds

CASCABEL, Ariz. — The Oasis Sanctuary is far from the largest retirement community in the Arizona desert, but it is certainly the noisiest.

BY Rick Scibelli Jr. for The New York Times

Along with the morning sun each day, there climbs a riotous opera of screeches, shrieks and squawks along with the occasional wolf whistle, "What's up?" and "I love you."

Tucked in a remote river valley, separated from Tucson by an enormous mountain range, the sanctuary is a "life care facility" for some 450 parrots, cockatoos, macaws and other tropical birds.

With life spans that for some species can be 80 years or longer, many of the birds have outlived their human caretakers. Others reached the end of their productivity as commercial breeders. Most were deemed too ornery or skittish for adoption as pets and faced euthanasia.

"Nobody wants these older birds," said Sybil Erden, who founded the sanctuary in 1998, noting that a parrot can take months or years to recover from losing a companion. "People call and say, 'We've had a bird for two months, and it just doesn't like us.' "

Ms. Erden's goal is definitely not to socialize birds for another try with people. "We're helping them learn to have bird friends," she said. "Some of them have a hard time understanding that they are birds."

Still, the enduring imprint of owners past, of decades spent in someone's living room or kitchen, was abundantly audible on a walk through the sanctuary grounds.

Billy, a yellow-naped Amazon, delivered the extended monologue that staff members call a "one-sided phone conversation."

"Hello," he said as a visitor approached and then continued with considered pauses between phrases: "Uh huh" ... "Yeah" ... "O.K." ... "Then what happened?"

Ms. Erden, a onetime artist who has parrots tattooed across her back, opened the sanctuary in Phoenix but moved to this larger isolated location along the San Pedro River six years ago. It occupies an old pecan orchard, miles up a bumpy dirt road, through a rocky landscape of prickly pear cactus and thorny mesquites.

Wild javelinas wander onto the property in daylight, ignored by the resident menagerie of roosters, geese, goats, sheep and cows, each animal with a back story that bears out Ms. Erden's admitted soft spot for forlorn creatures.

Sharing one aviary are some racing pigeons that had faced doom because they could no longer find their way home. The cherry-headed conure named Mingus and two other refugees from the feral flock made famous by the 2003 documentary "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" are also here. Physically handicapped, the three needed a new home after the squatter who tended them in San Francisco was forced from his house.

Two well-trained dogs protect the birds from coyotes and bobcats.

The larger birds are usually paired in rows of large veranda-covered cages. Some, mainly smaller species, inhabit two larger aviaries where they flock and fly, getting closer to their natural state. Ms. Erden hopes to build 10 more aviaries.

Many parrots are monogamous, bonding for life with another bird or, in homes, with a human. A top priority is helping them find a new companion. Self-chosen, companions are not necessarily of the same sex or species.

Milo, a green-wing macaw measuring three feet from head to tail, arrived nearly six years ago after being rescued from an unstable person's fetid basement. Ms. Erden had already been looking to set up Rah Rah, a military macaw nearly as big, so she tried placing them by themselves in a large cage.

"The first thing Milo did was to say 'Hello' in a loud voice," she recalled. "Rah Rah literally fell off his perch."

Two days later, Ms. Erden said, the birds were perched side by side, and Milo actually had a wing over Rah Rah's shoulder. Neither is friendly toward humans. But Rah Rah, who had never uttered English words, started saying the occasional "Hello" and "How are you?" Of course, talking with Milo's accent.

Jasmine, a double-yellow-headed Amazon now around 10 years old, was given up by an owner who became infirm after a series of strokes. Here she bonded with Tabasco, same species, age unknown, and now the two preen and feed each other.

But beware to intruders. When Ms. Erden stopped to talk with Jasmine, Tabasco started biting Jasmine out of jealousy, a behavior these parrots exhibit in the wild to keep their mates from flirting with rivals.

Their mimicking skills are sometimes so acute that it is hard not to impute humanlike reasoning. As Ms. Erden neared Stinkerbelle, a small green and grey Quaker parrot, the bird cried out, "No, no, no!" pecked Ms. Erden's finger and mockingly screamed, "Ha, ha, ha, ha!"

The last thing the sanctuary wants is to produce offspring. Sometimes the birds are seen having sex. But without appropriate nesting sites, they seldom lay eggs, and when they do, ceramic eggs are substituted until the parents lose interest.

Even as she works to expand and improve the sanctuary, whose $250,000-a-year operating budget is financed by donations, Ms. Erden worries about a potential flood of unwanted parrots as pet-owning baby boomers become infirm.

"We're getting more calls from people in their 60's and 70's who need to give up their birds," she said. "We don't see an end to the problem."


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