October 23, 2014
I rise every morning just after 4:00 a.m. — gladly on most days — and pad as silently as possible across the terra-cotta- tiled floors of our home. If I make the smallest sound as I pass by the dining room, they might hear. I don’t want to set off our resident clown posse — not yet.
“Hello? Want out! I love you!”
Darn. Shana is awake. I ignore her squawky blandishments, and she tries harder.
“Pretty mama, pretty mama. I love you!”
I smile to myself and wait her out. Finally, silence returns. As I finish a mug of tea and an hour of administrative work in my office, dawn flares over the foothills of the Santa Cruz range to our west. Every morning at first light, I step outside into the bewitching bird music that heralds another day at Pandemonium Aviaries, the home and bird sanctuary that I share with my family, two donkeys, a pair of goats, a collie, a sheepdog, one understandably aloof elder cat, and some of the world’s most remarkable birds.
Ours is a global birdsong. As I stand on the deck, the morning music begins with a few tentative peeps and soft trills until a full symphony swells from the most vocal of over three hundred avian throats representing over forty species. It knocks me out, every day.
“Whooo, whooo.” The Guinea turacos greet the first rays of sun and preen their bright green plumage. They look like Vegas showgirls, with exaggerated white eyeliner and extravagant plumes atop their heads. “Whooo.”
Beneath their fluting I can hear the contrapuntal coos of our male ringneck doves as they begin another day of relentless courting, bowing to their lady loves between notes. We also have bleeding-heart doves, Australian crested doves, emerald doves, Senegal doves, and crested quail-doves.
Now Olivia and Ferguson, a pair of majestic East African crowned cranes, are stretching white-tipped wings that span six feet. Electrifying crowns of gold filaments flare from black tufts atop their heads; their eyes, set in a black mask above crimson cheeks, are a piercing cobalt hue. The cranes’ low, loud call travels far through the misty hills here. It’s the primal sound of morning in the Lake Victoria basin of East Africa, ever fainter there as those habitats grow more perilous for the cranes.
The big birds’ trumpeting has roused the rainbow lorikeets, an antic Australian parrot family of mom, dad, and three babies splashed with gaudy primary colors. They pop up groggily from their nesting box, then snap into their frenetic punk-rock personae, screeching, “Harli! Harli! Harli!” as they pogo up and down on their perches.
They’re all housed in a sprawling complex of cupolas, turrets, and tropical-hued mosaic-trimmed cages. Pandemonium is a nonprofit focused on saving bird species from extinction through conservation and education. We began as a place where rescued birds could live out their lives without ever having to be moved again. As a rescue organization we could save individual birds, but when we made the transition to conservation breeding, our mission became saving species. In a short time, with primarily volunteer staffing, we have assembled some of the largest flocks of certain rare and exotic species in the world, right in our backyard.
Some of our birds are in far more peril than others. During the morning serenade, I always listen closely for an eerie sonic boom that sends a deep tympanic roll beneath the reedy melodies. Until I hear it, I wonder: Are they awake? Are they okay?
“Booooooom.” There they are. “Boom, boom, boooom.”
Early on, I developed a hopeless infatuation with our vivid blue Victoria crowned pigeons, and I fret about them constantly. They are native to New Guinea and they are the largest pigeon species in the world. At a foot and a half, they are just a bit smaller than their extinct forebears from Mauritius, the dodoes. The Victoria crowneds’ lacy head plumage looks like a headdress of delicate blue snowflakes fanned above vivid red eyes. At times, they bob their blue-gray fan-shaped tails rhythmically as they vocalize the species’ quieter call. It’s much like a hum. Some visitors have likened it to a cell phone set on vibrate.
For me, the sound whispers of the ancestral, fog-bathed tropical forests of New Guinea. Ours is the second-largest flock of Victoria crowned under conservation in the world. We have grown it bird by bird with our own hatchlings and acquisitions from breeders and zoos. All our birds were bred half a world away from the habitats where their wild ancestors were first trapped or netted and sent off in shipping crates to the United States. Many millions of wild birds have died during capture or in transit — collateral damage in the exotic-creature trade.
We never accept illegally wild-caught birds, but we work hard to ensure the survival of birds who are already in the United States and their offspring. Someday, if we can raise healthy new flocks, these birds may be repatriated to those faraway forests — what’s left of them. For now, we aim to keep the species alive, well, and safely reproducing.
The Victoria crowned pigeons, their close relatives blue crowned pigeons, Nicobar pigeons, and the green-naped pheasant pigeons, also from New Guinea, are Pandemonium’s main breeding focus. New Guinea is home to the third-largest rain forest in the world. An alarming amount of forest on the huge island has been destroyed, much of it slashed and cleared for palm plantations. Growers are rushing to produce more red palm oil, praised as a carotene-rich “diet miracle” by manufacturers and Web and TV health gurus. There are already plantations producing red palm oil sustainably in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Liberia, as well as in parts of New Guinea. Conservationists have campaigned to identify these responsible vendors on packaging labels, but the habitat encroachment continues at an alarming rate.
What price, this quest for human wellness? The World Wildlife Fund report released in 2011 identified red palm oil cultivation as one of the major threats to wildlife in New Guinea. Like the iguanas, albatross, and giant tortoises so cherished on the Galápagos, two-thirds of the wildlife in New Guinea is believed to be unique in all the world. But unlike the Galápagos Islands, which are rich in ecotourists, poverty-stricken New Guinea has few resources for conservation. So it’s possible that the last wild flocks of our New Guinea species will soon go the way of the dodo.
Taking care of some of these rare birds involves a scary amount of guesswork. How does one hand-feed a newly hatched green-naped pheasant pigeon? What’s the proper humidity in which to incubate a Victoria crowned pigeon egg? There’s plenty to puzzle about in our noisy backyard. Not the least of it is just how all this happened. Mucking out parrot poop is not a predictable second career for me, a former Silicon Valley executive with a master’s in management science. Nor is our otherwise “normal” suburban house a likely spot for a sanctuary. Where our kids once gleefully dove into dirt piles, we have built our ever-expanding complex of aviaries — thirty-four large ones and still counting. The garage is now crammed with incubators, caged birds on “hospital watch,” and a few thousand live, homegrown mealworms. Never did I think I’d get excited when FedEx delivered an avian fecal test kit.
Some days, the learning curve seems to bend straight up. I’m not sure we could persist were it not for the moments of absolute joy: The fluttering ecstasy of two love-starved turacos finally united as a mated pair. The comic nannyhood of a “bachelor” red-rumped parrot from Australia who insists on helping to raise the chicks of our rosella pairs. We call him Uncle Dutch. His dogged indulgence toward other species’ chicks and fully fledged offspring has mystified visiting ornithologists. Dutch is our own species-and gender-confused Mrs. Doubtfire. I love to watch him sneak treats to the older fledglings when their parents aren’t looking. Then there is Abraham, a small rock pebble parrot with a mission. Whenever new birds seem agitated at their unfamiliar surroundings, Abraham welcomes them with a calming mantra: “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okaaaaay.”
Often, I close my eyes as the morning music rises to full pitch. Some days, the kaleidoscopic beauty of our birds is almost too much as they flit and swoop through the fresh-cut manzanita branches and live shrubbery in their aviaries. They are plumed, tufted, and rakishly “mohawked,” striped, spotted, scarlet, turquoise, lime green, orange. Visitors ooh and aah; schoolchildren squeal when the African cranes peer down at them from their favorite high perches. Some of our neighbors drop by to have a look at new arrivals and just stare, transfixed. It’s easy to get lost in the extravagant op art whorled through a single pheasant tail feather.
Our birds are gorgeous. But that’s not why I’ve fallen for them so hard and so deeply. I’ve learned that their behavior is far more fascinating than their plumage. What birds know has upended anything I thought I understood about the natural world and our place in it. Birds mourn, they sacrifice, they engage in wicked tricks. They name their babies. They invent, they plot, they cope, and, as you’ll see, some of them know devilishly well how to manipulate unsuspecting humans. Beset by the forces of nature and the follies of man, they parry with marvelous wit and resilience. They can teach us volumes about the interrelationships of humans and animals.
After over a decade of this work, I am just learning to speak “bird.” I’m no whisperer, no avian Dr. Dolittle. Our birds have taught me how to meet their needs. Since they are such powerful educators, their stories are the heart of this book. Some of their journeys to our backyard can break your heart; their spirit and their revelations amaze and cheer me daily. In sharing their odysseys — and yes, their wisdom — I hope to gently pull the rug from beneath what you think you know about these feathered familiars. I intend to convince you that “birdbrain!” is the finest of compliments.
But first, let’s amble through the rest of my morning rounds at Pandemonium — and then to the other side of our rescue operation.
As the dawn chorus subsides and the birds settle into their day, I walk the serpentine stone-and-gravel paths through our enclosures and aviaries and check them all, a little obsessively perhaps. I didn’t have to go to “zoo school” (though I did!) to learn that in aviculture, vigilance is critical, especially during nesting season. There are hidden hazards in the tamest suburban ecosystem. If the African cranes find and gobble slugs, they can get parasites. The bacteria in field mouse droppings can kill a healthy, blue iridescent Nicobar pigeon before you know it is ill.
Once I’ve looked in on our outside aviary birds, I head back into the house for some comic relief. From the kitchen, I sound reveille to the menagerie of “companion birds” — rescued macaws and other parrots — who spend their nights in floor-to-ceiling aviaries lining our dining room walls.
“Wake up! Time to party!” I call out.
Mayhem erupts in a furious chorus of shrieks, squawks, and wisecracks. They holler back in half a dozen distinct voices.
“Hey, pretty mama!”
“Are you hungry?”
“Hello. Hello. Hello.”
“Hello” (in an English accent).
“Do you want a cappuccino?”
Should my husband, Tom, pass through on his way to work, Amigo, a red-headed Amazon parrot, is liable to cock his head and train a gimlet eye. I cringe, knowing what’s coming. Amigo is a grumpy old guy in his forties or older. He’s been with us the longest and somehow he has it in for my very patient and supportive spouse. Tom always gets a sweet and personal greeting:
Some of the dining room crew can cuss a deep blue streak; others call plaintively for their lost owners: “Come get me. Mimi? Roger!” With life spans that can stretch from forty to seventy years depending on the species, many companion birds simply outlive their owners. On average, a long-lived parrot will cope with nine new homes and many difficult readjustments. All our noisy adoptees have had their primary relationships sundered by the tides of human frailty and misfortune: old age, home foreclosure, job loss, AIDS, cancer, heart disease, poverty, or flat-out cruelty. A good number have arrived sick or injured. Most of our rescued companion birds come from shelters and rescue groups, but some have been private adoptions.
All the parrots and macaws have deep backstories, some as dark and unknowable as the secrets of our wild birds. We don’t dwell on that here. It’s all about healing — and joy. That’s why we begin our days with a song-and-dance fest.
“Hey, guys!” I chirp, boom box in hand. “Merry Christmas!”
I play what I’ve seen them respond to. Lately, every morning is Christmas, regardless of the season. The holiday songs they like best are fast and catchy, drawn mostly from fifties pop. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is a perennial favorite. Another chestnut: Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”:
Everyone’s dancing merrily
In the new old-fashioned way.
I can’t tell you why the birds fell into a permanent Christmas groove, just that it persists. It began in early December about two years ago. The weather had been chilly and rainy for weeks, and we were all cranky. I turned on the radio, and the first channel I hit was blasting “Jingle Bells.” Even parrots that normally don’t sing and dance started bobbing their heads in perfect time to the music.
I knew we were onto something. The birds take their dancing and singing very seriously, and music selection is key. If they think a song stinks, they’ll perch, unmoving, and glare or peck sulkily at their food bowls. When they heard that first Christmas carol, none of them even paused for a snack or a sip of water.
These birds can boogie. Not all of them dance, but no one here has trained those that do. Our dancers are naturals, grooving smack on the beat. Some macaws pop and lock on their perches like hip-hop MCs. If they’re dancing outside their cages, the African gray parrots form a conga line on the floor. It’s our private indulgence. We have no YouTube cameras live-streaming our dancefests, no audience at all except for Amadeus and Kenya, our Lady Ross’s turaco and violaceous turaco, whose aviary is just outside the dining room window. They peek in from their perches and sometimes bob along. Amadeus came to us with just one leg. That curbs any dancing but doesn’t seem to affect his joie de vivre.
When “Jingle Bells” finished on that first day of what would become endless Christmases, the rest of the gang waited patiently for the next cut. Only Mylie, a ravishing but emotionally immature Catalina macaw, was unmoved by the Christmas tunes. She sat back and watched the others perform, haughty as a queen amused by her jesters. As the Ronettes’ version of “Frosty the Snowman” started, the flock exploded with enthusiasm. Finally, I was giving them material they could work with, music that had the right beat and a perfect mixture of simple and complicated vocals. All singers could keep pace but remain challenged. Now I can’t imagine we’ll ever take Christmas out of our repertoire. We enjoy it too much.
I don’t care what I must look like, bopping along with a bird on each arm. I’ve led our daily dance party for several years now. Before we settled into holiday music, we’d shaken our tail feathers to all genres. We still mix the playlists for variety — and my sanity. They include rock and roll, the Beatles, salsa, reggae, and enough Disney tunes to drive any adult human around the bend and back. A favorite is Disney’s Princess Collection. Cinderella! Ariel! Jasmine! Snow White! Belle! Bring on the schmaltz. When it all gets too much, I cut the treacle and cue up James Brown’s funky anthem “I Feel Good.”
Tico, a handsome male blue and gold macaw, is our best dancer, bold and tempestuous as a flamenco artist. When he’s in the mood, he can move his head and body in opposite directions, riffing on a belly dance he developed for one of the Disney numbers. A more recent resident, Shana, a twenty-nine-year-old yellow-naped Amazon female, was at first stubbornly resistant to the music and mayhem. Her arrival provided a sad and unsettling crash course on helping parrots traumatized by losing their homes.
We had some harrowing nights with Shana. At first, her cage was in the spare bedroom near ours. At about 4:00 a.m., I was awakened by Shana singing the iconic opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “Duh-duh-duh daaaah!” She trilled through the first few measures, note-perfect. Her voice has the operatic power required for this commanding piece.
The Central American, Costa Rican, and southern Mexican rain forests to which her species is native were noisy places supporting large flocks of flashy psittacines, but those areas have become much quieter as yellow-naped parrots encounter habitat destruction and illegal capture for the pet trades. Yellow-napeds are prized as pets both for their intelligence and for their impressive talking and singing abilities. They have a great sense of pitch — though Shana can let loose a clunker every now and then.
Despite my approach in that wee hour on tiptoes, Shana stopped singing. Her hearing, like that of most parrots, is quite acute. “Good morning!” she called out with gusto.
Shana took my silence as a sign that the approaching human needed some enticement.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. Then she lapsed into a cartoony voice, repeating a silly chorus: “Oh, it’s a birdie!”
When I peeked into the room and flicked on a dim light, Shana shrieked at the sight of me. “Mimi! Robert!” she yelled in her panic. “Mimi! Robert! Come here!”
Mimi and Robert were Shana’s loving family for all but the first year of her life. A childless, active couple, they spent their free time outdoors either gardening or biking or hiking, nearly always with Shana in tow. Shana had been their darling; their photo albums show Shana on the handlebars of a bicycle, at the beach, at a birthday party. But the couple wanted a lifestyle change and Shana didn’t fit into the shimmering new picture, so they brought her to me.
Unless we could help her, she faced decades of lonely maladjustment. Abandonment is always difficult. Even birds that have been in bad homes can have a hard time adjusting to a new family. They mourn, they get angry and have tantrums or bite. Even the most mellow birds don’t find the change easy. With such a long connection with one family, Shana was traumatized by the inexplicable and sudden separation from all she knew. She wouldn’t let me touch her. If I offered her food treats, she threw them on the floor.
For lack of a better tactic, I tried to gentle her back toward comfort and trust. In the softest voice that was still audible, I repeated a soothing phrase: “You’re all right, Shana. You’re all right.” It seemed to help a little. After a while, she stopped screaming for Mimi and Robert and began to comfort herself with a mantra. “Pretty bird. Pretty bird,” she chanted softly. I began to keep a diary of her daily actions, hoping to discover any small signs of progress. Flipping the pages was of little comfort. After weeks of angrily flinging away any treat, Shana finally consented to hold an offering for a few seconds before letting it drop to the floor of her cage. When I reached my hand out and asked her to step up, she hesitated before turning her back to me.
Then, finally, a real breakthrough. Shana began joining the parrot dancefest in the mornings, just singing to the music. If I looked directly at her, she’d stop singing right away. The page in my diary entry recording her first group participation is covered with exclamation points. But it was a momentary triumph. For the next three mornings, she stayed mute when I put on the music. If I approached her cage, she started calling for Mimi and Robert again and calming herself with “pretty bird.”
I don’t normally use that sort of parrot cliché with my birds, but I had nothing else to throw at this problem. I’d heard Mimi say “pretty bird” to Shana just before she walked out of her life. I practiced until I was as close to Mimi in tone and intonation as I could remember, and I kept it up: “You’re such a pretty bird, Shana.” She seemed calmed by the phrase and the singsong cadence, repeating after me, “Pretty bird,” like a child soothing itself by stroking a well-loved stuffed animal.
We were at this standstill for several weeks; it wasn’t a happy time. I was angry at the couple for Shana’s pain and at myself for being unable to help her more. Stewing was hardly productive, but I’d simply run out of ideas. One morning, over six months after Shana’s arrival, I approached her cage as usual, opened the door, and held out my forearm for one more try, saying, “Hi, pretty bird. You’re such a pretty bird, Shana. Want to go outside?”
She stepped up onto my forearm as if it were the most natural thing in the world and greeted me: “Hello, pretty mama.”
Well, rock my world, little girl. I still love my “new” name, which has stuck with Shana from that moment. Mostly I’m grateful that she has begun trusting another human. It was clearly her decision, in her own good time. To my greater joy, her grief has receded enough for a new relationship — with me. She is indeed a pretty bird: pretty special, pretty brave, and pretty wonderful — even if she can’t dance worth a darn. She did try, and she seemed to know it was hopeless. She finally gave up and just started belting out, “Dashing through the snow,” at operatic volume — if slightly off-key.
As Shana wails away, I love to waltz with Beakman, a female blue and gold macaw who arrived with her own set of physical and emotional problems. She came to Pandemonium after having been kept indoors and all but motionless in a small cage for seventeen years. Her toenails were badly overgrown, which greatly reduced her range of motion. She was fed mainly peanuts and did not like to be touched — at all.
Despite this misguided husbandry, Beakman’s owner, Archie, maintained that he did love her, very much. He was in tears when he called to explain that he was losing his home, and he was frantic about her fate. He had placed an ad on Craigslist to find her a new place to live, and the first caller made it clear that he wanted the bird for “mixed species fighting.” Archie was appalled and quickly withdrew the ad. When he was finally evicted, I brought Beakman home. Even after her nails were trimmed, balance was a big problem for her in the beginning. Now she has recovered to such an extent that she’ll dance every chance she gets.
The morning dance party always ends with a procession to the birds’ outdoor aviaries. Sometimes I move them all myself, singly or in pairs. Sometimes an intern arrives early and they’ll go out on his or her capable arms. I need to return to the huge task of getting meals ready and delivered. Feeding all those birds takes four hours daily. My kitchen is filled with cases of papaya, blueberries, melon, grapes. We buy or are given seed by the pallet. At about 9:00 a.m., all our interns start to troop in. They come from colleges, veterinary programs, and the local community. They help with website development, volunteer coordination, fund-raising events, and research. Some interact directly with the birds. Depending on their experience level, they clean cages, assist with feeding and medicating, and conduct experimental sessions in “parrot enrichment,” teaching the companion birds more language and shape recognition.
As the interns head off to their tasks, I put together the first heavy tray of food bowls. From the corral out back, a donkey brays, and a blue-feathered wise guy snaps back,
Tico, my bad boy. Tico the trickster, the skilled and sneaky lock picker, the practical joker, the heartbreaker. Tico the merciless mimic. Now he’s mocking poor Trixie, one of the donkeys: “Heeeeehawwwawww. Heh-heh-heh.”
“Pandemonium” fits our operation, no doubt about it. Tom and I let the children choose the organization’s name from a list of possibilities. We figured that we owed them the privilege. They’ve endured parrots grooming their hair and shrieking through their favorite TV shows. They’ve bounced in from school ravenous and bitten into what looked like corn bread but was in fact yucky home-baked“birdie bread.” Too many mornings, they’ve seen Mom sleepless and cranky during the tense and busy nesting season. When I gave them the list of possible names, I made my favorite known: Paz y Amor, Spanish for Peace and Love.
Really, Mom? If there’s been any sibling rivalry in our home over the years, it’s been between the kids and those Mom-hogging birds. With little debate, their vote was for the obvious choice. We learned only later that pandemonium is also the accepted collective noun or “flock name” (as in gaggle of geese, covey of doves) for a group of parrots.
Having found pandemonium such a felicitous choice, we looked up other flock names. Just a sampling of what we found:
a wisdom of owls
a murder of crows
an ascension of larks
an unkindness of ravens
a siege of herons
an ostentation of peacocks
a mob of emus
a parliament of rooks
a lamentation of swans
As these collective nouns show, we humans certainly have diverse impressions of these creatures of the sky. We credit some with beauty and wisdom and blithely defame others. Our attitudes toward them are complicated and our understanding so fragmented. How much better our relationships could be if it weren’t quite so one sided. I listen closely to our birds, and I talk to them all the time, even if it’s to whisper to the tiniest and frailest of them, “Come on. Live!”
Sometimes, when I’ve been up all night with a struggling hatchling, I do wonder at the burden of hope we place on our small ark of survivors. You can’t do this sort of work without a lot of internal debate — especially in those lonely small hours. It’s hard to find words for the compulsion to know and protect this improbable flock. A hundred and fifty years ago, when Emily Dickinson wrote the poem so many generations of schoolchildren have learned by rote, she couldn’t have dreamed it would have fresh meaning as an avian conservationist’s prayer. It works for me and for our mission at Pandemonium.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
MICHELE RAFFIN founded Pandemonium Aviaries in Northern California to care for abandoned birds. Today it is one of the premier breeding facilities for avian species facing extinction due to the destruction of their natural habitat. A certified aviculturist and regular consultant to zoos and breeders, she has spoken at the TEDx conference, is the conservation columnist for the Aviculture Society of America’s Avicultural Bulletin, and has served as co-chair of a large humane society and on the board of a rescue organization for companion birds.