My Wild Parrots, A Confession

31 01 2009



There is nothing else in magic but the wild thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void

I am seeking absolution.

But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.

I love my two conures…my two little old men, who seem to like nothing better than to sit on the front porch or their house and watch the world go by.

Will you grant me

I love these birds and they are as the dead albatross on the neck of the ancient mariner.


My two old parrots are Wiggie and Redbird–acquired in 1996 and 1998 (when I was still a teen…). They are old men now, were adults when we first bought them at a terrible bird store in San Diego. Wiggie, our blue-crowned conure (Aratinga acuticaudata) was in a cage with about 50 other blue crowneds. Small and scraggly, he was constantly picked on and we received a 50% discount on him because of of his picked-over appearance.

May I say that again? I will…

A 50% discount.

What is the price of a life?
What reduction in value of that creature from their own experience of abuse from overcrowding and trauma (of capture…I am ashamed to say, I believe now he was transported to that pet store from the wild. Forgive me.)

Forgive me.

Wiggie is a fabulous wonderful smart bird. He is also a feather picker and biter, has always been and always will be to some extent. He is a beautiful boy but is old, has cataracts and a chronic herpes virus that causes outbreaks on his vent. I just want him to be happy.

His friend is Redbird–a cherry-headed conure (Aratinga erythrogenys) acquired in 1998 from the same bird store. Redbird was isolated in a dark cage at the pet store. He and Wiggie bonded immediately upon introduction which was good–I wanted Wiggie to have a partner, I was leaving for college and leaving him with my parents.

My parents live in San Diego and built a beautiful aviary for the boys. The boys lived in that aviary for many years, receiving visits from the wild parrots of San Diego.

And here is a little aside about urban flocks of feral parrot:
You might have seen the movie The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and/or read the book by Mark Bittner. I recommend both. The film’s integration of footage of the birds and spoken and unspoken investigation of the together/apart relationship of parrots and humans is breathtaking.

There are feral wild parrot flocks all over the world–many in the United States–including San Diego, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Seattle. If you are interested in more information about these birds it is worth reading the little discussion at Ode Magazine and checking out City Parrots.

The birds in the San Francisco flock of wild parrots are the same species as my boys: cherry-headed and blue-crowned. The birds in the San Diego flock are
cherry-headed (or at least, they were, when we lived there). They flew down to the aviary, fatter and fitter than my birds and chatted before flying off.

Should I have let my boys go with them? Of course I wanted to–I wanted them to have that companionship and freedom. But I do not believe they could have survived. They were older and weakened by captivity. They did escape twice but returned to the aviary for they were unable to follow the flock.

As I write this I wish I had a lash–every bit is wrong–the fact they escaped, the fact I didn’t let go of them…none is right. And here–these whiptongued voices in my head are all about me. None are about my boys, are they?

Now they are back with us. They moved with us from California to Washington. We set up the aviary with a heater so they could stay outside. But, over the last year, Wiggie has been ailing and we first brought them in at night and finally bought a brand new cage to keep them inside most of the time.

The transition was easier than I’d anticipated. They seem happy to sit and watch. Originally, they were in the kid’s playroom. Currently, in our rental, they have their own room…but when we move back into our remodeled house, they will either be in my office or the playroom. They call in the morning (they are VERY LOUD) when they want us to wake them up and feed them, and they call in the evening when they want dinner and then again when they want to go to bed (they sleep in a nestbox together–have done so for their entire lives together.

They also give a separate call when they are concerned–an alarm call?–when they spot the letter carrier down the street, or if a crow happens to perch too close to the house. The periodic seagull visitors seem to upset them as well.

I talk to them, give them toys, take them outside (I now have a “birdie backpack” to take them on walks) but I do not hold them or preen them. They preen each other and they do not want to be held by me. My relationship with Wiggie before we obtained Reddie was close–I held him, played with him, kissed him. Last time I made the mistake of trying to kiss him he bit into my lip–OUCH! The bond between Redbird and Wiggie, and the fact that I was pretty much absent from his life for many years, changed our relationship.

Redbird, on the other hand, never bonded with any of us humans. Wiggie is his mate and the only creature he cares about. To try to regain my bond with Wiggie and to train Redbird to tolerate me better I would have to separate them, break their bond, and try to transfer that bond to me. I cannot do that.

I will not do that.

Damn–I fucked up. Somewhere (I am sure you can see the places…all the places I could have done right by them).

They are both old, but Wiggie is also chronically ill. We treat him best as we can–we have an absolutely amazing veterinarian, Dr. Tracy Bennett, with whom we aim at prevention, control of the infection and pain control. But I fear he does not have many years left. I cannot imagine losing him.

I am bonded to him. I love him even though he bites the hell out of me when he gets a chance. He is beautiful, and dances, sings and speaks–he still loves me but is more tied to Redbird now than me…I am supplanted.

But if he goes first, what will happen to Redbird? It terrifies me to think of how that bird will grieve, feel alone and scared–utterly isolated and bereft. What can I do for him? We have discussed the possibilities–Wiggie had surgery recently and we had to face the possibility of cancer (but it wasn’t…it wasn’t). Redbird cannot be alone. If Wiggie passes first, I will try my best bond with Red bird but I suspect we will have to adopt another aging conure assuming we can find a bird to whom he will bond–

These birds live into their thirties–the boys were adults when we acquired them 20+ years ago.

I do not think parrots should be pets.

For certain THERE SHOULD BE NO TRADE IN WILD PARROTS. They should never be taken from the wild. Their wild lives are full of environmental and social complexity–we could never provide this–NEVER. They may bond with us, dance, sing, but how can we not see their lives as poor in comparison to the lives they live in the wild.

Of course, many wild parrot populations are threatened–the pet trade of the 1970’s and 80’s and habitat loss are primary threats. While the blue-crowned conures still show robust populations across their range in Argentina, Paraguay, Uraguay and Brazil, according to the IUCN the cherry-headed birds are near-threatened in their range of south Ecuador and Northern Peru. Perhaps, as someone said to me recently, one of the only hopes for the salvation of some of these species is through aviculture.


And I want to say clearly that I believe many parrot caregivers are devoted to their birds–those who are able to allow their birds to free-fly (as did the macaws in San Diego) give those birds a bit of wildness back.

but these birds live 30-100 years, depending on the species. Who lives a life that can encompass this sort of longevity.

These birds are very, very, VERY intelligent.

Here is a story Dr. T. Wright told me of watching his parrots in the field. A pair (for the pair is generally the central unit of parrot social systems) crosses from one “vocalization neighborhood” [my terms] into another. They first called in the dialect of the neighborhood they had left. They then called in the dialect of the neighborhood they joined.

What did they need to know to do this? They needed to know both dialects. They needed to know the geography of the neighborhoods (this is in the incredibly complex environment of the Costa Rican rainforest. They needed to know when they had crossed the boundary.

How do we provide a life for these birds that provides this level of richness? We can’t. That is the simple answer.

There is so much more I have to write about this…it wishes to come pouring out in an online confession, to you, my confessors–I want absolution and I want to share my sense of wonder.

Addendum 10/19/09:  Redbird died 10/07/09.  For his obituary, please follow this link:  Redbird, in Memoriam.

quotes are from Susannah Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) and the King James Bible (Psalms)




4 responses

13 02 2009
Pat at Parrot Cage Boutique

It never ceases to amaze me just how greedy pet stores are and the needs of the animal go unattended, whether it be parrots, dogs, cats or any pet.

15 08 2009
sun conure

It a shame parrots from the wild still get in cages. Why can’t we people just enjoy nature

16 10 2009
My Wild Parrots–An Obituary « Jdcalkins2001's Weblog

[…] have written about these birds before, here. Go there if you want to know more about them. This is just a little […]

20 10 2009
Jdcalkins2001's Weblog

[…] I will bore you with is this: Parrots Should Not Be Pets.  I have, of course, stated this in an earlier post.  But I feel compelled to write about it again, because of the youtube videos and the bird store […]

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