LETTS — Simon Bolivar has reached puberty — and that has become a serious problem.
The bright green 8-year-old military parrot sits on a high perch in a screened open-air confinement at Iowa Parrot Rescue in rural Letts when his owner, Susan Boehlje of Iowa City, drops in to see if he’s back to being the friend she once knew.
“I thought I’d give him one more chance,” Boehlje said as she visited Simon at Iowa Parrot Rescue last month.
“He’s a good kisser, Boehlje said, “or when I laugh, he laughs along.”
Simon’s behavior became erratic a few months earlier, with outbursts of hostility and destruction. Iowa Parrot Rescue founder Mike Hutchison agreed to help the parrot, but he warned that the path could be rocky for the next few years as Simon worked through his hormonally charged rebellious streak.
After about 30 minutes of visiting Simon — and another sobering conversion with Hutchison — Boehlje leaves without her parrot, but is unwilling to write him off as a pet.
“Mike’s been fabulous about helping me decide what to do,” Boehlje said.
The perils of parrot ownership have landed about 75 similar birds at Iowa Parrot Rescue, about 15 miles southwest of Muscatine. Many have been put out for adoption by their owners. Others have been confiscated by federal wildlife officials in parrot smuggling operations, or taken during drug busts.
Parrots simply aren’t the pets many buyers expected them to be, Hutchison said, because they are essentially wild animals.
Unlike dogs or cats, parrots haven’t been bred as human companions. Many of the parrots sold in shops were netted in jungles, not bred in captivity.
“You can bring a wolf home and feed it and love it, and maybe it will be your friend,” Hutchison said. “But it will never be a dog. It will always be a wolf.”
Parrots can bite and tear clothing of their owners, inflicting serious damage. They can also destroy furniture and woodwork with their powerful beaks.
“If a parrot is nice to you and decides to be your friend, it’s not because you are his master,” Hutchison said. “It’s because he likes you.”
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Some birds unadoptable
As a result of their wild nature — and emotional damage inflicted on many parrots by owners who don’t understand their needs — some of Hutchison’s charges stay unadopted and unadoptable at the shelter for years.
Most of the parrots at the shelter are stunningly gorgeous. There are huge blue and gold macaws, pastel cockatoos, eye-popping orange-and-yellow sun conures, and whimsical yellow-and-gray cockatiels. There’s even a relatively conservative-looking African gray, one of the more popular parrots because of its renowned ability to be trained.
There are also parrots with little hope of adoption that, malnourished or confined, started plucking their feathers bare before they were brought here, and now can’t shed the self-plucking habit.
Center co-founder Abi Hutchison, Mike’s wife, provides intensive care for the most damaged birds, often parrots confiscated from meth labs that have been undernourished and even poisoned by chemicals.
Owners often lack the most basic knowledge of what a parrot needs, Hutchison said. Cages are typically too small, and many owners fail to provide the bird with the handling time and out-of-cage time they need.
The parrots also crave companionship, which they find at Iowa Parrot Rescue. Hutchison points to the big macaws that have paired off in a kind of buddy system to preen each other and communicate in a bird’s odd combination of squawks and gestures.
The passive solar earth-bermed shelter was built a few years ago, allowing the pet rescue operation to mostly get out of the Hutchisons’ house. Dozens of parrots respond to a visitor with earsplitting squawks, one of the factors that often drive owners to put them up for adoption.
Reasons for discarding
The reasons for giving up parrots to adoption are myriad. Their loud warning squawks can interfere with sleep and bother neighbors. The dander of the birds is a potent allergen, and the birds leave a trail of excrement and feathers that makes it hard to keep their area of the home neat.
Despite their drawbacks, most parrots remain beloved pets and a bigger factor in the abandonments may be that the birds simply live so long.
Parrots can live more than 60 years, and even though the owner may outlive the bird, many owners have life changes such as children, spouses, allergies or a different style of housing that make it impossible to keep a parrot.
Mike, 62, has been caring for the birds for about 15 years, since Abi took in her first adoption — a canary — and others heard about her kindness and brought her birds.
The center seems to get and adopt out more birds every year. Last year, 108 were adopted. This year, the center had taken in 40 and placed 37 by June. Birds have been brought in from as far away as Texas, where 900 birds were seized from a hoarder, and New Hampshire.
Mike blames pet shops for selling many parrots to owners who are unprepared for the responsibilities.
Shari Hunt of Pets Playhouse, a Cedar Rapids pet shop, has a different perspective. Hunt said she tells parrot buyers that the birds are loud, messy, and require a lot of attention.“They have one thing on their mind: They want a bird that talks,” Hunt said.