As a volunteer at A Helping Wing Parrot Rescue and Sanctuary, I have the advantage of working with so many varieties of birds and it has given me the opportunity to learn the characteristics, habits and routines that most typical bird owners will never experience.
Prior to the rescue, I had only been accustomed to small birds… the occasional finch or budgie, my partner’s Hahn’s macaw and the Jardine’s parrot I was surreptitiously adopted by shortly thereafter. I had seen full sized macaws and cockatoos from a distance at stores, zoos and on TV. I never had the urge to get a larger bird and didn’t understand the draw. They were loud, messy and had a bite I didn’t want to experience.
The first night I went to the rescue to offer my volunteer services, I was both awestruck and frightened by the birds I saw there… up close and personal. I was tentative, to be sure. I hardly considered myself an expert with only a few years of small parrot ownership under my belt, but I was willing to learn and volunteering seemed the easiest way to do this.
My partner, Bryan, had owned birds most of his life. He’d purchased his Hahn’s as an egg, brought him home once he was weaned and has had him for more than fifteen years now. His family has had macaws, grays and conures. As a teen he lived on a nature preserve that catered to injured animals and he had the awesome experience of nursing prey birds. Needless to say, he was the expert and I asked him everything. And he thankfully volunteered at the rescue with me.
Upon arrival there, I was asked about my experience level. Chuckling, I mentioned the small birds I had worked with as I eyed the handful of full-sized macaws hovering over my head, balancing on hanging perches around the room. I was asked if I had ever handled a large bird. I hadn’t and wasn’t quite sure I wanted to. John, one of the rescue owners, smiled broadly and said he could cure me of my fear and swiftly left the room.
I didn’t know these people. I had met them at a bird expo a week prior and we hit it off chatting about birds. They were promoting the rescue and Bryan immediately connected with a tiny, pitiable Hahn’s named Ecko they had brought who was almost entirely bald, but rushed up his arm and immediately began preening him. Jeanne, the other owner, recognized the bond and asked him to visit the rescue. We didn’t go looking for another bird, but after that day we got one. Ecko became a part of our family and we became a part of theirs.
John came back to where I was warily sitting with the most monstrous bird I had ever seen and without a word, flipped him upside down and laid him in my lap like a baby. With my heart in my throat I tentatively cradled the beast as I was instructed. For the first few seconds, I didn’t breathe, but then something happened. Piaui, the bird in my lap, looked up at me with the most sincere, trusting dark eyes, grabbed hold of my fingers like a baby, and practically smiled… if birds could smile. I breathed and almost began to cry.
Bryan sat in amazement. It was a Hyacinth, he told me, the largest macaw of the species and the strongest. He began spewing information about how they could snap a 2×4 with one bite. Not something I wanted to hear while one was lying in my lap inches from my face clutching my fingers. He soothed my unease by pointing out that though large, the Hyacinth was one of the most docile birds I would ever handle and told me I was now privileged. Holding a Hyacinth was like a car enthusiast sitting in a Ferrari for the first time, he said. Not many people had the experience and I should count myself lucky. I did.
Over the years I’ve had the benefit of handling so many different birds. It’s hard not to get attached to them all. You feed them, play with them, and soothe them when they are afraid or angry. When they are adopted by a new family, you are sad to see them go but are thankful that they have found a new home. That has always been our goal. Of course, some bonds are unavoidable and you end up with additional birds in your own flock. We now have five, having added a Harlequin and a Catalina macaw to our growing, personal avian family.
That night that changed my life at the rescue happened three years ago this month. The rescue recently moved to a newly purchased farm in northern New Jersey where they could spread out and not worry about the noise and Bryan and I happily moved with them. I now have the added benefit of handling any bird I wish at my leisure, including the charming Piaui who still knows how to get under my skin with that smile. I am glad I had been given the opportunity to become the experienced bird handler that I have become.
I encourage and recommend anyone who has the urge to familiarize themselves with parrots far beyond their imaginations to seek out a local organization and offer your time. It’s a wonderful experience and one that you will never regret.
For listings in your area, please check the Avian Welfare Resource Center for further information.