Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

By Carla Thornton

WHEN ANASTASIA Ortolano met Buddy the Congo African grey, it was love at first sight.

The 17-year-old bird lover was not discouraged in the least by the fact that Buddy was blind.

"I love 'special needs' birds more than anything," said Ortolano, who once had a blind cockatiel. "I didn't have too much experience with them, but I knew it was something I could handle if I tried."

Being blind had not improved Buddy's disposition over the years. He had to be toweled.

The breeder who gave Buddy to Ortolano couldn't tell her much about his past, except that he was wild caught at least 30 years ago, had had several owners, and had probably been blind all his life. "The vet’s best guess is that during importation he could have possibly gotten tossed around quite a bit," says Ortolano.

Being blind had not improved Buddy's wild disposition over the years. All his previous owners, breeders who may or may not have succeeded in getting Buddy to procreate, had to towel or net him to avoid being bitten. That wouldn't do for Ortolano, who aimed to show Buddy a new way of life: that of a pampered pet.

Ortolano began the prickly process of making friends with the skittish bird by softly saying his name every time she entered the room. From there she progressed to gently stroking his back with a cockatoo feather.

"I had to let him know some how that I was going to touch him, so he would be prepared. Each time I would say, 'Buddy, it's okay, baby, it's okay.'" After three months of Ortolano's tender entreaties, Buddy allowed himself to be petted. He now steps onto Ortolano's palm and lets her scratch him under the wings.

While Buddy's behavior is still a bit odd – he sometimes hangs from the inside top of his cage for up to 20 hours straight – he's just like any other pet parrot, says Ortolona. He plays with his bird toys, which Ortolona believes in rotating despite his handicap. His favorite food is dried mangoes, and he talks.

Buddy gets on well with his two same-species cagemates, Bella and Smokey. And he has learned his way around the 1500-square-foot kitchen-equipped basement where the Ortolona family keeps all their birds, including three cockatoos, a blue-and-gold macaw, a Senegal, a Meyer's and a Quaker.

Midway through our conversation over Yahoo Instant Messenger, Ortolona invited me to watch Buddy on her Webcam. The jerky image showed the grey bird on a couch, moving tentatively over the lumpy terrain of a blanket thrown over the cushions. Head down, he appeared to be using his beak like a cane.

I asked Ortolona if she could demonstrate how she picks up a blind parrot. Her flat palm went out to Buddy, who in the next image could be seen on a table, then on the back of a chair.

"He’s not in the mood to be picked up," laughed Ortolona. "Sometimes he flies, but he prefers to walk." Sure enough, the next image showed Buddy strolling along the hardwood floor. "He’s now headed for the family room to sit on the rug," said Ortolona. "It will take him about 10 minutes to make it there and he will be happy."

Unseeing eyes don't limit Luna, a severe macaw. She has a good memory and enjoys exploring.

Disabled birds make good pets, too
Luckily for the Buddys of the world, many bird lovers don't require the "perfect" parrot, straight from the pet shop or breeder in mint condition. They’re happy to provide homes for birds that have had some of the shine taken off due to birth defects or injuries.

While they may be a bit more challenging to care for, these "special" birds are well worth the effort, say their owners. Disabled birds can be enjoyed for their unique personalities, just like any other parrot.

Alex Taylor says his blind severe macaw, Luna, is no more work than his two sighted birds.

"She doesn't need pity; like any bird, she wants attention, scritchies, time to play, and her food. People who are thinking about taking in a handicapped bird should remember that it's a bird first; the handicap is secondary."

A traumatic life
Like many birds, Luna became handicapped as the result of an injury. When she was a youngster, her pet sitter's children pulled out her tail feathers and stabbed her eyes with paperclips.

Luna's owners had decided to euthanize when an elderly woman offered to take her. Four homes later, Luna now lives with Alex Taylor and Tamara Gravit of Lompoc, Calif., and is not letting her traumatic past get her down.

Luna has blossomed from a "scared and pretty vicious" bird six months ago into an affectionate parrot who weaves her head to music like Stevie Wonder and loves to go visiting other people, said Taylor, a computer programmer who works at home.

A visit to a veterinary ophthalmologist confirmed Luna will never see again, but she has learned to cope. In fact, Luna gets around so well, you might not realize she's blind, said Taylor. "It didn't take her more than 15 minutes to learn her gym. Now she runs around on it like an expert."

Taylor and Gravit had the gym specially made for Luna, with more branches evenly spaced so it would be easier to climb. But Luna refused the special treatment. She chewed the extra branches "down to nothing," and now the gym looks like any other, said Taylor. Luna has such a good memory for the location of objects, Taylor moves her food and water bowls every day to "keep her on her toes."

Luna is allowed to explore the house, but likes walking around outside better, said Taylor. When set on the ground, the bird puts her beak down, spins clockwise in a circle, and then counterclockwise, "and then she'll take off running. She'll usually have a sense that something is in her way and she'll slow down. She almost never bumps into anything. Luna likes adventure."

One of the few concessions Taylor makes is speaking to Luna before touching her, "as a matter of manners." Taylor also has to keep a close eye on her interactions with Static, a Goffin's cockatoo, and Coco, an African grey. Static is fond of Luna and attempts to preen her, but Luna is not ready for the friendship and growls.

But Luna is devoted to her master. "If you tell her, 'Luna, wanna go bye-bye?,' she can't get to you fast enough," said Taylor. "She'll fall all over herself to get to you."

Fred, a one-legged gold-mantled rosella parrot, rests comfortably in a cup holder.

One-legged Fred
Fred, an adventurous gold-mantled rossela, made the mistake of landing on the cage of a larger, more aggressive bird. The trespassed-upon cockatoo was not amused and used his powerful beak to mangle Fred’s leg.

Fred's owner, Sandra of Yorkshire, England, rushed him to the veterinarian, who tried to save the leg by inserting a pin. But Fred's foot never regained circulation and the leg had to be amputated.

That was four years ago. It took Fred a while to get used to having just one leg, but now he manages fine, says Sandra. To prevent him from falling and hurting himself, she gave him a longer, lower cage, with toys and food placed so he can easily reach them.

Fred gets around on flat surfaces by hopping. He has learned to balance on his rope perches and scoot along by pushing with his leg. "I check him every day and so far there is no damage to his body," says Sandra.

And Fred has moved to a safer room; he now lives upstairs with two budgies, a cockatiel and a finch.

Froggie's fall
Even birds completely unable to walk can learn to cope. Five years ago, Lisa Jeffris took in a crippled Quaker parakeet. "Froggie," offspring of a local wild Quaker flock, had been found by a forest ranger with his legs crushed and one wing broken, apparently caused by a fall from the nest.

A veterinarian was able to set the wing but Froggie's legs proved almost useless. That does not faze him, says Jeffris. He uses his beak to swing from his cage bars and move around on the bottom grate, which keeps his bottom clean. He can't fly, but saves himself from injury by fluttering.

Froggie, a Quaker parakeet crippled by a fall, can use his legs only to prop himself up.

Froggie is a prolific talker and has become best buddies with a peach-faced conure.

"A sweet and loving bird," Froggie would have been euthanized if he had not found someone to care for him, notes Jeffris. "Now he has a nice comfortable life with lots of love and company."

Tu-ki's challenge
One of the most horrific injuries a bird can suffer is the loss of its upper or lower beak. However, with special care even these parrots can lead happy lives.

Marlena Juniman noticed an odd-looking green-cheek conure four years ago at a local chain pet store. A store employee told her that a macaw placed in the same shipping crate had torn off the smaller bird's lower mandible. Undersized for its age, the sickly looking bird had been surviving on food soaked in its water cup.

Juniman bought the green cheek at a half price of $200 and set about improving her life. A visit to the veterinarian revealed bacterial and fungal infections caused by the injury. "The veterinarian told me not to get too attached," recalls Juniman. She named the bird anyway - Tu-ki, Hebrew for parrot.

Juniman bought a miniature Cuisinart Mini-prep food processor to prepare Tu-ki's finely diced meals. She made a special bread out of organic corn meal, yams, broccoli, fruit, nuts, Harrison's mash, eggs, applesauce and baby food and hand fed the starving bird.

"The look on her face was amazing," says Juniman. "She actually started to purr, a sound she makes even today when she's totally, blissfully happy. In one year our vet check up gave her a totally clean bill of health. She also turned out to be an amazing talker. Tu-ki has a vocabulary of over 80 words and puts together the most hilarious sentences."

You can hardly tell that Tu-ki, a green-cheek conure, is missing her lower mandible.

As a bonus, Tu-ki’s lower mandible has surprised everyone by growing back one-quarter of an inch. She can now use it to open small seeds and eat thinly sliced vegetables.

"Tu-ki had a horrible beginning, but now she's great," says Juniman.

Preens with his tongue
While being cared for by a friend, Robyn Monroe's mitred conure, Ernie, was attacked by an eclectus, a much larger bird. Ernie's entire top mandible, the maxilla, had to be removed. For two weeks Monroe visited Ernie every day at the Kensington Bird & Animal Hospital, an hour's drive away.

After coming home from the hospital, Ernie was confused. "We especially faced a challenge with his cage," said Monroe. "He couldn’t climb as he used to, and didn’t seem to realize his top beak was gone."

Six months later, Ernie is almost his old self again. He eats by scooping pellets with his lower mandible. He learned to use his tongue to climb. "He preens his feathers with his tongue and bottom beak while holding his wing in his claw," said Monroe.

Most encouraging, Ernie seems to be growing back at least part of his decapitated beak. "The vet is so amazed with his recovery," said Monroe. "She said he will probably have some type of usable beak in about two years."

Ernie still looks unusual. "People are really shocked when they see him for the first time," said Monroe. "We love him no matter how he looks."

An abusive mate ripped off the upper beak of Angel, an umbrella cockatoo.

The bionic beak
When a beak does not grow back, some birds can accept a prosthesis. However, it's an expensive and rare procedure and does not always work.

Angel, an 11-year-old umbrella cockatoo, is one of the lucky ones. Like many a female cockatoo used for breeding, Angel found herself in a bad relationship. Her hormonal mate had taken to attacking her during breeding season. One day he ripped off her maxilla.

Angel's overwhelmed owners tried hand-feeding the badly disfigured bird, but after six years they turned her over to the Midwest Avian Adoption & Rescue Services, Inc. (MAARs), a shelter for birds located in Stillwater, Minn.

Before relinquishing her, Angel's owners had started the process of obtaining a new beak. A local veterinarian had implanted small barbells in what was left of Angel's maxilla to serve as an anchors for a future prosthesis.

MAARs cofounder, director and CEO Eileen McCarthy arranged with Dr. Kenneth Meyer, a Minneapolis prosthodontist, to finish the job. Working from photos of other umbrella cockatoos, Meyer molded a realistic-looking maxilla for Angel from a medical-grade, bio-acceptable acrylic. He attached it to Angel's face by wrapping wires around the ends of the barbells.

Since getting her new beak, Angel is a changed cockatoo, reports McCarthy. Once withdrawn and listless because she could not preen or defend herself against other birds, Angel now has become "quite a prima donna. She flirts with all the males...and uses her prosthesis to climb, manipulate objects and eat.

"She seems to accept it just as if it was a natural beak - although she will never be able to crack nuts or chew wood."

Angel shows off her new, full-beaked profile.

Angel became a media star – her dramatic story was featured last year on Animal Planet's Pet Story show. She also got a new permanent home. McCarthy adopted her.

Sissy gets mobile
Sissy, a Harlequin macaw (half greenwing and half blue-and-gold), got a rough start in life. The last egg of a clutch, she did not receive enough calcium from her mother and hatched with a deformed spine.

Sissy wasn't expected to live, but the breeder nursed her to health and kept her as a companion for his other female macaws. Later, Sissy's clumsiness caused her to fall and break her left wing, but her owner didn't notice because she perched crooked anyway.

When Marsha Christman took Sissy in two years ago, the macaw was wild and had a hard time getting around because of all her physical problems. "Along with taming her, my first plan of action was to get her mobile as possible. She had been caged for seven years," said Christman.

Christman decided to let Sissy spend all her time on two large play stands, to which she attached food and water bowls, toys and natural branches.

"I set her up to have to stretch, climb and go all over the stands for different things."

Sissy began to flourish, becoming mobile in a few months, but kept falling off her stands because of her awkwardly bent wing. So Christman added a ladder and let Sissy's flight feathers grow out to help her balance. She stopped falling.

A deformed spine forces Sissy, a harlequin macaw, to walk with a hunched posture...

After a year, Christman provided Sissy with a new cage, in which she now eats and plays. She sleeps on top of the cage at night so she can stretch out better – "she basically has to lay down to sleep. She can't sleep like a normal bird because of her spine."

Sissy can't walk well on flat surfaces, either, such as the floor – "she hunkers down because of her spine" – but she climbs well.

"She can almost run along the stands at times," says Christman. Sissy can't fly, but "pretends she does when she watches the birds outside. It's great exercise. I have to watch her weight because if she puts on too much, she can't get around well at all."

Because of Sissy, Christman became partial to handicapped birds and has since taken in several others, including Bubba, a red-fronted macaw with a deformed neck.

...but Sissy keeps her sense of humor. She likes sticking her head out of her food door and saying "Hellooo".

"Handicapped birds adjust very well to their handicaps. Amazing creatures."

Mrs. No-Wing finds a boyfriend
Partially or completely missing wings can make it difficult for a bird to balance properly, much less fly. But this handicap, too, can be overcome.

Amigos de las Aves, based in Alajuela, Costa Rica, is a conservation and research center dedicated to returning scarlet and great green macaws to the wild. Over the years, the captive breeding and release program also has accumulated its share of disabled permanent residents. The most dramatic case may be that of Mrs. No-Wing.

The injured scarlet macaw arrived at Amigos de las Aves a timid and frightened bird. When healthier macaws weren't picking on her, she kept a low profile in the compound's aviaries, afraid to eat. The reason: her right wing had multiple old breaks and hung by only a muscle or two.

"After hours of discussions and weighing up surgery against age and anesthetic risk, we decided that quality of life came first," said Marti Everett, aviary manager for Amigos de las Aves. So in a three-hour surgery, veterinarian Mauricio Jimenez removed the bird's troublesome wing.

Mrs. No-Wing went to live with Everett, who kept her in a small cage and administered antibiotics. "The bruising came out within the next couple of days - turning the most awful green color, which then gave way to purples and yellows!" remembers Everett.

Mrs. No-Wing
After Mrs. No-Wing's useless right wing was removed, the scarlet macaw became more confident and found a mate.

Mrs. No-Wing healed quickly and soon was graduated from the cage to an aviary, then to the Everetts' enclosed patio, where she could climb trees and walk about as she pleased. Feathers had already begun to grow over the place where her wing had been.

Unfortunately, the macaw's balance wasn't good enough to navigate trees – she fell twice - so for her own safety Everett reluctantly moved Mrs. No-Wing back into a flight at the compound.

She feared Mrs. No-Wing would be bullied again, but this time the newly confident bird found an understanding boyfriend. Last year they were moved to a breeding aviary in hopes they would produce chicks for release some day.

Mrs. No-Wing seemed interest in the box, but no eggs yet, said Everett. "So we are keeping our fingers crossed for next year."

Overcoming birth defects
While most birds become disabled because of injuries, a few suffer birth defects, some severe. But these need not be a death sentence, either.

Some pet parrots are born with or develop legs that splay – instead of extending straight down from the body, they stick out to the side, forcing the birds to waddle unnaturally.

Usually the problem develops in chicks that aren't strong enough to hold themselves upright, so their legs grow to the side. If they don't receive therapy soon after hatching, these birds suffer a permanent splay, says Helen Fahlsing, who operates Charlie's Bird House, a bird rescue effort in Gatesville, Texas, that has received a number of parrots with the deformity.

Fahlsing, whose site along with a few scattered others offers instructions on how to reverse splay leg, says if caught early enough, splay-leg birds can be helped. However, some, such as LuLu, a Hahn's macaw, will not respond to propping or binding the legs.

Fahlsing tried everything she could think of to help LuLu, including a series of leg wraps and bracing, hoping to realign at least one of her legs, but the treatment didn't stick, and LuLu had to learn to live with her disability.

splay leg
LuLu, a Hahn's macaw, suffers from splay leg.

Now she lives in a specially designed cage equipped with ramps and platforms instead of perches and travels in a wicker basket "with hanging toys for grasping," Fahlsing writes on her site. "She is a little green Tarzan, swinging with one foot" from one hanging toy to the next.

Einstein comes home
The day Lisa Jeffris’ daughter brought home a sun conure from the pet shop where she worked, Jeffris knew she was in for a challenge.

"It was born with its head too big for its body and its eyes kind of bulged. It became evident that not only was he deformed but he was also blind."

But Jeffris, who has always had a soft spot for disadvantaged creatures, did not think twice about making the bird a member of the family. She named him Einstein.

With his oversized head Einstein had trouble perching without falling, so Jeffris outfitted a 10-gallon aquarium with newspaper and a low training perch. At night, Einstein cuddled with a small teddy bear. Einstein loved to bathe in his water dish, provided on the bottom of the tank along with his food dish.

But Einstein was not adventurous. "You never, never rearranged the tank. He learned where everything was and if anything was changed to a different spot he became disoriented," said Jeffris.

For all his disabilities Einstein was an affectionate bird who liked to be held close by Jeffris. "Einstein lived with us for over 10 years," she said. "He just passed away last year and he is dearly missed."

Disabled but lovable
Taking on the care of a "special needs" bird may seem daunting at first, but it's more than doable. It's a privilege, says Ortolano, owner of Buddy the blind African grey.

Moreover, seeing how well Buddy has adjusted is a source of continuing satisfaction - and surprise. "Even when I don't say anything, Buddy knows it's me when I walk in the room," says Ortolano. "He knows it's me by the vibration. If it's anyone else - he screams." Published 2004. All rights reserved


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