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Passionate about parrots
by Jessica Garcia
Jan 26, 2010 | 1292 views | 1 1 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When Parrot Connection owner Mark McMasters calls out “big eagle” to his parrot Happy, the white and pink bird looks grand stretching its crested feathers on its head to look like a native American headdress. For his response, McMasters praises the bird.

Building trust and playing with the winged creature is an important part of the relationship between man and bird. McMasters helps give humans, especially first-time bird owners, the assistance they need to be responsible owners for these animals that are not naturally domesticated, though most enjoy the attention and socialization of living with people.

“These are flock animals,” he said. “They’re not loners. They live where you live.”

McMasters’ business at 3382 Lakeside Court in Reno deals exclusively with parrots. There are about 350 species of parrots of which the most commonly known include cockatoos, macaws, Amazons, cockatiels, African Greys and lovebirds. They are notable for their curved bills and strong jaws, which can break wood or cause damage to a human finger if the bird is provoked. Their eyes, positioned on the side of their head, allows for excellent peripheral vision.

They also vary in color from mostly black-and-white cockatoos with crest feathers on the top of their heads to the bright red, blue, green and yellow colors of macaws.

Bird lovers considering bringing home a bird can purchase one from McMasters. They can cost anywhere from $99 to $10,000 and are brought in to Parrot Connection at 4 weeks old after having been bred and hatched by local breeders. The bird is then placed in a brooder, a space that maintains a controlled environment and is necessary to keep the bird’s body temperature consistent while the feathers grow in. The fledglings are kept in the brooder for eight weeks on average, depending on the bird’s size.

During that time, owners can bond with their animal by feeding it.

“The reason they can feed from the hand is they’re handprinted on humans,” he said. “Any time they see a human, they think they’re getting food.”

An African Grey about 5 weeks old stretched its neck and opened its beak as McMasters peered in at it, thinking it might get a snack.

When a bird has matured enough, the owner should consider its next domicile. Selecting a cage, typically stainless steel, is a matter of preference to the owner. A cage can range in size and price from $60 to $2,000. McMasters teased that the Sparks Tribune makes excellent cage liner.

McMasters said it’s also important to provide toys, especially colorful ones, because the birds love to bite and chew.

But one of the more important lessons an owner can learn quickly is that each parrot has its own personality and requires training to fit in well in a human home.

Joann Moritz, who specializes in behavior modification and training of parrots and dogs through her own business, Fur and Feather Works, comes to Parrot Connection on Sundays to provide advice for bird owners.

Moritz said these birds are almost among the most misunderstood. Choosing one as a pet requires a substantial amount of research.

“Birds are probably more susceptible to behavior problems because they’re not domesticated,” she said. “You can’t slap a tiny little choke collar on a bird’s neck. Dogs have been bred for a lot of years and put up with a lot of crap. With birds, it’s trickier.”

Some parrots are more “cuddly,” Moritz said, while others tend to be shy.

She said whatever the bird likes and responds to is the method to use when training and socializing a parrot.

“I have two Amazons and they love drama,” she said. “They love it when I get loud and go, ‘Yea, good parrot!’ and make a big fuss. That’s a big reward. If I don’t have a peanut, I go, ‘Whoo, look at you!’ Their eyes start to flash and go, ‘Oooh, can I play, too?’ ”

Once trust has been developed, the human/parrot play becomes important — so long as the bird gets its reward, Moritz hinted.

“You reward what you like and the rest falls by the wayside because they’re trying to get the reward,” Moritz said.

Basic care for a bird is much more specialized than a dog or cat, she added. Avian medicine is more expensive and is used to treat bacteria and infections.

“Birds can’t get colds,” McMasters said. “They’re actually prone to E. coli. Humans naturally have E. coli in their bodies. Parrots don’t. It’s important, especially with kids, that you wash your hands because that’s what you can transmit to your parrot and it’s deadly to them.”

Identifying whether a pet bird is ill is a matter of understanding their behavior, McMasters said.

“You know there’s something up,” he said. “They stop gawking or they’re irritable or not eating right. There are a lot of small signs that only the owner knows.”

Maintaining the cage is often needed, but there’s no need to worry about the bird’s own cleanliness as parrots are great at preening their feathers.

A parrot’s diet also is not very stringent. They can eat nearly anything from macadamian nuts and cherries to even pizza.

Moritz said her birds will specifically ask for food, like nuts. McMasters said he won’t eat in front of his birds because they watch closely.

“I feel too guilty about sharing,” he said. “They’re all going, ‘Mmmmm.’ ”

Some also need about 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep at a time, though if the owner is not home, they nap.

This month, McMasters says his business has been fairly “quiet.” He’s mostly caring for other owners’ birds while they’re away on vacation. But it’s hardly quiet in his store. Some birds may be little, but there are big talkers among them.

Moritz said although they imitate words, they do understand how to use them.

“They just pick up whatever they hear and they’ll use it in context,” she said. “When you leave the store, they’ll say, ‘Bye!’ ”

Some researchers say birds don’t know what they’re saying, but he believes otherwise.

“Obviously, they’ve never owned (a parrot) because all of my birds talk to each other,” he said. “If Yogi’s screaming, Rocko will say, ‘Yogi, knock it off!’ ”

Moritz said she gets a friendly greeting from the animals.

“I walk through the door and one of them says, ‘Hi, sweetie!’ ” she said. “I think they do imitate, but they imitate with comprehension. If they’re going to talk, they will usually start to try as they pick up your words.”

Moritz said one of her favorite birds in McMasters’ store is Calypso, who is small in size, orange and green in color and attractive to just about everyone who walks in.

“He’s our little ambassador,” she said. “He’s very endearing and seductive.”

Moritz, who said she got her start in professionally training dogs and parrots through positive reinforcement by training a rat, said birds are intelligent animals that the owner should seek to understand before purchasing one.

“They’re wicked smart,” she said. “My birds won’t cuddle with me, but they’re smart.”
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Joanna Moritz, BA, CPDT-KA
January 28, 2010
Hi Jessica-

What an amusing article! I just wanted to clear up a few points, though, for the folks who are reading. Parrots DO need a very specialized diet. They LIKE people food (especially pizza!) but for optimal health and behavior, they do best on an organic pelleted diet, with organic fruits/veggies/grains/sprouts every day (I say organic because birds are much more susceptible to chemicals than we are).

Also - about using "drama" as a reward - it works well with lots of birds (and dogs, and children, too, for that matter) but it can backfire quickly, because it increases arousal level and can lead to over stimulation, which can lead to aggression in some birds. Just wanted to add that as a caution - training birds takes lots of positive reinforcement and lots of patience, and a knowledge of what is best for each bird - ask for help if you need it! ;)

Joanna Moritz, BA, CPDT-KA
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