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Rehabilitating rescued and rehomed Amazons is so rewarding

By Dorothy Schwarz

Photographs © Dorothy Schwarz

The old Amazons arrive

Four orange-winged Amazons live in my aviary in Essex, in the United Kingdom - Archie and Lena, and Basil and Cybil - the former pair in their late thirties or early forties, the latter pair between seven and ten years old. Their fragmentary stories must be similar to that of many wild caught birds that change their homes for various reasons.

Eight years ago, our local zoo was rehoming a number of older parrots. I already kept a pair of pet African Greys for whom I’d built a large outdoor aviary, in which also lived a flock of poultry and a few parakeets. The zoo contacted me: would I take any of their unwanted birds?

The most suitable turned out to be Archie and Lena. Like most wild caught birds, their history was patchy. For twenty years they had lived with a German couple, who bequeathed them to the zoo in 1992 or thereabouts; the original documents are lost. The curator never explained why, for the ten years they lived in the zoo, they were kept apart, living in the bird room in separate cages at either end of a long row.

They arrived in late March 2002 - my first Amazons. Dave Hall (now deceased) from the Amazon Society freely gave me good advice for their care. With sharp winds blowing, the temperature felt too chilly to put them straight into the aviary, so I placed them in a King Cage in my sitting room. They had been a pair, so I put them together again. In ten seconds, they perched close together on the top of the cage, and eight years later, they are almost never more than a metre apart.

They were in good health and had a complete diet sheet, although Archie’s feet were badly damaged. I was told macaws had bitten off his toes. Within two weeks of coming here, Lena had laid an egg which smashed on the cage floor. With better weather, I took them outside. Lena has one damaged wing, perhaps slashed by a machete when she was captured in the Brazilian rainforest, so she’s flightless. She must remember being flighted though. In the first days outside in the large aviary, she made a few pathetic attempts to fly. Her mutilated wing could not keep her aloft. Each time she tried, she crashed to the ground, so she soon desisted.

Having birds trained in a zoo by professionals was so agreeable. They were not tame, although Lena was stick-trained, and Archie would step onto the hand. This meant that although you couldn’t pet or play with them, they were easy to handle.

Lena tries to breed

It was the breeding season. We hung a homemade nest box in a corner. Archie, on guard outside it, would fan his tail, flash his eyes, double himself in size and warn in Amazon language, ‘DO NOT APPROACH’.

Lena laid three more eggs and brooded them all. None hatched. I found one chick dead in shell. Lena was, and still is, a devoted mother, and once she goes down, remains in the nest box except for two brief exits to drink and to defecate. Archie feeds her in the nest box. Again, I have no idea whether she may have had live chicks in captivity or even in the forest. I often wish one could tell parrots’ ages by rings on their beaks, as one can age horses from the state of their teeth.

Since that first spring when I took the Amazons into the aviary, Lena has laid a clutch of three or four eggs every year. The second year, I made the mistake of removing clear eggs after a couple of weeks and she promptly laid another clutch. So now I let her sit on them until she gives up herself. After four weeks or so she seems to know the eggs won’t hatch, and she and Archie - who have both slept in the nest box - start to sleep outside again.

Sometimes she gives up on her own accord; sometimes I remove the eggs. Archie has fed and guarded her. His devotion may be due only to instinct, but everyone who sees them has to smile at such touching devotion. By the third mating season, I was trusted enough to approach them while they were nesting. I have never found out the reason for the empty eggs. Archie does copulate with Lena. Indeed the first time it happened, I was terrified at the sound of Lena’s screams and rushed from kitchen to aviary. However, he wasn’t killing her - simply making love to her. Perhaps his infertility is age-related or perhaps his crippled feet prevent him gripping her firmly enough.

Trouble with Casper

After a couple of years of the Greys and Amazons living amiably together, Casper, now mature, began to fight with Archie, or maybe it was the other way round. I never let the fight continue long enough to find out. Casper is heavier and several decades younger. The solution was to construct a separate flight of 3 x 2 metres for the old Amazons inside the main aviary. Its door remains shut unless Casper is indoors.

As senior residents, Lena and Archie appear to have won both admiration and respect from the other birds that fly in and perch beside them in what appears to be social visiting. Maybe its the special treats that the old Amazons are given that attracts their visitors, who can be seen rummaging on their table.

A mystery – why does Archie , the aged Orange-wing fight with Casper Grey, but has no problems with Ouff, recently arrived male Grey, or the two Timnehs? Indeed the Timnehs spend much of their time in the Amazons’ private flight. In the morning, when I enter the aviary to feed the birds, I often find that Ouff, the Timnehs and the old Amazons have roosted together.

Why won’t you use your shed?

Because of Archie and Lena’s age, I worry each winter that they’ll suffer from the cold. Their nest box is at the back of a wooden shed in which are their food bowls and their perches, an electric light and a greenhouse heater. When the shed door is closed, a porthole allows them to come out each morning.

Do you imagine that they roost in this cosy shed at night? Of course not. Unless I brave the dark and cold and put both birds into the shed, they prefer to roost outside.

One freezing December night I couldn’t find them. I searched the whole aviary by flashlight. Nothing. Who’d steal two aged Orange-wings? One of my students was visiting. ‘I’ll take a look.’ He returned to the kitchen laughing. His sharp young eyes had spotted the pair. They’d hidden themselves deep in the branches of fir tree branches that I tie to the aviary supports. The flashlight had reflected in Lena’s eye.

I’ve tried many strategies to persuade them to roost voluntarily inside their shed. None has worked. For the last two winters I’ve given them a choice. ‘If you insist on staying outside,’ I tell them, ‘you can.’ Although I provide these old Amazons with three bowls of food daily, they remain quite slender. Does the cold of the East Anglia winters keep their metabolism high?

They indulge in some quirky habits. Archie always perches in front of Lena. But when their breakfast bowls arrive each morning, she clambers into the shed to eat; Archie does not join her for some time. Their only vocabulary is ‘Hello,’ followed by a belly laugh. This they will call out from time to time. If anyone speaks a few words of German to Archie, he acts excited, he fans his tail, pins his eyes and sways on his perch. He is often ready to dance along with you, swaying back and forth. Sadly, I sing out of tune, but Archie doesn’t seem to mind. I’m always flattered, and slightly apprehensive, when he lands on my shoulder.

In the afternoon, if I’ve not visited the aviary, Archie begins squawking. ‘What’s that fearful noise?’ non-parrot friends ask. ‘Only Archie asking for his nut,’ I explain. As soon as the kitchen door opens, he stops, although I have 50 metres to walk across to him.

The accident

A flock of Buff Orpington hens live on the lower level and eat up what the parrots drop; rodent problems can occur. I knew we had a rat and was putting down poison in bird-safe traps.

James Luck (good name for his job), our local pest officer, was delighted with the large dead rat he found, which must have eaten the poison from the trap left in Lena’s flight. Problem solved – or so we thought.

One bitterly cold March morning last year, I went out to feed the aviary birds. In the old Amazons’ flight, a horrific sight - Lena crouched on her table, her back dripping blood, Archie beside her, shaking violently.

The vet gave her an antibiotic injection and instructed me to give her syringes of antibiotic for the next five days. The two puncture wounds on her back, at least 5 centimetres apart, seemed too wide for a rat.

‘The next 48 hours will be critical, ‘the vet said.

I took both Amazons indoors. Lena appeared in deep shock, clinging to the exterior bars of the King Cage. I heated the room, hoped and prayed. At noon, she ate a beakful of warm scrambled egg. By the next morning, she was no longer clinging to the bars, and perched normally. The vet’s prompt intervention must have stopped the wound going septic. After 48 hours, the immediate danger seemed to have passed.

The old Amazons appeared to enjoy their time indoors. I kept the cage top open and Archie took a few exploratory flights to perch on the windowsill and watch the wild birds outside, flying back immediately to Lena if anyone entered the room. I made the mistake of walking through with Casper on my arm. Archie flew over and bit my cheek. Within a week, Lena’s wounded skin looked healthily pink and her appetite was normal. I put both birds back in their flight.

There’s so much luck in bird keeping. With Casper indoors, the flight door was left ajar. James Luck made an unplanned visit to check the traps. We weren’t at home. Dreadful shrieks were coming from the Amazons’ flight. Rushing into the aviary, James found that the cockerel, Don Juan, our cock Mujitu’s year-old son, had flown to Lena’s table - presumably to filch from her bowl.

He’d jumped on top of Lena and was ripping feathers from her neck. Little Archie, 400 grams of whirling green feathers, was valiantly but ineffectually trying to drive him off. The cockerel ignored him. James swiped at the cockerel, but it didn’t budge. He tried again, knocked him onto to the ground, yanked him off Lena and received a nasty bite on his fingernail for his trouble. Lena crawled back to her table.

When I got home and examined her, I found no wounds - only missing feathers. The wide rat bite was probably Don Juan’s doing as well. He had a lucky break - not the pot, which he richly deserved, but a friend with a free range flock in Suffolk offered him a home. By evening he was gone - missed by me for his beauty, and by one of his wives, who’s roosting in the shelter where they used to sleep together. This has been the only serious problem we have ever had between parrots and poultry. Contrary to some expert opinion, we have had no illness from one species to another.

And now …

The old Amazons have resumed their peaceful life. With Casper indoors and their flight door open, they receive several visits during the day from the Timnehs and the parakeets, not the young Amazons. Recently, Archie let me stroke his breast feathers – what a joy! After her frightening experiences, will Lena lay eggs next year, I wonder?

It is not always an idyll in the old Amazons’ flight; sometimes they squabble like any other long-married couple, but their closeness to one another provides an example to any long standing marriage. Are Amazons particularly good spouses? Archie and Lena are, and this is also true of my second pair who arrived in June 2008.

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