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The Bigger the Mess, the Happier the Parrot!

By Leah Lemieux

Photographs © Leah Lemieux

With a single word, my world was turned completely upside down…

How did it happen? About ten years back, I had been talking to my friend Wanda, a parrot aficionado with two African Greys. Knowing I adored cockatoos but had never owned one, the question came up - would I ever keep one? I answered that I would never consider buying a parrot, because even then I knew there were problems with too many unwanted birds whose owners simply couldn’t handle them.

But, Wanda wanted to know, would I ever consider adopting a parrot who needed a home - a rescued, abandoned or unwanted bird? My, perhaps fateful, answer was - well, maybe one day.

Three days later, my phone rang.

It was Wanda, reminding me of our recent parrot conversation. She was calling to tell me that she had just learned of a cockatoo who was in desperate need of a home! This bird was a feather plucker and belonged to a family who were about to move away, and after six years, had decided they no longer wanted their “ugly, bald bird.” Like so many people, they simply had no idea what they were actually in for when they initially bought their beautiful, white, fluffy, cuddly cute little cockatoo. They were leaving in just a few days and they were leaving him behind. This cockatoo needed a new home - fast. Would I take him in, Wanda wanted to know?

Now I was no bird expert, but I knew enough to realize that this was no small matter - in fact it was massive. I had grown up with budgies, nursed injured birds and cared for parrots when I worked at a large pet shop years ago. I really connected with cockatoos in particular - but enjoying the occasional company of parrots, and taking one into your home, your family and your life - is a whole different ballgame.

But this bird needed help. And I could give it. And so, the single, considered word that changed my life: YES. With this word I made a commitment to take this parrot in and do my very best to give him a good home.


I had just two days to read everything I could get my hands on about parrot care and behavior, and then, the day of reckoning was upon me. The name of my parrot-to-be was Bowie, a six-year-old male Goffin’s Cockatoo, and a confirmed feather plucker. I enlisted the help of friends and neighbors to pick him up and help me get his large cage into the house.

And there he was: Standing about three apples high, absolutely bald from the neck down, purple skinned and shivering furiously - Bowie bird. What a sight he was, with his enormous scaly grey feet and scrawny naked body, but looking into his sweet little face, into his large dark eyes - it was love.

But, as they say, the course of true love never did run smooth - Bowie and I both had a lot of adjusting to do -not the least of which was the mess. I try to keep a tidy household, but anyone who lives with birds, especially parrots, knows that by and large, this simply is not possible. Most parrots devote a significant part of each day to shredding various items and tossing their food about - and Bowie is no exception. An axiom I soon learned to live with is: The bigger the mess - the happier the parrot!

There’s also the noise. I am actually lucky, because as parrots go, Bowie is not especially loud or vocal, but he still has a squawk that can bruise the eardrums, and he’ll trumpet at persistent length to let his desires be known. Then there is his peculiar habit of talking, in a garbled, baby-like voice - but only when no one is in the room! Bowie also learned how to reproduce the sound of the smoke alarm going off - a trick he gleefully employed several times in the middle of the night, causing much alarm in the household, before we realized who was responsible!

A busy bird

Mornings, Bowie joins me on his perch in the sunroom, where we can both watch the outdoor birds at the feeders. One of my ongoing projects is finding an increasing variety of fresh, healthy foods that he will accept, to supplement his parrot kibbles. Bowie was underweight when he came to me, and it appears that he was not offered much in the way of fruits or veggies before, but thus far I have managed to interest him in apples, strawberries, shredded carrots, chick peas, green peas, oatmeal, rice, barley and soaked buckwheat kernels, to name some. His weight is now healthy, and I am working on getting him to eat leafy greens and sprouts - thus far with little success. I also found that Bowie appeared to have acquired a taste for a number of forbidden items, including wine, beer, coffee and soda pop - all of which are bad for his little parrot system.

Goffins Cockatoos, I would soon learn, are very BUSY birds, and it’s difficult to keep them properly amused - which may be why the species is rather prone to plucking in captivity. Bowie requires a steady stream of toys and objects to destroy, which he does at amazing speed. As commercial parrot toys are usually very expensive, I have learned to improvise, creating toys and “projects” to keep him busy.

A favorite, that we have come to refer to as “The Precious” (after Gollum’s precious golden ring) is a simple roll of masking tape, which Bowie rolls, throws, chases and attacks with a gusto! He has also laid claim to my sport water bottle, which is about the same height as he is, and which he similarly tackles, rolls and chases - a sight to behold! Quieter projects include beads strung along a knotted cord, which Bowie skillfully unties, to either crack each bead in his beak, or throw them on the floor.

Though Bowie’s cage is festooned with toys, his high energy level is such that he benefits from spending a significant portion of his day playing and running about on the floor (and mercilessly harassing me while I try to work). Due to his largely featherless condition, Bowie is unable to fly (though I harbor the hope that one day he may), so running and climbing are the main ways he can burn off excess energy. We had designated the bathroom as his personal play-space, to help contain the amazing mess he creates, and he absolutely loved this arrangement. Unfortunately, he began to chew the cupboards, and that put an end to that scheme.

Initially, I had thought Bowie’s condition was the result of neglect - as he demands what amounts to hours of attention and affection daily - requirements which almost anyone would be hard-pressed to meet. In the wild, he would have constant companions, in a mate and a flock, (not to mention the ability to fly and an entire jungle at his disposal).

But as time passed, I found that affection is simply not enough and that Bowie’s feather picking stems not just from previous patterns of stress, neglect and boredom, but because he has so much unspent energy, which would normally be burnt off by flying and foraging. I have been working at encouraging foraging activities for Bowie, by hiding favored treats like peanuts and sunflower seeds inside paper packets, and specially designed toys - thus far with minimal interest, but I intend to keep trying.

A very sociable little fellow

One thing that Bowie enjoys immensely is visiting with any friends or family that drop by - of course in his mind, they are all there to see him (and sometimes they are). In fact, Bowie shrieks with shattering insistence if we dare leave him out of any social festivity in the household! At family dinners and birthdays, there is Bowie, joining us all at the table, tasting the goodies on everyone’s plates - and trying to sneak sips from unguarded wine glasses.

For Bowie, all day every day is play time, but as luck would have it, I am a bit of a workaholic and I work from home. Needless to say, this is a difficult combination. While it’s a good thing for Bowie that I am usually around all day, as a writer and researcher, actually getting work done with him around can be difficult in the extreme, as he excels at almost constant distraction!

Unless otherwise occupied, shredding a particular “project”, Bowie brings me a steady procession of toys, and if I fail to respond, he throws them at me! He tries all kinds of naughtiness to grab attention - chewing his feathers, or any books and papers within reach; or he toddles over to harass the peacefully napping cat - another No-No.

Productivity is down a good 30% with Bowie around! Thank goodness he often naps in the late morning and in the afternoon - in fact he’s napping as I write this. Lunch breaks are usually forced affairs. It doesn’t matter if I am on a roll - Bowie’s insistence around lunch time spikes, until it is simply impossible to work, and so down to the sunroom we must go for a hurried break and a nibble.

Keeping him warm

Another special consideration that must be taken into account with Bowie is heating. Because of his general lack of feathers, Bowie is almost always chilly, except on the very hottest summer days, when I take him outside to enjoy the weather. Unfortunately, Bowie and I live in Canada, where it’s cold for more than half of the year. I tried putting little parrot-sized sweaters on him, and though he looked awfully cute, Bowie was having none of it! After he’d made short work of a succession of sweaters, I eventually had to give up on the idea. So, instead, I use space heaters. We have one for him in the sunroom, which we turn on during breakfast or lunch time. The other is used to keep the room - where Bowie sleeps and plays (also the room where I work) - comfortably warmed. However, what is a comfortable temperature for a naked parrot is a bit stifling for me - but that’s what it takes to keep the poor fellow from shivering.

Highly entertaining

As cockatoos go, Bowie is just a little guy, but if his stature matched his personality, he’d be the size of an elephant! Over time I have learned how to read Bowie’s expressions, signals, and body language, until even the merest squint of an eye, or fluff of a feather, speaks volumes. Amongst my favorite times are after the hustle-bustle of the day, when I settle into bed with a good book and Bowie nestles into the blanket beside me, making sweet, soft whistles, clicks and clucks. Sometimes, he tries to help turn the pages - though this can easily turn into munching pages! He once gnawed a good-sized chuck out of my copy of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Despite my best efforts, a lot of my things have little parrot-sized pieces bitten out of them, including my pillow cases, toothbrush, socks and lipstick.

Bowie is a natural clown and can quickly dissolve the room into hysterics by virtue of his silly ways, hopping, spinning and capering about. Dancing is easily one of his all-time favorite activities - he’s quite partial to reggae music, but anything upbeat will do. Bowie also appears to enjoy watching the antics of other people’s birds on You Tube—particularly dancing cockatoos!

A total commitment

Because they are so beautiful, clever and sociable, it’s easy to see why parrots are second only to cats and dogs in popularity as pets. However, as the tremendous, tragic and growing excess of unwanted and abandoned parrots attests, the reality of sharing your home with one is such, that many people - just like Bowie’s former family - are simply not prepared for the amount of time and effort that they require. I would urge anyone considering keeping a parrot to do their research and think very carefully before making such a commitment.

If, however, you think you have the interest, stamina, time and patience, I would encourage readers to consider adopting an unwanted bird from a sanctuary or shelter - almost all of which are full to overflowing. You could help change a life for the better and make a real difference. If you have the interest, but not the time or the patience (essential ingredients!), you might consider volunteering a couple hours a week at the nearest parrot shelter instead.

This spring will mark the 10th anniversary of life with Bowie. I’ve been asked, if I could go back in time - knowing what I now know - to that moment when I was asked if I would be willing to take Bowie in, would I still say yes? I won’t lie and say there aren’t moments when I still question the sanity of my decision. Bowie could try the patience of a Saint and simply doesn’t understand the concept of “work”, making it a daily struggle to meet my commitments. Yet the little fellow is the light of my life and apple of my eye. He is a most remarkable little being; almost daily he tests my patience, and yet almost daily it reoccurs to me what a pleasure and honor it’s been to share his companionship.

I’ve had to face the fact that one person cannot replace everything that Bowie, as a captive parrot, is missing: the ability to fly, a mate, a flock and a jungle. Though he is one of the most precious parts of my life, I would give it all up in an instant if only he could somehow live the life nature intended. As things stand, I suspect it would take a staff of five people to keep him really happy - we make do as best we can. Ultimately, though, this little parrot has undeniably turned my life inside out and upside down, and my answer to “would I do it all over again”, would still have to be a most resounding—YES!

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