Photographer and journalist Dale Morris meets Carlos and Buddy; two sick parrots who are getting a second chance at a new and happy life at Plettenberg Bay’s Birds of Eden sanctuary
Award-winning South African photo-journalist Dale Morris shares his story.
Ever heard the saying ‘As sick as a parrot’?
It has various origins, but the most likely explanation comes from the fact that an unhealthy and stressed-out pet parrot has a tendency to pluck out its feathers. He will hang his head, half-close his eyes and really go to town on the theatrics. A bit like a football player in that respect.
Unwell parrots look rough. Far rougher than I do after a night out on the tequilas, and when I first met Carlos, the blue-fronted Amazon, he was looking as if he had downed a bottle of the stuff.
Granted, it was still very early in the morning, and cold too; but Carlos had an air of sadness about him that spoke of depression.
But Grace Marais isn’t having any of it.
A cheery lass through and through, she goes about her duties at Plettenberg Bay’s Birds of Eden Sanctuary with a smiling disposition and a light and breezy air. She bustles about the tiled walled room hospital, cleaning surfaces and checking that Carlo’s nebulizer is working correctly whilst applying a bit of salve to his half-closed gammy eye.
“Believe it or not, he’s one of the lucky ones” she tells me whilst coaxing the bird into a cat carrier box by means of a spoon full of granadilla.
“He was the lone survivor of 600 smuggled birds. That’s not uncommon you know. Poachers catch them in the wild and then transport them all over the world to satisfy an illegal pet trade. Most of these birds die en-route.”
As is often the case, Carlos’s previous owners had no clue that the cute but forlorn little bird they purchased at a pet shop had once been a free flying bundle of happiness. Most caged birds are captive bred, brought into the world purely to be a pet, but there’s still a lot of dodginess going on in this trade. Dodginess that leads to untold suffering to wild birds.
“Carlos’s owners had fed him what they thought was right, and they had tried to love him without knowing or understanding the trauma he had been through. As to be expected, his condition deteriorated and he became, well, as sick as a parrot.”
Eventually, they brought him to Birds of Eden, and since then Grace and her colleagues have been doing their best to get him back into condition.
I then take a short walk with Grace and Carlos, and another sad case parrot named Buddy, over to the main Birds of Eden aviary; a huge valley of thick forest enclosed in a blanket of wire mesh netting.
“It’s the largest single domed aviary in the world” she tells me as we enter through a wooden door and into a maelstrom of squawking, tweeting birds. There are bright blue macaws and fluorescent pink ibis, as well as an entire menagerie of feathery creatures flitting about.
Everywhere I look there is movement and colour. My ears nearly implode with the noise of it all.
Lilly white cockatoos pace up and down upon branches above, Turacos scuttle from bough to bough and stilted flamingoes’ stride amongst the throngs of visiting families.
“The aviary is 50 meters high and covers an area of 3.5 hectares” Grace tells me as she opens the little door on Carlos’s carry box. He tentatively pokes his head out, mumbles something under his breath and ambles out onto a nearby branch. Buddy the green Eclectus parrot follows suite.
“Our birds can fly here, the way birds are meant to”.
It’s quite a magical transformation, watching the scruffy looking Carlos suddenly puff up and take notice of the world around him. He whistles a cheery little song and scurries up into the trees with a piece of apple clasped firmly in his beak.
Buddy does the same.
He settles in and watches the world around him. Toucans, ducks, swans, finches, parrots of all colours. They fly about him and pay him no heed.
This is a nice place for Carlos and Buddy, and by the looks on their faces, they think so too. But sadly, although there are some 3500 or more birds living happily in this giant aviary, not all newcomers are welcome.
“Its usually around January and February that most people bring us their unwanted pets” Grace tells me as I follow her along a series of elevated wooden pathways.
She stops here and there to check on the condition of black swan and a nesting pair of Macaws before topping up a series of food trays that are hanging in the trees.
“It’s rather like puppies at Christmas” she continues “People buy a pet bird, usually an African grey parrot or some such popular species, but they generally don’t know what they are getting themselves into”.
She then goes on to explain that most parrots are social and very long lived “They are supposed to be flying free with their own kind, but mostly they find themselves in a small cage in the corner of someone’s living room. They go insane, become destructive and noisy and can be aggressive towards people they do not know. That’s when they get brought to us”
But Birds of Eden is not in a position to take all of the birds that are offered to them. “We can’t have hundreds of African Greys here. They would chew the place to dust in no time at all, and we can’t have mentally disturbed birds because they would either attack our visitors or else be attacked themselves by the other birds that live here.”
But they do take most bird species, and those who pass the vetting process will eventually find a second lease of life in Eden’s huge and spacious dome.
“Rehabilitation is not simple though” Grace tells me as she takes me backstage to where the quarantine and prerelease cages are to be found. Here I meet a couple of delicate little swallows (They fell out of their nest apparently) and a few semi demented parrots with low self-esteem.
“This is a ring-necked parakeet, but he is way too tame to go into the big aviary right now. He would land on people and that’s not something we want here. We do not allow any touching of our birds by the public.” ‘Stupid bird; stupid bird, I’m a stupid bird!’ the parakeet tells me whilst scrambling along the chicken wire of his cage.
I get the impression his former owners were not all that enamored of him.
“He will stay here in this satellite cage next to the main aviary so that he can become accustomed to the sights and sounds of the big outdoors. If and when he begins to display bird like behavior rather than pet bird behaviour, we will try to introduce him into the main arena.”
There are a number of these pens and cages situated around the periphery of Birds of Eden, all of them a temporary home for hopeful release candidates.
“We try our best, but sometimes we must call up the owners and get them to take their birds back. They know that might happen when they bring them here, and although it’s not something we want to do, we really don’t have a choice.”
I spend the rest of the day in the main public aviary watching the residents go about their business as Grace goes about hers. She finds me as evening draws close and tells me it’s time to put Carlos and Buddy back to bed.
“They can’t stay out overnight” she says, cat boxes at the ready “Not yet anyway. Carlos needs his nebulizer or else he comes down with a cold, and Buddy would freeze because his feathers are not all grown back yet.”
And so, with a granadilla as bait, and a kindly tone of voice from Grace, the two sickly parrots alight from the branches and amble obediently back into their boxes.
“One day, they will be ready to stay out here full time. Perhaps too for those birds you met in the prerelease holding cages.” But until then, Carlos and Buddy must return to the hospital every evening.
It’s nice that they have someone like Grace to care for them, and if they do eventually make it into this Eden for Birds, their sad and gloomy stories will come to close with a very happy ending.
And then, they won’t be as sick as a parrot at all.