Say hello to Kiefer. He's a talker, or should I say squawker. The handsome white cockatoo accentuates his conversations with frenetic head bobs while madly flapping his wings in upward scoops. Kiefer tends to get his point across. Native to Maluku Islands in Indonesia, this 18-inch high bird has resided at LuAnn Apple's non-profit parrot rescue and rehab facility in Melbourne Beach for the past 16 years.
Known for their bright plumage and intelligence, parrots are the third most popular pet in the U. S. Cockatoos, in particular, have strong personalities that can get them into trouble.
"These birds are so misunderstood," Apple laments. "They are friendly and loving birds, but people give them up because they scream or screech too much. They are sociable and curious, can learn tricks and be trained. An isolated cockatoo will instinctively call out. But if you keep a cockatoo in an environment with other people or pets, he relaxes, making him a well-behaved avian companion."
Apple has been working with cockatoos and other members of the parrot family for the past 35 years. She grew up in Valley Forge, Pa., and knew little about parrots when she moved to Ft. Lauderdale in the late 1970s. There she met a cockatoo that pulled at her heartstrings and soon Apple developed an affinity for exotic parrots.
Passionate and effusive with long blonde hair, Apple and her ex-husband relocated to Melbourne Beach in 1981.
"We lived in this ramshackle place down near the beach and just persevered," she says. "I'm starting our tenth year in this Ocean Avenue location. It is never ever dull and the work load never ever gets any easier. It requires an unending source of personal energy from our fantastic volunteers. I don't get much time for a vacation. It's always about the birds."
Her Melbourne Avian Rescue Sanctuary (M.A.R.S.) has housed as many as 45 birds. Today, they number about 25 at the splendid Dutch colonial style structure. Built in 1925, it was home to the first Melbourne Beach Postmistress who used the side living area to set up 20 mailboxes. Today, the ground floor area is stacked with birdcages, toys and feed. Walk out the back door and you step into an outdoor aviary with a brick walkway with more birdcages, perches, trees and a dazzling flock of parrots.
The oldest is "Big Bird," 38, a yellow naped Amazon. In the far corner is Bella, a glorious red, green and blue macaw, age 25. Timy is a quiet eight-inch tall African gray female that lays her eggs and talks to them. A stunning blue and gold macaw, Elliot, age 20, never saw the outdoors until he arrived. Meanwhile, Kiefer has taken a break from rocking and talking. He's busy munching on a peanut-buttered slice of apple clutched deftly in his foot. Each bird's wing three outer feathers are plucked to limit their flying abilities.
"We allow them freedom to fly, to sit in trees, to feel what it’s like to get a bath from real rain," Apple, 63, relates. "Last Sunday they were all out getting fresh air, sunshine, and seeing people. Being a bird. They don't ever want to fly away. "
How smart are parrots? Experts say some have the cognitive capabilities of a 5-year old child.
"You have one-on-one conversations and they get it," Apple explains. "They imitate human speech. I've had ones that speak Russian, German and Spanish. They love children's voices, a high-pitched sound just like their own."
Parrots' inquisitive natures and ability to interact with humans make it all too easy for animal lovers to overlook their challenges as pets. When abandoned by humans, they are twice-traumatized creatures. Denied their natural inclination to flock and then the companionship of its human keeper, the fallout can be devastating. M. A. R. S. fields plenty of calls each year from bird owners no longer able or willing to maintain their parrots. Death, divorce, moving away are reasons. Others are just a poor match for a bird. Some birds are so psychologically, emotionally or physically damaged that in all likelihood they may never be adopted.
With a lifespan often of 50 to 90 years, the parrots may outlive their owners. Apple and her crew of eight volunteers work with the birds to make them happy, healthy and ready for adoption. In volunteers Apple looks for traits such as confidence, self-motivation, strong problem-solving skills, a sense of personal responsibility, and a strong worth ethic.
They begin their days cleaning floors and giving baths, feeding and talking to the birds as well as setting up social interactions for them. Apple patiently works with individual birds, training them to change destructive behaviors so they can be re-homed. Veterinarian care is also provided. The highest adoption fee is $475, but typically they go for much less.
"We have no-fault adoption," Apple explains. "We want the prospective bird parents to spend time at their home with the bird. Make sure it works with their life and their family. Maybe give them a room of their own and talk and play with a lot. If the bird doesn't work out, bring it back to us. There are so many birds who need homes, it's heart wrenching. But we focus on the ones here we can help. Right now, we're at capacity. Our mission is to find a parrot-friendly home for them which gives them a little sunshine and a lot of love."
Fundraising is never easy. M.A.R. S. lives entirely on donations to cover its already stretched $45,000 annual budget. It has plenty of needs, including carpenters, handymen and more volunteers. They recently received a small grant from the Bristol Hansen Foundation and nice donations from Outback Mobil veterinarian and Elite Estate Sales. Their recent “Fill the Christmas Tree Toy Drive” raised $1,000.
"Within the same species, they may all look the same, but each parrot has a different personality," Apple relates. "If you look into their eyes you can feel their happiness, their sadness. They are such intense and amazing creatures. If you get to know them, they give us back so much."