A few years ago I was checking into an expensive hotel in one of the nation's largest cities when a burst of color caught my eye. It was a glorious scarlet macaw, the centerpiece of a tropical-themed aviary in the drafty center of the cavernous lobby. I walked over to look more closely; the bird just sat there, tightly gripping its perch, neither moving its eyes nor making the slightest noise.
I thought perhaps the macaw was ill, and returned to the hotel front desk to talk with someone about it. The bird hadn't been there long, said the person I spoke with, so she was sure it was quite healthy. They'd had the tropical decor only a few months, she said, and were careful to rotate the big birds frequently because they were too valuable to replace. There was a service that took care of such things. She said she appreciated my concern -- although the impression was actually otherwise -- and said she'd pass my worries along to management.
As I was checking out a couple of days later, I noticed a blue macaw where the scarlet one had been. No one at the front desk knew anything about the switch. Finally, one of the assistant managers came over and said it was probably the animal's time to go back to the service; he was sure there had been nothing wrong with it. I told him perhaps a stuffed bird would be more appropriate in such a setting. Again there was the less-than-sincere thanks for my concern. I picked up my bags and caught a cab to the airport.
I've thought about that scarlet macaw from time to time, and about what its life says about us. How could compassionate people reduce a living thing to a piece of decoration, and only be concerned about its welfare because of the expense of replacing it?
Perhaps more than any other pet, a bird is kept for its beauty. It also suffers for it. Humane groups allege that thousands of wild birds die on the way from their natural habitats to the cages that become the new homes of the survivors. But even domestically raised birds suffer in the hands of well-meaning people who don't know how to care for them properly.
Parrots can live for decades; I have one friend who inherited his
grandmother's bird. But others die well before their time because of poor nutrition -- most commonly from an all-seed diet -- and the failure to recognize an illness until it's too late.
If you have a parrot, take it upon yourself to learn that its diet should be varied, including pasta and fruit, vegetables and even dog biscuits. Plenty of fresh, clean water should always be available.
Learn your parrot's behavior and study what's normal for the species. Careful observation and early treatment can save your pet's life. There are a few excellent reference books on the market. One of the newest is Bonnie Munro Doane's "The Parrot in Health and Illness" (Howell Book House; $24.95). It deals at length with symptoms of illness. It's also important to find a veterinarian who specializes in birds and have your pet examined for any illness you might not be aware of. An avian specialist can also advise you on diet and proper care regimens that will allow your pet to live a long, healthy life.
Although their popularity continues to climb, parrots are still not as familiar to us as are dogs and cats, and so their illnesses may be harder to spot. Some of it has to do with the fact that in the wild, birds need to hide their illnesses if they are to have a chance at survival, since abnormal behavior is sure to tip off a predator.
Unfortunately, such survival strategies don't serve pet birds as
well, and by the time a bird owner notices an illness, it can often be dangerously advanced.
What should you look for? Changes in appearance, appetite and thirst all must be investigated, but one of the most useful diagnostic tools is often removed without a thought -- when the paper in the cage is changed.
Sometimes the best way to find out what's going on inside an animal is to be aware of what's going out. Any difference in appearance, consistency or volume that cannot be attributed to dietary changes should be checked out by a veterinarian -- the sooner, the better.
Be sure you preserve that important diagnostic tool for your veterinarian -- bring your bird in its own surroundings, with its cage liner intact.
Parrots are not decorations, nor are they the low-maintenance pets they are widely believed to be. But they do have a lot to offer those with the time to care for them properly. Look beyond their beauty and you will find a charming, clever pet with an engaging personality.
I hope that scarlet macaw in the hotel lobby got a chance to prove that to someone who cared about him.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.