Shop shows you can teach your small birds cool tricks


HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Steve Hart is wearing a tiger's-eye jacket that gives him an animal trainer look. He's crouched in the middle of his 3-by-8-foot miniature amusement park and circus for small birds set up at the Buy Buy Birdie Boutique ("The only one in the country").

He's got big-top music playing on a boombox and birds on a stick that are dropping off and scurrying away. Mr. Hart is in pursuit; he gets one back on the stick, another drops off. He huffs, he puffs, he gives chase.

Over his shoulder he yells to a young girl in the audience, "Can your bird ride a bike yet? We'll get him on the bike in a second." But the over-the-shoulder glance costs him another bird off the stick and he's in pursuit again. He's sweating.

"This is great for weight loss, too," Mr. Hart says.

Chasing small birds is great for dieting and Steve Hart got the idea for his little bird theme park after seeing a Chihuahua do a striptease.

"I know, it sounds crazy," Mr. Hart says. "Maybe it is."

But the kids who come to see the Saturday shows seem to find it more fun than crazy and Mr. Hart, along with his partner, Ron Bodnar, are out to convince people to get their small birds out of their cages.

"Parakeets and lovebirds don't have to just sit there behind bars looking pretty," Mr. Hart says. "You can teach them all kinds of tricks."

Like riding a bumper car. Mr. Hart has customized a variety of battery-operated toys -- bumper cars, fire engines, airplanes -- so they're bird-ready. What he's done is put perches on them so the birds can go along for the ride.

And ride they do. There is something magnificent about seeing two birds go flying over your head in an airplane.

This bird shop is into package deals. Many of the parakeets they sell come with bicycles. Certain birds also come with "diplomas" and "degrees" depending on their trick proficiency.

Stunts can be hazardous even in a miniature bird theme park, so just to be careful, Mr. Hart has a veterinarian check tricks for safety.

"Some people think this kind of stuff causes anxiety in the birds," Mr. Hart says. "But birds are like people, very egotistical. They want to show off their natural abilities."

Mr. Hart, who has a degree in psychology and special education, has been working with birds with big egos for more than 20 years.

He started off in Chicago, taking his bird show to birthday parties on weekends, but they became so popular his performing led to having his own local children's TV program and making appearances on national TV shows.

He moved to Florida about eight years ago and based himself here while performing on cruise ships with the birds. The shop has only been open for about a month now but he already has quite a few people signing up for training classes.

Megan Strandell of Miami Lakes hasn't even named her parakeet yet but has brought him in for a bike-riding lesson. "Wait," she says. "I just named him Trix."

Trix is going into training for the Birdie Olympics that Mr. Hart says is going to happen before the end of the year. He pulls out a score sheet that looks pretty tough for a dime-store bird. Three points for walking a tightrope. Six points for playing dead. "It's not easy to play dead," Mr. Hart says.

It takes a lot of kissing and cuddling to teach a parakeet to play dead. "People say, 'Starve them when teaching tricks,' " Mr. Hart says. "I don't keep 'em hungry. I just give them plenty of attention and then we play follow the leader."

To Mr. Hart, the significance of his trained birds has no boundaries. They show youngsters that if this little pea-brained bird can do tricks why can't I get good grades in school, he says. They can reach inside and have a calming effect on autistic children. He is even writing a paper on how senior citizens can benefit by interacting with birds.

Ed Castallas, who lives in Miramar and is a regular at the shop, is by no means a senior citizen, but he had a heart attack recently. "And since I've been hanging around the birds, my cholesterol has gone way down."

Birds are the answer and tricks are the key. "Hey," Mr. Hart says, getting the attention of a customer holding a Quaker parakeet. "Let's get him to ride with the gorilla on the motorcycle."

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