Parrots throughout the house

The Baltimore Sun

DAMASCUS - Sure, Brian Wilson can tell you all about his passion for parrots. It is a bond that spurred him to act two weeks ago when he got an emergency request to rescue 81 exotic birds from caged filth at a Gaithersburg townhouse.

But the 53-year-old disabled ex-firefighter prefers demonstrating just how well he clicks with these brainy, vocal creatures that can live up to a century.

He runs a parrot foundation from his Damascus home, though it seems like their house. His existing flock of several dozen macaws, cockatoos, African grays and other parrot types have the run of his living room, dining room, kitchen, back-room aviary and sun-filled garage.

To the birds he coos, "I love you." Some chatter back at him. A number can do nifty tricks.

Here's Daisy, a blue-and-gold macaw and a veteran of gun-safety classes that he has held at schools. Wilson makes a pistol with his thumb and index finger and says, "Bang!" On cue, the brilliantly plumed bird falls backward.

Here's Sweetie Pie, another blue-and-gold. Spread your palms like a gurney, and Wilson places the bird on its back. Then he performs mock CPR, with faux mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions. The bird lies there, seemingly content to be worked on by this big guy with the bright blue eyes and walrus mustache.

The most involved stunt features eight birds. After Wilson has you stand with both arms out, he puts two parrots on your shoulders, two by your elbows, two on your wrists and one where a necktie would hang. The cherry on top is Louisa, a gorgeous scarlet macaw that perches on your head.

Is Wilson a bird whisperer? He's heard it before and cherishes the belief that he has a gift. Many birds end up with him after years of neglect and a loathing for humans. They bite and refuse to be held. Time and time again, he says, he has restored their trust in people.

"If I knew how I can do it all the time," Wilson says, "I'd be a millionaire."

In fact, he's far from rich. Most of his disability pension and Social Security money goes to his Wilson Parrot Foundation, thousands a month. He scrounges for donations - spare change from tourists who see him and his birds in Old Town Alexandria, or the $250 an hour from parents who want to give Johnny a memorable birthday or bar mitzvah. Wilson says he needs to build a new aviary and one day hopes to get a small farm for the parrots.

For the past two weeks Wilson has been dealing with the rescued parrots. The homeowner in Gaithersburg tipped him off. She said a man staying there kept bringing in more parrots even as breeder pairs produced more. However fond he was of the birds, he could not care for them, and they languished in dirty cages. On Jan. 31, Wilson and foundation volunteers intervened.

Wilson quickly found new homes for 30 of the 81 parrots. Then Montgomery County animal control officials told him to stop until the owner formally gave up his rights to the birds. Late last week Wilson was still awaiting a go-ahead.

Wednesday afternoon, he sat in his home office smoking Marlboros as phone calls poured in about the parrots, mostly a smaller variety called conyers. He had a list of 650 prospective adopters.

"Have they been adopted yet?" asked a woman phoning from Frederick.

"Not yet," he said wearily. Besides waiting for permission to disperse the birds, Wilson wanted their health checked. "We're trying to find a veterinarian to come up and test them."

"I own a parrot and a parakeet," the woman said. "It broke my heart."

"Broke my heart when we got there," he told her.

Wilson has had his share of heartbreak. In 1995, after retiring as a firefighter, he had a car wreck. All three parrots he owned then were in the car. One, Rocco, died. Wilson wasn't wearing a seat belt and suffered a brain injury that paralyzed his right side and stole his ability to walk or talk.

During a long recovery, he says, the yammering mimicry of survivors Daisy and Rosebud helped him learn to talk again. Over time he resumed walking with a shuffling gait. In 1999, as a sort of thanks, he started the nonprofit to rehab mistreated or unwanted parrots and take birds into schools and nursing homes.

His flock numbers 42, though 10 currently live with volunteers. The 32 residing at his modest brick house roam about freely, their wings clipped to prevent flight. They have roomy cages, but Wilson thinks it's cruel to shut them in, except after rare scuffles. Thanks to frequent cleaning, the house looks and smells tidy even if it sounds like a zoo.

Precious, an African gray, is among the more talkative parrots. "Hi, baby!" it says to a visitor after a flirty whistle. Longtime volunteer Lisa Nichols recalls Precious once looking down at her two dogs and saying, "Here, doggie, doggie, arf arf."

Normally Wilson requires someone to volunteer at least three months before he'll consider letting them adopt any of his flock (only a few of which are up for adoption). That's not feasible with the 51 recently rescued parrots, but he promised to make home visits before releasing any more.

For now, those 51 parrots are quarantined in a room off the garage. Breeding pairs have been separated to avoid their reproducing. At least some have known names, including Bo, a cockatiel. The biggest and most amusing is a cat-sized white Moluccan cockatoo. It uttered a noise that sounded like a gruff, grouchy old man before switching to a falsetto giggle.

One man was so keen to adopt that he drove to Wilson's home. Vaughn Willis, a 53-year-old trucker from New Carrollton, used to have birds. His ex-wife got them. Now that his children have grown, Willis would again like avian companionship.

In the quarantine room he eyed a yellow cockatiel. "If everything goes well, I'm going to adopt him and name him Roscoe. He's just a beautiful bird, just beautiful. I think we'll get along really good."

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