Just months after spending $10,000 to purchase a deep blue hyacinth macaw – the largest flying parrot in the world – its owner no longer wanted the bird and gave it to a coworker. Three months later, the coworker tried to give it back, but the original owner wouldn’t accept it. Neither knew what was involved in caring for a young noisy parrot that might outlive them.
So they turned it over to Foster Parrots in Hope Valley, the largest parrot rescue operation in New England and home to more than 400 abandoned, abused or unwanted parrots of three dozen varieties. The bird, named Burt, now resides in a giant aviary with a blue-throated macaw named JubJub, who treats the larger bird like its offspring.
The story is similar for most of the birds that live in the former Chickadee Farms chicken house, a 200-foot long structure lined on both walls with oversized aviaries, some as large as 25 feet across. Most of the aviaries are home to a small group of parrots that perch on large intertwined branches, play with numerous colorful toys, and nibble on a diet of fresh fruit, nuts and kibble. Some of the more social birds are even allowed to fly freely within the building, including Ozzie, a bright green eclectus parrot that occasionally lands on the shoulders of unsuspecting visitors.
“There is a lack of awareness among the general public of what’s involved in caring for parrots,” said Isaiah Duarte, one of the caretakers at Foster Parrots. “We’re used to seeing cartoons or movies with parrots in cages, and people don’t think much past that. These birds are intelligent and need a social setting. They’re demanding of attention, and if attention isn’t provided, it leads to negative behavior, aggression and noise.”
Once or twice a day, Foster Parrots is asked to take in a parrot for which its owner is no longer willing or able to take responsibility. The organization doesn’t have enough space or resources to accept them all, but it is successful at finding adoptive homes for some of them.
“We’re not just going to give out birds to anybody, though,” Duarte said. “We do home visits and personal interviews to make sure they understand what they’re getting themselves into.”
A walk through the sanctuary can be a deafening experience for visitors. The squawking birds can occasionally startle newcomers, though the full-time staff of six and its more than 40 volunteers seldom seem to notice. If you can ignore the noise, the stunningly beautiful birds dressed in a rainbow of colors – macaws, cockatoos, lovebirds, parakeets, cockatiels and many more – are an impressive lot and seem comfortable in their surroundings.
“A lot of species don’t get along, even with birds of their own kind,” said Duarte, “so we’re very particular about how we introduce birds to one another. There’s a pecking order in the aviaries. It takes a lot of observation to learn their body language and the area each prefers to hang out in. Developing relationships with the animals helps us make decisions about which birds go together.”
Every bird that arrives at the facility is quarantined for 30 days and receives a health check-up from a veterinarian. “It can be stressful when moving a bird from its previous environment into quarantine here, and stress can cause illnesses to show,” Duarte said. “They could have hidden symptoms, so quarantine gives us a chance to diagnose their current state.”
Foster Parrots was founded by art teacher and potter Marc Johnson, who began rescuing parrots in Massachusetts in the 1980s. He established the New England Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Hope Valley in 2007, and his wife Karen Windsor now serves as the organization’s executive director. They recently launched a capital campaign to raise funds to modernize their facilities, which will eventually include an education center. They also host a gala event every year in October – which this year will be virtual due to the pandemic – and host a 5-kilometer road race in Westerly called Sneaks for Beaks.
In addition to rescuing parrots, Johnson and Windsor are also committed to parrot conservation in the wild, so they collaborate with several groups in Central America and South America that work to fight parrot poaching and habitat destruction. Johnson often spends several months each year in Costa Rica working on macaw conservation.
“Our main objective is to show that these are wild animals and they shouldn’t be in captivity in the first place,” Duarte said. “Most of these birds are no more than two generations removed from the wild. They still have wild instincts and wild tendencies. It’s one thing for us to tell people about the problem of parrots needing rescue, but it’s another to show them the solution and how we’re trying to fix that problem. That’s what we’re doing in Costa Rica.”
Foster Parrots receives an eclectic array of visitors each year, from Tufts University veterinary students to school groups and corporate volunteers. Tours are available by appointment only. Staff also visit schools and host educational displays at area events.
“Our main focus, though, is caring for the birds,” Duarte said. “Our second priority is education, because if we don’t educate people about the issues, birds are going to keep getting abandoned and things are never going to change.”