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Book Talk

At a California Sanctuary, One Woman's Battle to Save Endangered Birds

Birds mourn, love, court, have emotional memory, and make decisions about who they like and who they don't like, author says.

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Lady Gouldian finches, like these at the Pandemonium Aviaries in California, can show a great deal of intelligence and desire to communicate.

In 1996, Michele Raffin, author of The Birds of Pandemonium: Life Among the Exotic and the Endangered, opened a bird rescue center. Today, Pandemonium is one of the largest non-companion bird sanctuaries in the United States, providing lifelong care for more than 350 birds, representing 34 species, some of them critically endangered.

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Talking from her bird-filled office in Los Altos, California, she introduces us to a two-inch-tall avian architect named Oscar and explains why birds prefer listening to Jingle Bells over Leonard Cohen, how you can break a parrot's heart, and why birds have made her a better person.

Why the name, Pandemonium?

There's the real reason, and then there's the official reason. The official reason is that pandemonium is the flock name for parrots: a pandemonium of parrots.

But the real reason is that it's really reflective of what life is like here. When you run an organization that has hundreds of birds in a suburban neighborhood, there's always a lot going on. It's raucous, and it's a lot of life. So any of the more idyllic, sweet-sounding names that we considered, and that I'd have preferred, didn't fit who we are.

So many of the birds you write about touch our hearts. I'm torn to have to ask you to tell us just one or two stories—but you must start off with Oscar.

Absolutely. Oscar was a gorgeous Lady Gouldian Finch, but he couldn't fly. He could get off the ground for about an inch or two, but no matter how hard he tried, he really wasn't able to fly like the other finches in his aviary.

I wasn't really aware of what a problem that was for him until nighttime. He wanted to fly up to the roost with the other birds but wasn't able to. So I decided I'd improvise a small perch for him, so he wouldn't be on the ground at night.

Birds are very observant. In fact I think there are more birds watching people than there are people watching birds. So Oscar watched what I was doing—and then he had a better idea. I was using bamboo stakes, and he would hop up on the stake and then focus his eyes to where he wanted the next stake. He actually showed me how to build him a ladder up to the other finches. I was the carpenter, and he was the architect.

It was a very powerful lesson from a very small creature who seemed to have a great deal of intelligence and desire to communicate. That was my first really powerful experience of having a relationship with a bird that was based on a two-way communication. And if there's one thing I would want to communicate to everyone, Simon, it's that cross-species communication is not only possible but desirable from the birds' point of view. I don't think a world in which species are separate is really the natural order.

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Pandemonium Aviaries (one of its birdhouses, above) is a bird-centric environment for abandoned and unadoptable birds.

Explain to us why every day is Christmas at Pandemonium. Have you tried playing the birds Leonard Cohen songs?

Leonard Cohen just wouldn't cut it. The parrots are really into beat, and they communicate their preferences very loudly. If they don't like music, they'll just sit there and look at you without moving. And as soon as you put something on that has a good beat, they start dancing or singing. I mean, they really dance with the rhythm. Some species seem to have more rhythm than others. Cockatoos are amazing. My African greys are hysterical. They bop around. But it's not species-dependent. Shana, a yellow-headed Amazon parrot, can't keep a beat. She can sing, but she can't dance.

The other day, Tico, a blue-and-gold macaw, was in my office, and we were listening to music. He really likes Disney songs. The Princess collection is his favorite. I've tried to expand his repertoire of show tunes, but Christmas music for some reason is something they all respond to.

Tape loops of Jingle Bells?

It seems like it's endless. The good news is I've learned how to use my iPhone so we have portable music when they're outside in the aviary. It's a common denominator for birds. When I first started in rescue, I'd pick up a very frightened bird and sing to it. I have a terrible voice. I really do! So I don't know if they figured anybody who sang as poorly as I did was no threat—or whether there's something universal about music among creatures that make their own music. Music forms a bridge.

What's a typical day in your life at Pandemonium, if there is such a thing as a typical day?

A typical day is controlled chaos. In this line of work you have to be prepared to do what it takes. We have several guiding principles, and one of them is that we're bird-centric. What the birds need, the birds get. If there's a bird emergency, whatever else is scheduled gets canceled. That's just the way it is. One has to be prepared to be flexible.

There's a lot of coordination. We get a lot of donated food. Our birds get an amazing diet of fresh fruits and vegetables every day. We feed live insects, nectars, pollen, grains, pellets. It's a huge task. When there are babies, we want the parents to raise them. But sometimes the eggs are abandoned, or the babies are abandoned, so we have to raise them by hand. That means feeding every two hours, day and night. It's pretty grueling, but we have to pretend to be bird parents. We go "peep peep peep" with some of them, and pull their hair like their parents would, or make them eat something they don't want to.

Nobody takes a salary in my office. I don't take a salary. So we constantly have to fund-raise. It's a labor of love. But it's also joyful. It's full of, oh my God, so many just sparkling moments! Yesterday, two blue-combed pigeons were feeding their baby, and I just watched and watched. It was such a joy to see the parents feeding the baby in a way that's natural for both of them. It is so beautiful. We've got lovely gardens, and all kinds of wild birds and butterflies. We're about life. About giving life, protecting life—and ensuring that it goes on.

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Author Michele Raffin says her time with birds has been "transformative."

Pandemonium is not just a bird rescue. You're involved in the conservation and the saving of species threatened with extinction, aren't you?

Absolutely. We shut down the rescue element in 2009, because a rescue has animals coming in and going out when they find a home. We were a sanctuary for unadoptable birds that had no other place to go for a variety of reasons: They needed big aviaries, or they were handicapped, or they were no longer wanted. There were a finite number of birds that we could save, though—a few hundred.

As conservation breeders and educators we can save many more birds. We can hopefully even save species. Our focus is on six specific species, such as the crowned pigeons of New Guinea, which are our modern-day dodos—like the dodo they could become extinct if we don't do something to conserve the species. We don't know how many are left in the wild. There have been no surveys recently. But our intention is to one day return this species to their original home, the wilds of New Guinea. It's not going to happen overnight, but that's our goal.

It's not a responsibility to be taken lightly. They're wonderful, amazing birds that make incredibly exotic pets. But it's much more important to protect and honor the wild in them and to one day repopulate forests that also need to be protected from deforestation caused by the palm oil industry.

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Tico, a blue-and-gold macaw who lives at the sanctuary, is very emotional and loves Disney tunes.

New research shows that animals and birds are capable of complex emotion previously believed to be the preserve of us bipeds. Has that been your experience?

Absolutely. In so many different ways. I say somewhere in the book that birds mourn, they love, they court, they have emotional memory, they make decisions about who they like and who they don't like. They're complex.

Tico, my macaw, is very emotional. He gets really furious with me at times, and I just sort of act silly and joke with him. Sometimes that works, and he forgets he's angry at me. But other times I just have to say, I'm really sorry, Tico. I fetch treats, I court him.

There's no question in my mind after living with birds for so many years that they do have feelings and that in some cases their feelings are very strong for their mates and their children. And they really suffer when something happens to someone else in their family.

You quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "you remain responsible forever for what you have tamed." Talk about the emotional turmoil rescue animals face after being dumped by their human being.

You have to understand that parrots, in particular, have been tested to have the intelligence of a two- to four-year-old human child. They're very smart and have emotional intelligence. If you were to take a three-year-old human child and suddenly without warning or explanation, put that child in a new family, or environment, with new rules, new food … how would that child react? How would that child feel?

The average number of homes a companion bird has in one lifetime is about seven. That's tough on them. It takes time for them to come to terms with the change and with their new environment. They grieve the loss of their family—their flock.

The strategy I chose when I was doing rescue was to meet the birds on their own terms. I didn't try to rush them. I let them know over and over again that I was going to be kind to them, that I was trustworthy.

Shana, one of our parrots, took a very long time to recover. I almost gave up, but when she came around, she came around big time. She has such gusto and joie de vivre. She just loves life and is this positive diva, the funniest bird in the center. But it took time for her to recover from the rejection of being given up by her original family.

You write that the human understanding of the emotions of birds is inadequate at best and that the term "bird-brained" is a misnomer. Unpack that idea for us.

"Bird brain" is actually quite a compliment, because if you look at the size of their brain in relationship to their body, you see how incredibly intelligent they are. I just read some research on fairy wrens a couple days ago. Did you know that when the babies are still inside the eggs, they learn a password from their parents that's useful when they hatch? This is because there are parasitic birds that lay eggs in fairy wren nests, and those babies tend to hatch earlier and are bigger. So the wrens have a way to distinguish their true offspring before they hatch.

We thought humans were the only ones who knew embryos can hear. But it's probably true of many different species. We understand so little of the world around us.

I think of birds and other creatures as fellow travelers on this Earth, not here to serve us, but … how do I put this? They're fellow nations, to be respected, admired, cared for—and definitely to be preserved.

You're clearly very deeply involved with your birds. How do you combine this with your non-avian relationships?

Birds have taught me to be a better person. They require great authenticity and quiet. Before my relationship with birds I probably talked without thinking more often than not. I was more active than receptive. Now I focus on being the right person.

I don't know how to explain it, Simon, except that you can't be one thing with an animal and then something else with a person. If you have a great relationship with animals, it translates over to your relationship with the human animal. When you're in a relationship where your best qualities are demanded, including the wild in you, it can only have positive ramifications in your relationships across other species, including the human species. My life with birds has been transformative.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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