Feathered Friends

By Kelly Oden

Tucked away on a two-acre lot on Old Palafox sits one of the most interesting, colorful and pleasantly noisy places in Pensacola. Uncle Sandy’s Macaw Bird Park Parrot Rescue and Sanctuary houses roughly 110 parrots of varying species as well as a couple of emus, a few peacocks and at least one rooster.

The sanctuary was started by Sandy Carl Kirkconnell, affectionately known as Uncle Sandy, in 2002 after his retirement. Born and raised on a small island off the coast of Honduras, Uncle Sandy saw macaws flying freely and he developed a deep love for the birds, especially the green-winged macaws, which he had as pets growing up. His interest in the birds prompted him to build a large free-flight open aviary where his macaws could enjoy flying. As people became interested in his aviary, he started to allow visitors in order to share his knowledge and the beauty of the birds. As news got out, people began asking Uncle Sandy to take in birds they could no longer care for. Unable to say no to an animal in need, he created the sanctuary for them and for people to learn more about them. After Uncle Sandy lost his battle with cancer in early 2013, a group of volunteers helped establish the park into a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to continue his legacy of saving birds and educating the public.

The park is run completely by volunteers and is funded by entry fees and donations. All proceeds go back into the park to care for the majestic animals who call it home. “Volunteers are welcome and encouraged,” says Reed Raulston, a member of the board of directors and a sanctuary volunteer for over eight years. “Volunteers clean cages, feed birds, clean up the park and socialize with the birds.” Currently, the sanctuary has about eight dedicated volunteers and a varying number of casual volunteers.

 The experience of visiting the park is a something magical. Brightly colored bird cages, flower pots, step stones and the calls of multiple birds greet visitors on the way in. “When you come in the park, we set you up with a cup of peanuts and give a little bit of instructions,” says Raulston. “We will show you how to interact with the birds. A running joke I have is that we want everyone to leave with all ten fingers, not nine and a half. We show you where the birds are and let you walk through the park at your leisure. We try to be available for answering questions. We try to make it as interactive as possible. If folks want to hold a bird or play with a bird, we can try to make that happen as long as the bird likes human interaction. Visitors are also entertaining for the birds. They have physical needs, but they also have social needs. They are flock animals. They like to have interaction. So, we try to get everyone who comes here to interact and socialize with the birds as much as we can.”

Sweetie, a 9-year-old white umbrella cockatoo, is the mascot of the sanctuary. She’s the first bird people see when they enter the office. She is very social and vocal, loves to dance and if you are lucky, she may respond to your “I love you, Sweetie” with an “I love you, too.” Sweetie goes to nursing homes, schools and civic events to spread the word on the sanctuary and to educate the public on the dedication necessary to raise a parrot, many of which will live for 80 years.

The species in the park includes many large macaws, amazons and eclectus as well as smaller parrot varieties. The oldest birds are a pair of bonded macaws, which are estimated to be about 53 years old. All of the birds are surrendered birds, which means an owner was no longer able to care for the bird and gave it to the sanctuary. “It generally boils down to some sort of lifestyle change,” says Raulston. “Marriages, birth of children, divorce and death are some of the major reasons for parrot surrender.” “Birds can easily outlive a human companion,” Raulston explains. “Single birds bond to their human companions like glue.” This intense bonding can cause problems for families who have recently added a spouse or children because the birds can becomes protective of their bonded person and will feel the need to defend that person. This can create rifts within the family. In some of these cases, the best decision may be to find the feathered companion a new home.

Uncle Sandy’s Macaw Bird Park Parrot Rescue and Sanctuary is located at 9513 N Palafox St. Admission fees are $5 per person for those 13 years of age and up, $2 per child from 7 to 13 years of age, and free for children under the age of six. Hours vary, so check website for availability: macawbirdpark.org

While owning a parrot can be a rewarding experience, it also requires a lot of knowledge, time and work. Consider these tips before bringing a parrot into your home.

10 Things You Need to Know Before Buying or Adopting a Bird

by Monica Engebretson, Grassroots Coordinator, Animal Protection Institute

  1. Birds are not domesticated animals. Domestic animals are animals that have been bred for hundreds of years to live in the care of humans and are distinct from their wild ancestors. Birds commonly kept as pets are no different than their wild relatives—they are the native species of other countries.
  2. Chlamydiosis (psittacosis) and avian tuberculosis can be transmitted through the air from birds to humans. These diseases can cause significant illness, especially for people with compromised immune systems. Birds also continually shed feather dust, which may aggravate asthma in some people. Many homes with pet birds have HEPA-type air filters in rooms with birds to control allergies from bird dander.
  3. Parrots, including lovebirds, parakeets, and cockatiels, are noisy and messy, and can be destructive. Vocalizing (squawking, chirping, talking) is an important part of any parrot’s social communication. Birds eat continually throughout the day, dropping and discarding bits of food everywhere. Birds are instinctively programmed to chew and shred wood, whether it is a perch, toy, picture frame, or furniture. Birds will also chew electrical cords, paper, and curtains.
  4. All parrots have long life spans. Depending on the species, they may live 20 to 80 years or more. Caring for a bird is often a life-long responsibility.
  5. Parrots are extremely social animals, and have been compared to human toddlers in the needs of their emotional and social lives but, unlike children, they never grow up.
  6. Birds are active and inquisitive and must be provided with ample room to move about and play. An indoor or sheltered outdoor aviary or a flight safe room (windows covered, no cats/dogs, no ceiling fans, etc.) that will allow the bird(s) to fly is good for exercise. Birds with clipped wings can get exercise by climbing, swinging, and flapping, if provided with ample space, toys, and climbing structures.
  7. All birds need a varied diet, not just seeds or pellets, but grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, too.
  8. Light exposure and sleep are very important to birds. Birds need at least four hours exposure to UVA and UVB rays from sunlight or full-spectrum lighting to provide them with vitamin D, which promotes vitamin A absorption, critical for upper respiratory health. Birds must have a minimum of ten hours of sleep each night.
  9. Birds are very sensitive to air quality. Unlike humans, a bird replaces nearly all the air in its lungs with each breath. Because no residual air is left in the lungs during the ventilation cycle of birds, they transfer more oxygen and more pollutants during each breath. Birds should never be exposed to tobacco smoke, chemical fumes (hairspray, cleaners, etc.) or Teflon-coated materials. Exposure to some toxic inhalants can cause immediate death; chronic exposure to other toxic can lead to premature death.
  10. Birds need veterinary care from a veterinarian that specializes in birds. Proper vet care for birds can be expensive. Your vet will probably recommend a complete examination and diagnostic tests when you first acquire your bird; in addition, she/he will probably recommend annual well-bird examinations. Smaller birds require the same vet care and regular examinations.                    

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