By Scott Malone
HOPE VALLEY, Rhode Island (Reuters) - Like many a first-time parrot keeper, Marc Johnson had little idea what was in store when he got a bird to keep him company while he worked in his pottery studio.
Back in 1989, the young artist scraped together $600 and bought a blue-and-yellow macaw. The bright plumage soon attracted the attention of passersby, who started bringing other birds for Johnson to take in.
A quarter of a century later, Johnson has given up pottery and runs Foster Parrots, one of the largest wild-bird rescue facilities in the United States. This summer he completed renovations, transforming a chicken farm into a 20,000-square-foot (1,858-square-meter) sanctuary.
Filled with nearly 500 screaming, squawking cockatoos, macaws, parrots and a variety of smaller birds such as parakeets, cockatiels and love birds, Foster Parrots is thriving. It fields 900 to 1,000 calls a year from bird owners no longer able or willing to keep their pets. A longevity factor comes into play.
"There's a certain unwanted factor built into parrots. They are going to live to be 50-, 60-, 70-years-old," Johnson said in an interview at his facility in Hope Valley, Rhode Island, 30 miles southwest of Providence. "Parrots are not a domesticated animal, they are a wild animal."
Parrots are known for their bright plumage and intelligence, but they can also be demanding. Without company and stimulation at home, the birds can take to biting people, destroying furniture or pulling out their own feathers.
After dogs and cats, birds are the third-most-popular pet in the United States, but statistics on how many are kept vary widely. A 2012 survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association put the figure at 8.3 million birds of all kinds - smaller songbirds and larger exotics - while a 2013 study by the American Pet Products Association, a trade group, put the figure at 20.6 million.
Johnson's facility, with six full time staffers and 30 volunteers, is one of a handful of large-scale bird rescue centers in the United States. Others include The Oasis Sanctuary outside Tucson, Arizona, and Phoenix Landing in Asheville, North Carolina.
Ann Brooks, president of Phoenix Landing, said groups that work with parrots have difficulty keeping up with the volume of birds who are in need of homes.
"We try really hard to stay focused on who we can help. Because if you think about who you can't help, it'll bring you to your knees," Brooks said. "There are such an abundance of birds who need homes. They are so, so smart and they require such unique care that I don't know if we'll ever find enough parrot-friendly homes."
Parrots first gained popularity in the United States as pets in the 1970s and '80s, when specimens caught in the wild began appearing in pet stores. Their rain-forest origins and the ability of some species to mimic human speech held great appeal.
While it is no longer legal to import exotic birds, U.S. breeders are adding to the supply of birds sold as pets. Many eventually make their way to rescue operations such as Johnson's, where birds live in a variety of accommodations including traditional birdcages, chain-link enclosures the size of small hotel rooms or, for the most human-focused ones, out in the kitchen.
Johnson has to turn away most requests to take in birds, accepting or finding homes for about one of every 10.
"Our goal is not to have more birds, it's to take better care of the ones we have," said Johnson, who has begun to add outdoor aviaries at the 23-acre (9-hectare) property.
Some people involved in parrot rescue argue that breeders contribute to the population of unwanted birds.
Al Decouteau, chairman of the Society of Parrot Breeders and Exhibitors, which has some 4,000 members, argues that breeders play a valuable role in preserving populations of birds whose natural habitat is threatened.
"Of the 350 breeds of parrot, about 12 have become extinct in the wild but because there are breeders, those breeds have lived on," said Decouteau, a veterinarian who has been involved with the group for 30 years and has four birds of his own.
Parrots' inquisitive natures and ability to interact with humans make it all too easy for animal lovers to fail to realize how difficult they can be to live with, experts said.
"These are not easy animals to have as pets," said Irene Pepperberg, a Harvard University scientist known for a 30-year study of parrot intelligence focused on an African Gray parrot named Alex, who research showed had an intellect comparable to that of a 5-year-old child. Alex was 31 when he died in 2007.
"I don't want to tell people that they are absolutely terrible pets," Pepperberg said. "But they are good pets for only a small percentage of people."
(Reporting by Scott Malone; editing by Gunna Dickson)