For the Birds

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strange birds

On a quiet Sunday morning, the parking lot of the National Guard Armory is already filled with cars and vans and RVs, bearing tags as far away as Louisiana and Texas. A family reunion, maybe?

Well, not exactly. The visitors who are flocking to this sprawling space are members of a unique subculture: bird enthusiasts. The atmosphere is an odd mixture of family reunion…

ELDERLY MAN: ‘How are y’all doin’ today?’

shopping bazaar…

MAN: “We make bird toys for parrots. Name of the company is Fly-By-Nyte Bird Toys…”

Rock concert…

WOMAN: “I make the mouse pads, and the coasters, and the T-shirts, ’cause people always want a T-shirt to wear…”

And day-care center…

WOMAN: “Very much like having a baby. In fact, she’s what I call my baby girl…”

MAN: “When you get a bird, you more or less become part of the bird’s flock. The bird becomes part of your family, you become part of the bird’s family…”

Americans own about 31 million pet birds, according to an industry web site known as ‘The Real Macaw.’ But the people strolling the aisles of the Bird Show in Pelham rarely talk about ‘owning’their pet…instead, they say they’re ‘raising’ a bird…or in some cases, birds plural…

“Joe Webster, Vestavia Hills. About 6 years ago, I got hold of a baby, saw how affectionate they were, and have been hooked on ‘em ever since. About 8 of ‘em right now, I think.”

“Lee Smith. I’m from Pinson. I’m from here. We have a lot at home. We have a lot of birds. Some little-bitty ones, up to big ones…”

One of the vendors has his pet bird right by the cash register, in a sort of combination perch and hammock, with a sign underneath the bird that reads, ‘I Work Here.’

MAN: “This is Star. She’s a Sun Conyer. It’s a type of parrot. She’s four years old, and she works for peanut butter cookies. Conyers make real good pets. Some of ‘em are noisy. When she starts getting real noisy, I put her in her time-out. She goes back in her cage, and she has a time-out. I’ve raised her from the day she was hatched. Fed her from day one…”

Hand-feeding seems to be a real point of pride among people who raise birds, and they swear it makes a big difference in a bird’s personality:

“Mike Kirk, Columbus, Georgia. The babies are pulled like at age 10 days to two weeks, something like that, and you hand-feed them with a syringe. Baby formula. That way, it makes ‘em nice and tame, and they’re a lot sweeter. More people-oriented, instead of being, you know, raised by their parents.”

And, as with human babies, the equipment necessary for care and feeding can quickly mount up…as Sharon Hefner, a supply dealer from Nashville, can attest:

“I have an online store. I’ve probably got three or four thousand different items. The candler is basically a little flashlight that you use to check the egg in the box, to make sure it’s fertile, so the bird is not sitting on an infertile egg.”

Once the shoppers are caught up on basic supplies, it’s time to go looking at toys. Dean Simon, of Vinton, Louisiana:

“We do a lot of sanding and drilling, because all our toys are handmade, unique toys. We make ‘em ourselves. We’re not a company that buys ‘em from like Taiwan, or somewhere. We do all our own manufacturing.”

And, what would a baby show…uh, bird show, rather…be without a portrait photographer? In a corner of the armory, Karen Ross, of Pensacola, is set up with a camera, backgrounds, and studio lighting. She specializes in portraits of pets:

“Birds don’t animate on command, as easily as dogs do, and cats. But you can get their attention, try to get them in a certain position, try to get them in full feather…it’s when they’re standing up straight, if they have their wings out. Or just standing up straight, and not looking scared and scrouched down.”

One advantage of being in the bird business, many of the dealers here say, is that bird-lovers’ high regard for their pet tends to protect the industry somewhat from a shaky economy:

“They tend to be pretty steady, because I think with a lot of people, what it is is a kind of addiction (laughs). If they’re interested in birds, they tend to keep checking ‘em out. There’s always room for one more.”

Room for one more? Maybe. But what if the price tag is, say, $850?