(PET BIRDS) USA — The long lifespan and what some consider the challenging nature of birds, combined with economic crisis, has spiked the number of pets birds at shelters. — Global Animal

John Keilman, Chicago Tribune

Another guest arrived Wednesday at the Animal Welfare League in Chicago Ridge, a shelter bursting with uprooted pets.

Its owner had just lost her husband and was about to lose her house. Paying for an animal’s care was an expense she could no longer afford.

It was a heartbreaking but all too common story these days. The only unusual thing about this homeless creature was that it had feathers and a beak.

The recession has prompted untold numbers of animal owners to abandon or surrender their pets, and among the legion of cats and dogs is the occasional bird, a creature that presents a particular set of challenges for those who try to place them with new owners.

Popular choices such as parrots and cockatoos can be loud, messy, destructive and suffocatingly social. They require never-ending stimulation. They often outlive their owners.

That puts the Chicago area’s few bird rescue groups in thorny territory. They want to help their animals find permanent homes, but at the same time, they feel obligated to tell prospective owners the hard and sometimes discouraging truth about what owning a bird can mean.

“They think they’re getting a dog or a cat that will go lie down in the corner and go to sleep,” said Diana Federl of the Greater Chicago Cage Bird Club. “What they actually get is (the equivalent of) a 2-year-old child who throws temper tantrums and is very demanding.”

Americans own about 11 million birds, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, making them the fourth most popular pet behind cats (82 million) and dogs (72 million).

But that ownership is concentrated in only about 4 percent of the nation’s households, meaning most people have no experience in caring for animals whose care can be complicated.

Experts say birds need specially formulated food and time outside their cages. They need a large selection of toys that are rotated regularly. And they need attention. Lots of attention.

“Most of these birds, in the wild, live with tens or hundreds of other birds,” said Dr. Graham Merkin, a veterinarian at Downers Grove Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic. “If you’re going to have a bird without other birds, then you have to be the flock.”

That’s usually no problem at first, said Rich Weiner, who runs a bird haven called A Refuge for Saving the Wildlife in Northbrook. But as time passes (some parrot species can live more than 50 years), he said, owners can grow weary of their pet’s demands and begin to neglect it, causing the bird to act out by screaming, gnawing on woodwork or even biting.

“Then people just want to get rid of it,” he said.

But while that has been the traditional reason for giving up a bird, Linda Estrada, executive director of the Animal Welfare League, said those now coming into her shelter are casualties of the economy, not owner indifference.

“People feel guilty about giving them up,” she said. “For everyone who is an animal lover, they’re a part of the family.”

As she spoke, the league had only seven birds among its 1,286 animals, the vast majority of them dogs and cats. But bird-focused shelters reported that they were seeing more of the animals: A Refuge for Saving the Wildlife, for instance, is caring for 70 birds, with 20 more on a waiting list.

“I get calls every single day about people wanting to relinquish their birds,” Weiner said. “It has definitely increased, and it seems to be on the rise all the time.”

Experts said there is no exact avian parallel to the puppy mill, where breeders create animals indiscriminately. Large birds are choosy about their mates, and success is not assured.

Even so, Tina Usher, who has bred parrots for nearly 30 years out of her Evergreen Park bungalow, had a conversion several years ago after getting involved in bird rescues. Though she still has three breeding pairs, she said she has sent others to refuges in Virginia and Georgia.

She said she is trying to build up other parts of her business, such as grooming, boarding and behavior modification, so she can afford to stop breeding altogether. In the meantime, she fields calls from people trying to give up their birds and helps out at Ollie’s Parrots Perch, a shelter near DeKalb.

Her goal, she said, is to one day open her own bird refuge to take the pressure off existing ones.

“Some shelters don’t take them because they’re not equipped,” she said. “That’s the problem. (The birds) just bounce around. We need more facilities for them.”

One of those facilities is Happe Parrots in Bolingbrook. Kathryn Forst runs it out of her home. She keeps four birds there and has placed another four with foster families.

She said she normally goes through stacks of applications for a bird before she finds the right home, an abundance of caution that is common among avian rescuers. She has lengthy conversations with prospective owners about how difficult it can be to take care of a parrot, how much time and effort it will require.

But few people decide to walk away in the middle of the process, she said. For all the challenges a bird poses, the rewards are clear too.

“All my guys are extremely loving. … I’ll play a video, and they’ll sing and dance,” she said. “People come over and say it’s like having kindergarten here. They can’t believe they can talk like they do. These guys are a lot of fun.”