Free As A Bird

By Nikki Moustaki

Rescued from careless or cruel treatment, these spectacular parrots enjoy a wild scene, thanks to their devoted and discerning keepers.

Bob and Liz Johnson keep 93 macaws, 13 Amazons, five cockatoos, two Conures, four Lories, four Quakers, and two African Greys named Zane and Dorian in their homemade rainforest in an out-of-the-way spot smack in the middle of Florida. The quarter-acre haven is home to abused, neglected, and unwanted birds from all over the country, most of whom were confiscated from abusive situations by the police.

When you walk onto the porch just in front of the sanctuary, a rainbow lorikeet flits to your shoulder and tries to shove his beak in your mouth. A pair of Hyacinth Macaws toddles to your feet like friendly puppies. Amidst the squawking and random talking, you hear a tiny birdy voice singing "Happy Birthday".

As you venture farther inside, Liz greets you with a coffee can full of nuts for the birds and a cockatoo-shaped mug full of juice for you. The Rainbow Lory hops off your shoulder to sample your beverage. If you're a bird lover, you've just stepped into heaven.

Liz unlocks the door to the main habitat, and although you're a little intimidated by the beaks and nails of birds you don't know, you follow her. At once you're covered with Macaws: Hyacinths on each shoulder, a Blue and Gold bouncing on your head, and two more Blue and Golds dripping from your back.

Liz is in the same predicament, but she's cuddling one of the Hyacinths like a baby and allowing a Blue and Gold to pick gently at her eyebrows. She knows them all, and tells you the names of the birds clinging to you.

Destiny's Flock

Bob and Liz Johnson, both psychologists and nutritionists, have worked with parrots for more than 20 years. Their devotion to birds grew up around them, rather than being their life's intention. They began with rescued native wild birds, then Liz fell in love with a Salvin's Amazon, and their flock continued to grow until they had little choice but to purchase some serious acreage.

The individual histories of these birds made it impossible for the Johnsons to turn them away. As you walk through the lush woodland, Liz points to a Green Winged Macaw who was saved by police from being an animal sacrifice, a Blue and Gold Macaw stabbed in the chest by his owner for biting, and another who was kept in a parakeet-sized cage for six years with no perch…conditions that deformed his wings so badly he'll never fly again.

"This bird was a basket case," Bob says of the one with the deformed wings. "He was totally...psychologically and physically handicapped. He couldn't walk, stand, or fly. Now he still can't fly, but he plays with the other birds and has a quality life."

Next Liz shows you a Magna Double Yellow Head Amazon whose feet were paralyzed by a raccoon, a cockatoo who was kept in a small cage in a closet for five years, and 12 Macaws who were left for 10 days without food or water. Looking at these vigorous, joyful birds, you'd never guess the shape in which they arrived here.

"Once the birds get into a situation where they have some semblance of self-worth, self-expression, and proper care, they heal", Liz says.

Flying Colors

What makes the Johnsons unique is their commitment to letting their birds live as nature intended. Watching them fly free takes your breath away ... even chokes you up as you sense the emotional release that comes with the physical. Bob and Liz feel this liberty makes for gentler birds.

"The reason they don't bite, we believe, is that they have the freedom to fly away if they feel threatened," Bob says.

He and Liz also credit free flight with bringing out their birds' personalities, making them more self-directed. Liz says the birds enjoy interacting with her and Bob not as captive pets but as fellow inhabitants. "Self-directed birds are able to express their own ideas and make their own decisions," she asserts. "They come to us when they want and eat what they want".

The Johnsons maintain that birds are sensitive, intelligent beings who shouldn't be edited to suit the needs of humans but should be treasured for their "birdness".

"Birds should be loved for the qualities that are natural and inherent to them, instead of trying to make them into something that they are not," says Liz. The Johnsons don't, however, advise the typical bird caregiver to allow his or her pet to wing through the house. Instead, they recommend building a free-flight habitat, so the bird has a safe environment in which to fly.

The more time you spend in the Johnsons' bird paradise, the more you notice behaviors rarely exhibited by birds who live in cages. These creatures are busy ... bouncing on hanging perches, rolling on the grass together, playing tug-of-war with the branches. They are living according to their instincts. They are happy and happiness, after all, is the best gift we can give our pet birds.

Nikki Moustaki is the author of the following books: Parakeets for Dummies and Bird Behavior for Dummies. Her work has appeared in Bird Talk Magazine, Animal Fair, Budgies, and Pet Products news, among many other publications. She has been involved in aviculture, bird rescue and rehabilitation, and behavior consultation for more than 10 years.

"...and once you have tasted flight
you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward,
for there you have been and there you long to return."
-- Leonardo da Vinci