by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Parrots as They are Meant to Be
In celebration of National Bird Day 2014, Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiast, is writing a special six-part blog series in December and January where he will describe some of his favorite avian species. Below is the sixth (and final) installment.
It was the late 1960s, and I was a young adult, recovering from a debilitating illness and trying to prove myself as a field naturalist. I was on my first ever expedition to the tropics.
Okay, my mom was with me, but still… It was an adventure, and after long delay at the Miami airport while mechanics took our intended aircraft engine apart and put it back together, we took off… about 12 hours behind schedule, flying through the darkness and a violent storm over the Caribbean, on our way to Ecuador.
As a gloriously pinkish-gold-tinted dawn broke, we landed for refueling and leg-stretching in Panama. Wow… For the first time in my life, I set foot on tropical soil… the rich red soil that contrasted so with the luxuriously vibrant lime-green foliage. I was at risk of sensory overload. I had my binoculars and was intent on making the most of our stop to see my first tropical birds, or any other wildlife. There, under the airport walkway, was a lovely softly gray colored bird hanging upside down, looking for spiders: a blue-gray tanager. And down there, at the end of the walkway, in some tangled vines, there was an excited twittering, perhaps from a group of finches.
Every nerve on edge, I stalked the sound, saw movement, and – wow – there, perfectly beautiful, were two small, brilliantly green birds with stubby tails. My very first parrots!
Well, no… I had seen hundreds, indeed, thousands of parrots in cages and aviaries, but I had never before seen a wild parrot: a parrot living as it had evolved, free flying in its natural habitat…. or at least natural compared to cages, aviaries, and t-bars.
I was still on airport property, of course, but there was real lowland tropical forest past the aerodrome and these birds were here of their own volition. They weren’t pets; they weren’t owned; they showed no signs of stress, or feather-plucking, or trimmed toenails, or clipped wings, or leg bands, or overgrown beaks… No… They were real wild parrots, acting as parrots can only act when unconfined, and their freedom made it all the more of a privilege for me to see them! They were not there because humans forced them to be there; it was the airport that had intruded into their space. They belonged.
What were they? Certainly, they were not one of the more colorful members of a family of birds known for displaying bright patterns of color. They were barely bigger than sparrows, and rather chunky. They had bare eye-rings, dark gray, and around the eyes were narrow rings of blue feathers, the color hardly contrasting with the surrounding green, and yet enough to get them the English name by which the species is known: spectacled parrotlet. As they darted off, gaining jet speed in a fraction of a moment, there was a cobalt blue flash of the undersides of their wings. And, surprise: hidden in the foliage were several more, a small flock arrowing toward the horizon.
Since then, I have seen other parrot species in different parts of the world, and I have always felt that sense of privilege, as though an honor had been bestowed upon me, because individuals of stunning beauty have shared their world with me—on their terms. It is enough that I see them; I lack any right to own them, or deprive them of their world and their flight to the horizon.
There are those who think the parrots should be brought to them… like objects of art taken from museum gallery walls and shipped to our doorsteps… and yet we understand that all we may wish to see cannot be brought to us. You can’t ship Niagara Falls, the Kalahari Desert, or Big Ben to your home town. Why do we think we can move living beings from where they belong to where it is convenient for us, regardless of the cost to them?
The spectacled parrot is “lucky.” While, sadly, many are imprisoned and kept as “pets” locally, they have not been heavily hit by international trade. They are not big and showy enough to attract that lethal attention. That fate has endangered too many of the larger, more colorful species. And also, unlike many species of parrots, they are not dependent on undisturbed habitat. The fact that I first encountered the species at an airport reflects its ability to adapt to habitat alteration, and the spectacled parrot can occur around the edges of where people have destroyed the homes of so many other tropical wildlife species.
And, they forever hold a special place for me as being the first parrots I ever saw as parrots—fully and truly parrots—wondrous to behold, and free to fly many times further than the dimensions of any cage can ever allow.
I found other birds, and a cane toad, and a weird praying mantis, and then… Well, then it was time to climb back on board for our next stop in Cali, Colombia for more adventures; more birds; more wonders.