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Winging It : Breeders of a Feather Flock Together to Further the Case for Birds as Pets, Passions and Wonders to Preserve

October 21, 1988|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

The amazing thing about the bird people is how quickly they can slide off the edge.

One minute E.E. (Frenchy) La May is talking about how he has lived in his same house in Garden Grove for 31 years, about his lawn, about his skill in building things. Then he starts talking about his birds. And then he takes a scarlet macaw out of its 5-foot-high cage, starts talking to the bird, and he's off.

"Come on Rojo, up, up," La May coos to the bird. "You want to sit on your perch? Come on, come on, give me a kiss, come on, give me a kiss. He's a good boy."

Rojo gives in and with his beak, curved like a Bedouin's scimitar, plants a dry one on La May's cheek.

Dave Baumgardner, though, is a different story.

Birds "are not exactly family members," Baumgardner said. "I don't get that attached to them. Birds die. They're stock."

And yet. . . .

Baumgardner admits to starting off his involvement with birds years ago with one finch. Count it, one. But before you could say "Polly wants a cracker," Baumgardner was raising 1,300 parakeets a year in his back yard.

Or how about Chris Davis?

A slim woman with long dark hair and a wide smile, Davis grins as she calls herself a "bird psychologist." There's a hint of a giggle as she concedes that "people think it's strange to hire a bird psychologist."

But soon she's off and speaking quicker than quicksilver, explaining that "people will take a dog, which has been genetically programmed for 10,000 to 15,000 years to be our companion, and they'll get a free dog that's only going to last 10 years and they'll spend $200 to $500 on a trainer to tell them how to raise it.

"Yet they'll go out and spend $1,000 or $2,000 on a bird that's going to outlive them and for some reason they have trouble with the idea of having a behaviorist come in."

What brings folks such as La May, Baumgardner and Davis together is the Orange County Bird Breeders club.

Founded 21 years ago, the club has about 300 active members, many of whom gather for monthly meetings featuring guest lecturers and the swapping of information on the care and feeding of finches and cockatoos, budgies and macaws, birds costing $25 apiece and birds costing several thousand dollars each.

Members say that in some cases, their breeding of birds in captivity is helping to preserve whole species. As development spreads across the native habitats of some birds, bulldozing trees and leveling fields where the birds breed and nest, more and more birds are becoming endangered.

Jerry Jennings, an attorney who is a founder and past president of the Redondo Beach-based American Federation of Aviculture, said that there are more than 100 bird-breeding clubs in California, with the largest one boasting about 2,000 members.

One bird aided by the breeding clubs is the Grayson's dove, which lived in the wild on the Socorro Islands off the west coast of Mexico until cats did them in, Jennings said. Prisoners on one of the islands were allowed to keep cats as pets and often released them into the wild when they left prison.

The cats "preyed on birds who had no natural enemies and (the birds) were nearly wiped out," Jennings said. He estimates that home breeding has resulted in at least 500 Grayson's doves in captivity and perhaps up to 1,000.

While La May and Baumgardner are members of the Orange County Bird Breeders club, Davis, the "bird psychologist" who lives in Sierra Madre, is familiar to most of the members through her lectures and her display at the annual bird fair held in September at the Orange County Fairgrounds.

Mix the "talk" of Rojo with the squawks, screams, whistles and chatter of thousands of other birds and you've got a very, very noisy bird club fair. There are lectures on the care and feeding of birds, slides depicting bird diseases, pleas to lobby governments to rescind this anti-bird law or enact that pro-bird ordinance. There are bird feeders, bird carriers, bird cages, bird-bedecked dishes and cups and bird feed for sale.

The event, held in a cavernous building big enough to hold a couple of airplanes, raises funds for the club through the admission charge of $2 for adults and $1 for children.

"The money we make from the bird fair supports the club for the rest of the year," said Baumgardner, who has been a club member about 10 years and is a past president. "It pays for our building where we hold our (monthly) meetings," the Jewish Community Center in Garden Grove, and for club activities, Baumgardner said.

A powerfully built, bearded man who works as a maintenance man for the Garden Grove Unified School District, Baumgardner explained that he got involved in bird breeding when he decided that his single finch would be better off with a mate.

But when the new bird fought with its potential mate, the bird seller told him that finches breed in colonies, and Baumgardner would be better off with several pairs. From finches he went to parakeets.

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