Birds Poised to Perch in No. 1 Pet Spot

Times Staff Writer

Roll over, Fido. Move over, Morris. Here comes Tweety Bird.

Just as felines surpassed dogs as America’s pet of choice during the ‘80s--there are now 57.8 million cats, 49.4 million dogs in American households--visual and statistical implications indicate that birds may emerge as the No. 1 household pet of the 1990s.

Nationwide, the number of bird breeders and bird clubs has increased dramatically in the past decade, as have the number of stores that deal exclusively in birds, among them in Southern California, Tweets in Long Beach, For Birds Only in Los Angeles, the Pecking Order in Burbank, Omar’s Exotic Birds in Cypress and VIP Aviaries in Costa Mesa.

Where once pet stores offered a few canaries or parakeets in addition to a selection of dogs, cats, hamsters and fish, it’s not unusual now to find more exotic birds, with equally exotic prices--$2,500 Scarlet or Harlequin macaws, $1,650 baby umbrella cockatoos, $1,000 African grays, $850 zebra finches and $150 green-cheeked conures.


Birds are so popular that some pet industry analysts insist they are already No. 1. But statistics vary so much, from 45 million to more than 100 million pet birds in the United States, that it’s hard to get an accurate count.

$10-Billion-a-Year Business

“The best estimates from the pet industry and aviculturists are that the (pet) bird population ranges between 45 (million) and 70 million,” said Marshall Myers, executive vice president and general counsel for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a Washington-based organization that keeps tabs on the U.S. pet industry, an estimated $10-billion-a-year business in food, pet products and animals.

Myers and other pet industry watchers believe that the increases in numbers of cats and birds and fish in U.S. households reflect Americans’ changing life styles. “There’s no question that urbanization is affecting it,” he said. “Ever increasing apartment and condominium dwelling, households where more people are working, more single people, and the fact that these pets are easier to take care of.”

“It’s a reflection of how we live . . . and where we live,” said attorney Steve King, a colleague of Myers at the Joint Advisory Council on pets. “The makeup of American households is two working people who have less time to spend at home.”

“There’s really no bird census, but there are a lot more pet bird owners than anyone had any idea,” said Linda Lewis, editorial director for Bird Talk, Cat Fancy, Dog Fancy, Horse Illustrated and Pet Health News, five specialty magazines published in Mission Viejo. Bird Talk, begun five years ago, has had a steady increase in circulation and is now over 100,000.

“We believe the range is somewhere between 15 and 20 million pet bird owners,” Lewis said. “Most have more than one bird, and a lot of them run fairly good-sized aviaries in their back yards or basements.”

Lewis feels that birds may be the “in” pet of the ‘90s, “because I don’t believe the population in general has yet discovered what wonderful pets birds can be--they’re easy care, can be kept in small spaces and are just delightful companions.”

That comes as no news to Anne and Bill Prestridge of San Clemente, who bought a scarlet macaw from Woodland Hills breeder Jerry Jennings several months ago “because we had been wanting a bird someday and we saw him when he was fairly newly hatched and fell in love,” she said, explaining that she had had parakeets when she was a child.

‘Like Little People’

“They’re like little people,” Anne Prestridge said of their bird, Junior. “They need a lot of attention. Junior is 10 months old now and he can say three words, his name, hello and our dog, Chuka. We just had a new baby girl and Junior reacted to my being gone to the hospital. But now he’s back to himself since I’m home and can give him more attention. He’s really a neat pet.”

“Over the last five or six years, there has been a tremendous increase in birds as pets,” said Jennings, who’s former president of the American Federation of Aviculture, a national group of about 200 bird clubs. “Not all birds are expensive. Sixty to 70% of those kept as pets are $30 to $40 canaries, $30 to $100 cockateels and $10 to $20 parakeets. And in the last 10 years, we are seeing more and more pet shops dealing exclusively in birds. It’s phenomenal.”

Frank Miser, who opened his bird store and distributorship 33 years ago with “13 parakeets on a corner” in Anaheim, said that revenues at his Magnolia Bird Farm operation have increased 4% or 5% each year, particularly in the last few years. He sells birds retail, wholesale and to jobbers and his operation is among the nation’s largest.

“There are more people interested in birds, and a lot more business is going on,” Miser said, explaining that on any given Saturday he will have 200 to 300 customers in his store.

“More pet shops, bird farms and bird breeders and bird clubs. I have a bird breeding farm as a separate operation, but I also have 1,200 people who raise birds and sell to us. I ship out of state, about 2,000 birds a week to the East Coast alone.” Miser sells “from finches smaller than your thumb to macaws, which are 28 inches tall.” The large exotic birds, especially macaws, Miser said, are getting higher and higher in price all the time. “Hyacinth macaws (large bluish-purple parrots) can run $6,000 to $10,000 apiece.”

Miser said he thinks that birds are growing in popularity due to increased exposure among the general public in recent years. “Once people realize how tame and affectionate they are and get interested in them, then most will buy birds as pets.”

Jennings, an attorney who keeps 500 birds in his aviaries, among them more than 200 toucans of 23 species, the largest collection in the world, has been raising birds since 1971. The American Federation of Aviculture had five clubs in Southern California when it began in 1983, he said. “Now there are 40 clubs in California, two-thirds of those here in Southern California. That’s gone up 500%.”

“It costs only 25 cents a day to keep a parrot as opposed to 40 cents to 80 cents a day for a cat or dog,” Jennings pointed out. “You don’t need a yard for a bird, it can be kept in an apartment. Birds are relatively quiet, and a lot of landlords that don’t allow dogs or cats will allow people to keep birds or fish. And the fact that a bird talks has a great appeal to people.”

Latest Trends

One of the latest trends at bird shops, according to Tweets’ owner Don Goodman, is raising and selling hand-fed birds. Goodman buys birds from a breeder when they are 2 to 4 weeks old, then hand-feeds them at his Long Beach shop until they are ready to be taken home, at about 4 months.

“That way, people come in and see a baby and put money on it,” Goodman said. “Then they can come in and have a hand in raising it until it’s ready to go home. They can put a deposit on it and then we set up a payment plan. It’s a new way of selling birds that started about three or four years ago.”

Although people seem to be favoring the more exotic birds, Goodman said, “parakeets are still in demand. We sell five a week. But one of my most affordable and best birds is the green-cheeked conure, hand-fed, for $150. I have orders for six at this moment.”

Dr. Annelise Spira, a veterinarian in Los Angeles for 24 years, opened her All Bird Clinic 15 years ago “because there were more birds and a need for us to be able to treat them. I started with one bird a month. Now I see about 10 or 12 a day.

“Every year there are more and more birds,” Spira added. “What’s happening in Los Angeles is single-family homes are going and condos and apartments are coming in . . . and people are finding birds are ideal pets.”

Spira said that more veterinarians are turning toward avian practices “because there is more demand and the veterinary profession is gearing itself toward it.” The Southern California Veterinary Medical Assn. now has an avian and exotics chapter that meets every two months and has a membership of 25. And the national Assn. of Avian Veterinarians, founded in 1980, now boasts a membership of 1,800.

“Twenty years ago we knew very little about birds and treating them was hit or miss,” Spira said. “But so much more research has been done and we know so much more now.”

Even specialized veterinarians, however, can’t take care of all of a bird owner’s needs, according to John Ingraham and Gary Mortimer. They opened a bird shop dealing exclusively in parrots in 1975, but have since gone into the bird grooming and hotel business. “When we started in 1975, we had an inventory of 1,200 parrot species,” Ingraham said. “It was a hobby--we both had other jobs that we eventually quit--that became an obsession that turned into a business.

“But then the grooming really took off,” he continued. “No one was advertising a grooming service. The only places to get your bird groomed was at the vet. Vets are not groomers. You don’t go to the doctor to get a haircut.”

At their Parritz Hotel and Salon in Burbank, Ingraham and Mortimer currently board about 60 birds, mostly parrots “but finches and canaries are welcome too. We don’t discriminate,” Ingraham said.

Their fees for large birds are $8 per night, $6 for small ones, and many of their clients are film and television personalities, among them Michael Landon, Victor French, Stefanie Powers and the late Shah of Iran’s sister, Princess Shams.

The two men also have started a line of bird products--Polly Gourmet foods, and Parrotdise bird shampoo and conditioner, and the Birds and the Beads toy products.

Ingraham, Mortimer and groomer Karen Hirsh also rent birds for special occasions, parties and weddings, conventions and trade shows, films, album covers and commercials.

“Birds have always been popular with aristocrats and royalty,” Ingraham maintained. “But now they’re becoming popular with everyone. Parrots by their nature are very social animals and adapt very readily to a domestic situation. And they’re easy to maintain. You don’t have to walk a bird.”