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

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.

"As a back-yard breeder, one year I raised 1,300 parakeets," Baumgardner recalled. "So you go from one finch to that."

Eventually the city came by and told him the limit on birds was 10.

As he started paring the number of his birds to that figure, "I actually didn't sleep for four days. . . . It was that traumatic a thing. . . .

"This is what I do," Baumgardner said. "This is my hobby. I don't go to baseball games, I don't go to bars. I go to bird club meetings."

While breeding is a hobby for Baumgardner, it is a business for La May.

At the annual fair, La May sat in a beach chair amid the bedlam caused by the squawks, screams, whistles and chatter of thousands of birds. With a tattoo on his forearm and the bird called Rojo on his shoulder, he needed only a peg leg and an eye patch to pass for Long John Silver.

"He's the biggest talker there is," La May said of Rojo, who nonetheless did not fetch the $2,800 asking price.

Later, in his Garden Grove home, La May explained that he, too, started off in the bird world in a low-key way. In fact, it was therapy in the beginning.

A compact man with a bristly mustache and curly salt-and-pepper hair, La May suffered a stroke in 1980 that left him with a right leg shorter than the left, a withered right arm and an inability to continue running his carpet-installing business. A friend gave him two birds in the hope that they would cheer him up. The two birds led to two more. Then he started breeding birds. Now he has more than 100 in the aviaries behind his home.

Breeding the birds "saved my life," the 62-year-old La May said. "I don't think I would even be alive today if it weren't for the birds. If it weren't for the birds, I know I'd be dead because I'd be bored to death. I was a very active man. I just couldn't stop."

Now, with the necessary licenses from the city and the county and monthly inspections of his bird cages by county health officials, La May operates a bird-selling business that he says won't make him rich but does make him happy.

La May and other commercial bird sellers have a lot of potential customers out there, judging by the results of a survey completed last December by the American Veterinary Medical Assn., which has its headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill., about 30 miles north of Chicago.

The association estimated that more than 5 million households across the country have pet birds. With the average number of birds in a home at 2.5, that adds up to more than 12 million birds singing and squawking in cages and on perches.

The number ranks behind dogs (52 million) and cats (54 million), according to association estimates. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group, puts the number of pet birds far higher, at 40 million to 50 million. Still, even the association's lower numbers show that the number of households having birds increased from 5% to 5.7% from 1983 through the end of 1987. Many animal lovers say one reason for the jump is the increase in the nation's apartment-dwelling population, many of whom are barred from having dogs or cats and so turn to birds for companionship.

Such friendship comes easily for those having birds, according to Becky Jewell, because birds "just want to be your friend."

Jewell and her husband, Jim, are members of the Orange County Bird Breeders club and played key roles in the most recent annual fair. Becky demonstrated how to hand-feed birds and Jim conducted an auction of birds, feed, cages and assorted avian paraphernalia.

The Jewells are among a minority of club members who have run afoul of neighbors, zoning regulations or both, and rather than give up their birds gave up their houses.

Becky Jewell said that she and her husband started off buying wild birds that had been captured, taming them and reselling them. Eventually they branched out into breeding birds as well, a job that can keep Becky going around the clock if there are new chicks to be fed every two hours and the mother bird refuses to do it.

Becky said she and her husband "didn't expect to be that big" in La Mirada, but eventually they got so many birds that "we had some complaints" from neighbors displeased by the noise. "We just moved before there was any trouble," she said.

After a stop in Rowland Heights, they settled in Winchester, not far from Temecula, but only after "we checked the zoning. We didn't move until we had the proper zoning. . . . (Now) we're out in the sticks, dirt roads and the whole bit, but lovely."

Baumgardner, too, had bird-related problems. Just after getting married 17 years ago, an apartment manager saw Baumgardner's bird climbing up the curtains and gave him the ultimatum: The bird must leave. It did, but so did the Baumgardners.

"We left. We got our own house," Baumgardner recalled. When city officials in Garden Grove told him that the bird limit was 10, he said, he considered moving again but figured it would be too difficult to drag his wife and two teen-agers elsewhere.

But like the other members of the bird breeders group, Baumgardner considers the effort worth it.

"Generally, I don't sell birds," he said. "It's not a business; it's a hobby. I raise birds to try to get better quality (in the birds) and to maybe keep something that will maybe lose its habitat in the wild."

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