A Taco with feathers

A Taco with Feathers

I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico during 1980-81, and my life was full of cultural diversity and wonderful smells and tastes. The lifestyle of the area was a beautiful mixture of Native American and Mexican influences which brought flavor to the very air. Albuquerque was a large, modern city, but still had a distinct individuallity.

One of my very favorite places to go was “Old Town” where San Felipe de Neri church has been guarding the square since 1793. Shops full of art and treasures border all four sides of the square and extend down all of the narrow streets. Several excellent restaurants were to be found there, including my favorite, La Hacienda, which sadly has burned down and been replaced since those days. I found myself going there frequently for dinner.

This restaurant was such a pleasure to eat at! It had excellent meals at decent prices, a welcoming atmosphere, easy parking behind the building, and musicians playing every night. Most of the time there was a flamenco guitarist named Stanley performing. He was a man who played so beautifully that I found myself sitting with fork in hand and food untouched while I listened, mesmerized. I recorded his efforts on an old cassette tape player, people noise and all.

There are also stories to tell about the tormented artist, John Yazzi, whom I befriended at this restaurant and believed in enough to purchase several of his paintings. But, I will leave those stories for another time, when you have asked to hear them.

On the way to Old Town from where I lived, the road took me past a newly opened pet store. Like the old “muscle car” saying from the past, “It can pass anything except a gas station!” I never saw a pet store that I could drive by without stopping. This one was even worse, because on the sign were the words “Bird Store.” Who could pass by a “come on” like that? Not me!

I should have hit the gas and sped off to the restaurant. It would have been far cheaper and less time consuming. Oh yeah… I was hooked from the moment that I walked in the door. It had only been a little more than a year at that point since I was a pet store manager. As I walked in I found myself taking “inventory” and assessing the displays for position and sales effectiveness.

Each direction I turned, there were more beautiful birds looking back at me. The bulk of the live feather dusters were little birds; finches, canaries and parakeets. Those species are the bulk of the commercial retail bird trade. There were also cockatiels, conures, love birds, and Quaker parakeets in good numbers. Then I saw the parrots.

The owner of this shop had a very impressive array of birds. There were multiple species of cockatoos; Umbrella, Greater and Lesser Sulphur Crested, a Major Mitchell, and a Moluccan just that I could see. Macaws were well represented with Blue Hyacinth (like “Rio”), Blue and Gold, Scarlet, and Military all out on perches. A black Mynah bird sat in a cage by the cash register, letting out a disagreeable screech occasionally.

That added up to thousands of dollars, even in 1980! No wonder the supplies on the shelves were only two or three deep and well spaced, all of their cash was in feather goods (live birds.)

The owner and his wife were soft spoken and in their late fifties, both having just retired from 30 year careers; his in construction, and hers in a school office. George was tall and lean, and Mary was short and small, both were grey haired and tanned.

They had been raising finches, parakeets, cockatiels and love birds at their home as a hobby for several years. Unlike most hobbies which are endless money pits, theirs became so profitable selling all the birds they could raise to bigger dealers like Hartz Mountain, that they were able to save a good amount of money. This cash was used to add more walk-in flight cages, which again increased bird production. As the baby bird numbers grew, so did profits.

George and Mary had a dream, and the bonus income allowed them to reach for it. It was a big leap for them to open a store of their own, and one that they were very nervous about. They knew about raising and caring for their birds, and how to ship them safely; that they had done for years. What they didn’t know about was dealing with the bigger birds, or how to run a shop that dealt directly with people.

So one day, in walks a person (me) crazy enough to volunteer countless hours of help, for no pay. I taught them retail business procedures like how to set up displays and organize inventory so that they could see what they had, or needed, at a glance.

They were selling the usual pet trade products that were designed and marketed to make the wholesaler/manufacturer money, but not the retailer. For example: birdseed for the little birds was offered in prepackaged boxes marketed by Hartz Mountain, which contained just a few (6 or 8) ounces, and was priced like gold. I convinced George that we could do better and both make a profit, and serve the customer better.

To accomplish this we went to the feed store and bought 50 lb bags of seeds and mixed up our own packages of birdseed in zip-lock bags. These packages we then sold by the pound (usually two or five lb bags) and saved the customers huge amounts. They got real value for their money and sales went wild! George still carried the Hartz Mountain boxes and a couple of little old ladies bought them anyway. They didn’t trust change of any kind I suppose.

I also taught them what I knew about the various big birds they purchased, calling upon what I had read and what I had picked up from working in pet stores. Trimming toenails, beaks, and wing feathers on parrots takes experience and a willingness to endure the occasional nervous bite.

I knew something about animals of all kinds, but I was really more of a reptile expert. It felt kind of like a post-grad student trying to teach someone about to complete their BS degree. I knew a little more than they did, but they were closing in on me fast!

George and Mary had a great sense of fairness and no “get rich quick” delusions to ruin the feeling. If you bought something from them it was at the best price around and they stood by the sale. There were a few times that they took a loss, knowing that it was a scam or unjust for them, but they felt it was better to take a couple of losses and be seen as fair dealers than fight over it. They were right. Business prospered because of their policies.

After a couple of “boom” months, George felt like he had to buy something to show “prosperity” in his shop. In other words, that he was doing well and investing back into his business. I was of the opinion that maybe some fancy parrot cages, or bird fountains would be nice (and they didn’t eat or die), but I was just an unpaid volunteer and didn’t really have a say. He did commission a metal smith in Old Town to build a grand wrought iron cage for the Blue Hyacinth macaws, but that was already in the works before his latest idea.

It was a good thing that I didn’t have a voice in his plan, because I would definitely have been against it. George purchased a “crate” of wild caught African Grey parrots, to be shipped directly from Africa.

I was not then, and am not now; a fan of wild caught “anything” being sold in the pet trade. The argument continues today, and I still believe that captive breeding is the only acceptable way to supply the pet industry.

As I walked into the store on the day that the crate arrived, my first reaction was that I was appalled at the size and shape of it. That crate looked like it held an oil painting. In fact, I had recently received a painting in just exactly that kind of box. It was about 24″ x 36″ and no more than 8″ or 10″ in depth. The crate was marked “FRAGILE” in bold letters and from the black marks and dings in the boards, I was sure that the freight guys had “carefully” thrown it with both hands.

George and I picked it up off of the floor where the delivery man had unceremoniously shoved it off of his hand truck, and carefully placed the crate flat on a counter top. There we hastened to undo the nails, prying carefully not knowing how the squawking birds inside were contained.

The sight of a burlap bag gave George confidence and he ripped the side panel up quickly, causing me to move backwards to avoid being hit in the face. Just as fast as that, his hammer went flying forward with a resounding whack on the counter top.

Wow! That was a weird way to deal with a loose parrot I thought.

Looking down at where his big framing hammer had landed, I saw a very large baboon spider (which I now know as a species of tarantula) with his hammer head driven completely through its body. Wow again!

We were a lot more careful (and nervous) as we found and cut the twine holding the bag shut. I think that if anyone had sneakily touched either George or myself at that point we would have screamed like little girls, as images of giant brown spiders played in our minds.

As we proceeded with freeing the parrots, Mary stood by with a large fishing “dip” net, just in case a bird got loose. She had also temporarily locked the front door, to make sure that no one opened it at just the wrong moment.

There are two varieties of African grey parrot; Congo and Timneh. They are nearly identical in appearance but the Timneh is smaller, calmer, and learns quicker at an earlier age. These grey parrots are considered to be the “Rolls Royce” of talking parrots, with seemingly endless capacity for learning.

The purchase order was for six baby Timneh grey parrots at $500.00 each, making this a $3,000.00 order. The baboon spider was free. By that point I was more apprehensive about what we would find in the bag, than worried about spiders.

Inside of that bag were six grey parrots alright, one with an eye missing and in a very weak condition. It was also the only Timneh. We placed it, unresisting, in an enclosed cat carrier, which Mary departed with for an immediate trip to the vet. It later died from shock and dehydration the vet said.

The other five were adult Congos and they were not happy campers. Their eyes were dilating and shrinking like a junkie on a needle (injecting drugs.) Rapid pupil fluctuation is a sign of extreme distress in parrots.

George had put welder’s gloves on and I had on regular leather work gloves, in an attempt to protect our hands from the bites that we knew were forthcoming. We both ended up with multiple punctures and bruising like the hammer had been used on our hands.

All five of the remaining birds ended up in individual cages and sat there shaking and making weird noises from fear and shock. I started filling water dishes and covering cages with whatever cloth I could grab. We moved them to the back room where it was warmer, quiet, and away from drafts and bright lights; and hopefully to let the birds relax. I could not imagine the horror of being crammed into such a dark and restrictive box for days for such intelligent creatures. It was a wonder that they survived at all.

One bird was particularly aggressive and was not in the least afraid to make eye contact. He actually growled at me. Him I liked right away. What a wise guy!

George called the shipper and got nowhere. The man on the other end (in Africa) made excuses and vague references to possible substitutions at various locations on the journey. The problem was beyond his control he kept saying.

One thing was abundantly apparent; he (George) was stuck with these grown, aggressive, expensive birds. Mary had already sent the half payment in advance to the shipper, as was customary. At my insistence that they were being taken advantage of, she did not send the remainder. What were they (the sellers) going to do about it? It was obviously a scam operation and they would just move on to the next victims.

What should have been highly marketable birds, had just become a big problem.

It was during that first period of adjustment that I somehow was convinced that I needed to own the bird that had taken such a liking to my flesh. A “half of the cost” deal was offered to me and in a moment of weakness I forked over $250.00 for a crazy, grown parrot. Since we were in Albuquerque and my favorite things were all connected with the local culture, I named the bird “Taco.”

Taco and I had many, many battles until he figured out that I wasn’t going to hurt him, and that no matter how many times he bit me, I was coming back for more.

I spent another couple of hundred dollars on a cage and supplies, all at wholesale cost, of course. I got the bird habit bad and “Bird-vana” was created. Over the next few months I also brought home parakeets, canaries, finches, love birds, a Nanday conure, and a Senegal parrot. All of them were rescues or rejects from one place or another. We rehabilitated them and got them healthy and happy, and then found them other homes.

My house looked like a zoo with dogs, a cat, birds and the human caretakers. Of course, my daughter thought it was great. She had a red Doberman that was nearly as tall as she was that slept at the foot of her bed (or on the couch) and a parrot that growled. She giggled constantly, we were having a ball.

Once, Taco stopped eating for a few days and just sat on his perch. I took him to a veterinarian who would see a parrot (they don’t all do all animals, which surprised me) and had him checked out. She couldn’t find any parasites, disease, or reason for not eating and was puzzled too.

The doctor suggested that I make a mixture of peanut butter and honey and tempt the bird with it to see if it would “jump start” his appetite. When the stubborn bird refused to try it, I put some in a large syringe (without a needle) and squeezed it into his mouth and onto his tongue. That did it and the battle was won.

Taco learned a new word from that experience, “some”. I kept asking him if he wanted “some” of the mixture as I was trying to tempt him and the word stuck in his mind. He would ask for “some” frequently after that and I would mix him up a little batch of it. It was just too cool to have a bird actually “ask” for something, to refuse him.

Through constant attention Taco turned into a nice guy and would willingly step up onto your hand and accept treats without taking your finger too. He also learned a few words, (no cuss words, I was careful) and sounds, including wild bird calls and cat noises. I thought his best trick was “growling” in the dark. When Taco growled, the Dobie would leave the room. It was truly one of the scariest sounds that I have heard.

The success with Taco encouraged us, and through a lot of hard won battles with the other African Greys, we got them into shape to sell. We sold two of them to advanced bird handlers in the area. These guys had demonstrated the ability to handle a nervous adult parrot and we saw them regularly. George sold and shipped the other two birds to a pet store in Los Angeles, and I can only hope that they fared as well.

The PATCO (air traffic controller) strike of 1981 cost me a lot professionally, financially, and personally. One of those losses was Taco. When I couldn’t afford to pay the rent and feed my family, I had to sell the birds off to make some money. I held onto Taco as long as I could. Even the Doberman was given away (so we didn’t have to buy as much dog food) to a lucky college student who enjoyed her tremendously.

I sold Taco back to George for double what I paid him, which bought food for my family and allowed us to stay in the house another month. He was immediately sold for twice that to a retired physician who knew all about Taco and had wanted to buy a grey earlier, but didn’t like any that he found. I have no doubt that the crazy bird is still alive and growling, maybe even still in Albuquerque, but I’m not sure. The old doctor who bought him has since passed on and I don’t know who inherited the bird.

The usual question that I ask myself whenever I have owned anything and want to evaluate its worth is simple, “Would I do that again?” In the case of that feathered Taco, the answer is definitely, yes!

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