It’s one thing to come home to a surprise cat or a dog, but can you imagine discovering a pet bird in your living room without warning — let alone one that talks back?
Well, that happened to Diane Overstreet Tyler a couple years back when a South American parrot greeted her upon arrival at her Rock Island residence.
“He saw it in the newspaper, didn’t tell me about it, and I showed up to this huge bird in a cage,” she recalled as she sat with John Wayne, the blue-and-gold macaw her husband, Pete Tyler, purchased on a whim. “I was not happy.”
Their parrot, however, which now spits out complete sentences, accompanies them on public outings and regularly mimics its adopted mother's laugh, has grown on her. It may come as a surprise, but the couple represents just a sliver of the community of proud parrot owners — most of whom own more than one bird — in the Quad-City area.
Mike Hutchison, who runs Iowa Parrot Rescue near Muscatine, the state’s only licensed parrot shelter, said he’s consistently placed birds in area homes since opening his nonprofit agency almost 20 years ago.
“There are a lot of parrot people in the Quad-Cities,” said Hutchison, who takes care of 63 parrots of 26 varieties at his facility. “It’s a whole other world.”
Moline native Bob Hareth, meanwhile, a longtime veterinarian who specializes in avian medicine, said he’s treated thousands of parrots since opening Andalusia Road Veterinary Centre in 1976.
“They’re a little bit eccentric or peculiar,” Herath said, referring to parrot owners in general, as a singing canary sounded off in his Milan office. “They like the looks of these gorgeous birds, and they like the fact that they can talk and communicate.”
'Just like a 2-year-old kid'
At the center of that “world” here stands Taddy Kalas of Rock Island, who might hold the title for most passionate parrot enthusiast in the Quad-Cities.
While the French professor at Augustana College said she has lost track of how many parrots she has at home, she listed 14 of her “larger” ones, including three mini macaws. She has acquired the majority of her flock from Hutchison and local breeders, she said.
Plain and simple, Kalas said, she just really likes birds and is “always up for another one.” She attempts to adopt instead of buy, however, “not only because they need homes, but because the babies are likely to outlive me.”
Herath, who also serves as Teske’s Pet and Garden Center’s primary animal care provider, said macaws can live more than 60 years.
Although he described them as entertaining and intelligent, the bird doctor said the large and noisy animals also require a lot of attention and maintenance.
“They’re just like a 2-year-old kid,” said Herath, who sees it as his mission to educate bird owners about their responsibility to keep the animal alive, happy and healthy. “Since a lot of people buy them on impulse, and they don’t know what they’re doing, I prefer people interested in birds buy a smaller bird first, like a cockatiel, and work their way up.”
Owners, Herath suggests, should feed their parrots low-fat, high-carbohydrate foods, including eggs, green vegetables, fruits and meat — just about anything a person eats, except chocolate, caffeine, alcohol and avocados.
'Hanging out with John Wayne'
Well aware of the potential lifetime commitment, Tyler said he couldn’t pass on John Wayne once he laid eyes on the bird defined by its blue back and wings, golden belly and green forehead.
“Some couple couldn’t handle him anymore,” said Tyler, who paid $800 for the parrot and sweet talks it as if it were his own child.
“It’s somebody I can talk to on my own level,” he said, joking. “There’s nothing cooler than hanging out with John Wayne.”
Despite its name, in honor of the actor famous for his roles in classic Western films, the owners don’t know whether their bird is a male or a female. Only a DNA test can determine the bird’s sex.
Last summer, the couple turned some heads when they dressed as pirates and brought John Wayne with them on the Mississippi River for Floatzilla, a paddle sports festival sponsored by River Action Inc., Davenport.
These days, the Rock Islanders will bring their parrot with them to friends' homes and dine with it outside at restaurants.
When her husband is out of town on business, Overstreet Tyler said John Wayne notices his absence.
“It’s endearing really,” Tyler said. "I’ve had a dog that wags its tail when you come home, but never a pet that gets excited when it sees my car coming."
'The parrot picks you'
Not to be confused with the Quad-City Parrot Head Club — a group of local Jimmy Buffett fans — the Quad-Cities Parrot Society has about 20 active members who meet the third Saturday of every month at Petco in Davenport.
While Mike Ryner, president of the club, encourages curious animal lovers to attend one of the group's meetings, he said not everyone is meant to own a parrot.
“To be quite honest, the parrot picks you; you don’t pick the parrot,” said Ryner, who has seven parrots at his home in Muscatine. “Once you’re part of their flock, you can train them to do all kinds of things if they really like you.”
His Congo African grey parrot named Bodie, for example, can swing upside down in its cage, whistle at his family’s dog or say ‘I love you.’
Ryner also urged people to do their research before adopting or purchasing a bird. He referenced Hutchison, as well, who places parrots free of charge.
But Hutchison is looking to get out of the game.
The retired teacher voluntarily spends about 10-12 hours each day taking care of his feathered friends. In the past two decades, he’s taken in and adopted out hundreds of parrots.
In the next few years, he's hoping someone who shares his passion for parrots will assume control of his sanctuary in Letts, Iowa, about 45 miles southwest of Davenport.
“Nobody lives forever,” said Hutchison, who is living off his pension and Social Security. “If it’s going to continue, and I want it to continue, I have to find someone to take it over.”