On the Wings of Love

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008

This is the all-true story of Jack and Red, two parrots with serious behavior problems.

Their tale involves regurgitation, compulsive feather-plucking, Montgomery County Buddhists and a cockatoo with seasonal affective disorder. But that's not really the unusual part.

"They are so in love," said Christopher Zeoli, watching the two birds from different species clamber on top of their metal cage this week.

The birds live in a small building next to the Kunzang Palyul Chöling Buddhist temple in Poolesville, in upper Montgomery. There, following a commandment to help all living beings, Zeoli takes care of birds that are too aggressive, too frightened or too erratic to be pets.

What happened to Jack and Red there is not world-changing news. But, in a season that preaches compassion toward the less fortunate, it is a story about some of the least: With the right help, peace comes even to self-mutilating parrots.

"They're bonded for life at this point," Zeoli said. "I couldn't dare separate them."

Since the 1980s, the temple, where several hundred members practice Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition, has been housed in a white-columned mansion on a rural stretch of River Road. The idea of helping tropical birds came about 15 years ago, when the temple's founder, a Brooklyn native whose name is now Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, adopted a Moluccan cockatoo from a friend who couldn't stand its screaming.

She soon found that the need was much greater.

Other owners sought her out, temple members say, with birds that bit, scratched or screamed. Tropical-bird experts say that the animals can make difficult pets: They call loudly enough to bother the neighbors, and they have trouble adjusting to the solitude of a darkened cage.

"It's like buying a tiger cub," said Mira Tweti, the author of the book "Of Parrots and People." "They are never domesticated. They are wild animals."

The temple's Garuda Aviary -- named for a bird in Tibetan mythology -- now houses about 35 birds in six-foot-tall cages. The birds include African grey parrots, their Western Hemisphere cousins called macaws, and cockatoos from Australia and the Pacific Islands.

These, temple members say, are the hardest cases, birds too unwound to be adopted by anybody else. "Really messed up," said Claire Waggoner, a volunteer who manages the aviary's $45,000 operating budget, all provided by donations.

Many of the birds pull off their plumage, sometimes to the point of piercing the skin underneath. Pearl, a Goffin's cockatoo, is believed by staff to have a kind of seasonal affective disorder: She starts pulling out her feathers when days get short in winter. A Moluccan cockatoo, Tala, has hurt herself so much that she has to wear a protective plastic collar.

"Just like people sometimes become self-destructive, as a way of just seeking stimulation for an overactive brain," said Michael Schindlinger, a professor of biology at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. "We never see it in the wild."

Jack, a female scarlet macaw, is a plucker.

She picked up the habit during a previous stay at a zoo and hasn't stopped. Her plumage ought to be the color of a new Hawaiian shirt, with reds, greens and blues too bright for nature. But Jack has pulled many of those feathers out, leaving only bare skin and an undercoat the color of a dust bunny.

Red is a biter. He is a green-winged macaw, a two-foot-tall bird usually found in tropical jungles. Aviary workers say his previous owner treated him poorly, poking him with a stick to move him from one spot to another. The meanness stuck: After he wound up at Garuda, he bit Zeoli hard enough on the chest to leave a permanent scar.

About eight months ago, when Zeoli opened the cages to let the birds socialize, Jack and Red began sticking together. At the time, he thought that both were male (male and female macaws are hard to tell apart without a DNA test or an egg, Zeoli said).

"I thought, 'Oh, they're buds,' " he remembered. But then they started pruning each other's feathers and eventually began regurgitating in each other's mouths.

"That's a sign of true love in the wild," said Zeoli, 35, who also uses the name Rigdzen.

So: more than buds. But Zeoli said he noticed a change in Red's behavior: The bird seemed less uptight and aggressive. "The only time I've seen him happy," he said.

It's a rare kind of breakthrough, Zeoli said. But it's come with a price: As the two have spent more time together, Red's feathers have begun to disappear, too. His head, chest and wings have begun to turn naked and gray like his mate's.

"She did that to him," Zeoli said. But Zeoli hasn't tried to stop it. "My choice is between him having good plumage and true love."

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