The thieves knew exactly where they were going - past two pregnant boa constrictors, a Burmese python, and several Egyptian monitor lizards; around the tarantulas, and beyond the piranha fish-back to the rear of the Animal Hut on Wisconsin Avenue where the exotic birds are kept.

"They were very specific in what they wanted," owner Jim Clark said. "Several thousand dollars worth of merchandise was ignored."

The burglary last week cost Clark five birds worth more than $4,000 anatook a little of his heart, too.

One of the birds was "Freddie," a blue and gold macaw valued at about $2,000 and a pet for the last year. He had lived only 1 1/2 years of his potential 100.

"He was an important element of this business," Clark said. "The customers loved him."

Also taken were two mynahs, valued at $400 each, a greenbilled toucan worth $800, and a blue-fronted Amazon parrot worth about $400.

None of the birds was insured.

The thefts, which follow other bird losses in suburban pet stores, have caused some anxiety in the esoteric world of pet store owners in the Washington area.

One merchant of exotic birds recently moved into the upper level of his Wisconsin Avenue shop and later found his store skylight unscrewed from the inside.

"I think I might be next," he said.

Police investigators aren't sure whether ot look for a professional bird stealing ring or just an individual who knows the business.

Parrots have increased in value over recent years as more countries, including the United States, have restricted imports under various endangered species laws.

The price rise in turn has meant a booming market for smugglers working the parrot-rich jungles of Mexico, South America and the Caribbean.

Several store owners said interest in parrots has also been helped by "Baretta," a television show featuring a tough-talking undercover cop with a $3,500 pet cockatoo.

"Anybody can have a dog or a cat," Clark said. "An exotic bird is unique."

One police official said a bird-killing wave of newcastle disease in Maryland and other eastern states may have further increased the market for stolen birds.

The Animal Hut has sent fliers to area pet shops offering a $1,000 reward for return of the stolen birds.

Another store owner said they should be easy to spot.

"Not everybody can spend a couple of thousands dollars on a bird," he said. "If somebody suddenly shows up with one, it's got to make some people wonder."

Meanwhile, Clark has a suggestion for other would be burglars: Take the tarantulas.

"I can't stand them," he said.