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Bird Whisperer Michael Cox Looks Out For Those That Can't

Even over the phone, Michael Cox has a kind, gentle, soothing voice as he talks passionately about the parrots under his care -- lost, abandoned, abused and tormented, they've made their way to his Global Nest Exotic Bird Sanctuary via animal control and sheriff's departments across Northern California, Oregon and Washington.

He's saved them from certain death, offering shelter to birds deemed too aggressive to help, but, he says, as soon as they arrive at his sanctuary, "I gain their trust almost immediately." Explaining that he gives his beloved companions the hope, protection, love and dignity all animals deserve, he says that he's never been bitten hard enough to draw blood, even by stressed-out, terrified parrots.

Parrots, Cox notes, are growing increasingly popular around the world as companion animals. That comes at a heavy price for some birds, as many people aren't experienced in the ways of parrots -- they're extremely smart (some have vocabularies as big as 3,000 words), easily bored and highly sensitive. He's encountered birds who have been flung against walls and shot up with speed, he says, along with birds who have experienced abuses like having their feathers burned off with battery acid.

When such cruelties result in confiscation by animal control, birds are often highly agitated and stressed, which would normally doom them to certain death in a climate where animal control officers don't have the time or energy to sink into helping animals who need a little love and patience. That's where rescuers like Cox come in.

His flock lives with him -- and will be cared for by his son after he passes away, ensuring that they have a forever home. The birds include massive macaws, African greys and others, each of whom, he explains, comes with their own distinctive personality.

"I love them all equally. They're all my companions, my family. Each and every one, even though they're the same species. They have unbelievable personalities and relate differently than each other."

His passion and enthusiasm for birds comes through as he talks about his avian family members, and he hopes to pass that on to others.

During regular school visits in the spring, he takes some of his birds into elementary, middle and high schools to introduce students to parrots. Many students have never seen parrots before "except in Disney movies," he says, and he adds that he loves seeing the enthusiasm and excitement of students encountering birds for the first time.

In the process, he hopes to impart some love and respect for birds along with other creatures of the sky, forest and oceans -- particularly in a region where numerous people hunt, he wants people to see animals as companions, not objects of sport. More than a few parents, he adds ruefully, have called him up to demand an explanation for why their children are reluctant to pick up the rifle after they see his birds.

He also talks parrots on his Internet radio show, The Bird Whisperer. Though he's taken some time off, he hopes to be back on the air again soon with a program that includes animal behaviorists, veterinarians and other parrot experts.

It's not all a bunch of squawking: The show reaches millions of viewers with critical information about parrots and bird welfare. People who experience frustrations with parrot behavior can benefit from his mentoring both on and off air. That's important, as parrots are sometimes abused by people who had the best intentions when bringing them into their lives -- it starts with yelling at a noisy bird, he says, and then progresses into tossing things at the cage, or even hitting them, to get them to quiet down. Life with parrots isn't always calm.

For him, parrots made a huge personal difference. During the year he spent in Vietnam -- a year during which he went "from 19 to 90," he says -- he experienced considerable stress and witnessed terrible things that left a legacy behind when he returned Stateside, keeping him awake at night and making him afraid to go to sleep.

Parrots, he says, helped him learn to live again instead of "just existing," and it's an experience shared by many veterans who have found interacting with parrots hugely beneficial for PTSD. Parrots with PTSD -- yes, parrots can develop severe reactions to trauma -- also benefit from reactions with gentle, focused handlers who understand their experiences firsthand. Taking the time to step up for someone else, someone who couldn't self-advocate or defend against threats, helped him get back on an even keel, as did his interest in art and music (he plays an impressive 32 instruments!).

We talk about lessons for people interested in bringing parrots into their lives, and his advice for people interested in birds. "If you're the kind of human who follows your heart, not what's in your head, know that's what you need, and have the intention to help," he says, a parrot might be right for you.

But, he cautions, "a person who wants to get a parrot needs to be a person who understands the true meaning of patience. If you get fed up real easily, lose it over trivial things, a parrot is not for you." These noisy birds know when they want attention and aren't afraid to speak up, and, he warns, they're essentially toddlers with can openers on their faces.

But for those who connect with parrots on their level and are willing to take the time to learn their language, they can be life-changing family members.

"They're awesome, man," he concludes with a laugh. "They're just awesome."

Photo credits: Global Nest Exotic Bird Sanctuary

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