A Wing and a Prayer

Louisiana’s exotic-bird farmers

About 20 miles outside of Many, pine trees start to tower, and the hills of Converse rise. On a lightning-seared pine a bald eagle leans against the sky. Bypassing Zwolle, Highway 171 branches off and climbs steadily northwest into a land that feels ever more lonesome and pristine. A few turns venture away from the highway, and then the pavement narrows into a red dirt road. Finally, the road surmounts the last hill, revealing a view of Toledo Bend Lake worthy of a gasp. The 1,200-mile shoreline and distant white gloss of the 200,000-acre lake come into focus. After that, it’s a bumpy descent under the tree canopy into Deb and Dan Meisner’s lakeshore yard. Even in this wild place, the last thing one expects to hear is the deafening crescendo of bird babble. The cacophony is unlike any normal experience of birdsong in the morning. It is an eden of sound –– not noise but a bright arrangement of notes that swell rhythmically together, low and sweet greetings punctuated by sharp whistles, raucous cries, and bodacious cackles.

This is Meisner Bird Farm.

To a neophyte, the row upon row of caged exotic birds is a bracing spectacle indeed. Even in captivity, they flash their wings as if they’re spreading a sunset. Lime, scarlet, cobalt, gold and indigo feathers stand out like neon billboards in a desert. Like most domestic breeders, the Meisners raise a little bit of everything: macaws, cockatoos, conures, eclectus, amazons, caiques and more than 350 quakers. Far from their tropical and subtropical native habitats, these birds belong to the United States’ burgeoning population of exotics that, since the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, cannot be imported and are multiplied only by domestic breeding.

Deb remembers their first foray into bird-raising 18 years ago: “We were one of the few peacock breeders in the state at the time. You get hooked on it. It’s an addiction, like alcohol or smoking,” she says, with the understanding that there are worse things an addict can crave than these pretty creatures. Being concealed in a cage doesn’t stop their beauty from shining like coins at the bottom of a pool.

“I love the color of it, getting up in the morning with something to look forward to, wondering who’s going to have a baby that day,” Deb says. Fortunate enough to live with hundreds of her own personal little rainbows, she and her husband breed for ever-stronger color mutations. But personal rainbows can be costly in their own right, especially if one creates them. Most serious bird breeders know they are responsible for what they create. They must care for their birds constantly and ensure that these birds can be placed in good homes. This requires a huge commitment of time and effort.

The mere commitment to hand-feeding baby parrots can be staggering, requiring around-the-clock feeding for weeks on end.

“If I didn’t love it as much, it would be a hardship and a heartache,” she muses. As a bird farmer, she has battled predatory animals, storms, thieves, nosy acquaintances, con artists and legal hassles.

One year, a bobcat killed more than 200 guineas, half a dozen peacocks and all of the farm’s chickens in a six-month rampage before Deb shot him with her rifle. Thieves stole a dozen of their parrots over the course of two weekends. Unscrupulous breeders have sold them birds that don’t breed, including a pair of scarlet macaws that turned out to be two males and a $3,000 pair of green-winged macaws that haven’t produced since they were bought in 2005.

Even breeding fertile, correctly sexed pairs can be challenging. (The sexes of parrots are indistinguishable. DNA or surgical testing is used to identify sexes.) “It’s a shaky investment,” Deb says. “Birds don’t breed if they don’t want to. They may not like the location or the cage they’re in. They may not bond with their partner. They may be rattled by their environment.”

As successful as they are with breeding and placing their parrots, the couple always has stubborn pairs that don’t breed. “We’ve tried moving them around,” Deb says. “We’ve tried different feeds, different formulas in feed. We even tried ‘Viagra for birds.’”

In 2004, the couple had eight pairs of Congo African Greys that produced 25 babies. That number dwindled year by year to one baby in 2008. The Meisners have no idea why the productivity declined so sharply.

Other specters to the Meisners’ bird-farming hobby loom on the horizon. “We’re getting too old to do this without a caretaker, but it’s hard to get help because no one we hire would know what to do,” Deb says.

Laissez Les Bons Temps Couver (Hatch)
Not far from Acadian Village in Lafayette, Hebert’s Bird Farm has been creating an avicultural legacy for more than 30 years. It’s the aviary of Lennis and Anna Hebert, parrot breeders since 1979. That was a good year, the year they attended their first bird fair. Since then, the Cajun couple has frequented four fairs per month and traveled 10,000 miles per year, buying and selling birds.

“It was a hobby when I started,” Lennis says. “I had worked for years in the oil field, and I wanted to do something at home.”

He and Anna started raising cockatiels, making the inevitable leap to breeding bigger exotic birds in the 1980s. They belonged to more than half a dozen bird clubs, and Lennis served two years as president of the Acadiana Bird Club.

He retired as an oil field executive in 2001, when he began delivering lectures on bird care to clubs all over the South.

These days, his legacy is measured more by personal interaction with novice bird breeders. “’This is like going to the casino,’ I tell them,” Lennis says. “These past two years have been the worst for trying to help people get started. The trouble is, they get carried away and buy 10 pairs of breeders, which may not even breed, and they’re getting nothing.”

He pauses, sighing over the insanity of it. “They better be ready to wait,” he says. “Out of three pairs of breeders I buy, I may get one good one.”

His Cajun lifestyle and personality infuse his bird-breeding enterprise, transforming what others call an expensive hobby into a celebration of life. But it’s not just the Cajun’s intense love of life apparent in his bird adventures; it’s a breeder’s manic willingness to do it all and have it all, an experienced old-timer’s desire to leave his own legacy and an artist’s urge to create the ultimate masterpiece.

“You never know it all in this business,” Lennis says matter-of-factly in a nasal, singsong Cajun accent. “I can incubate an egg perfectly one month, and it won’t work the next.”

According to Lennis, artificially incubated eggs in Louisiana are “tough” to succeed with because of the state’s high humidity. “The optimum level of humidity in my nursery is 40 to 50 percent,” he says. “If the humidity reaches 80 percent, the babies may drown.”

Baby parrots (called “bappies”) can also drown if the air cell in the egg isn’t expansive enough, he says.

On March afternoons, rain and wind reinforce the humidity as they pound against the Heberts’ nursery hard enough to bruise the tender life within. Open umbrellas outside the door threaten to blow away amid gales of raindrops.

Inside, a tiny umbrella cockatoo peers from the recesses of one incubator, where it’s been hatched at 98 degrees and will remain at that temperature for two weeks.

In the Heberts’ nursery, a 6-week-old eclectus lunges and snaps his beak at strangers, a gesture that’s funny but slightly menacing. “I like to sell the birds at this age,” Lennis says. “People can see what they are, yet they still have a lot of work to do to tame the baby.”

To fully wean and tame a baby, one must hand-feed it and spend time picking it up every day. But Lennis doesn’t have time to wean and socialize 60 babies a day, so he sells them young and lets the owners socialize them.

Hebert has a few 4- and 5-week-old blue and gold macaws. The nubby feathers on their wings are just starting to sprout into darker shades of color. They’re easier to feed than the younger babies, who get formulas spooned into their tiny gaping mouths.

“That’s why people get fed up with this,” Lennis says. “They don’t want to do this four times a day. I don’t get tired of it because I like to see the results. Long time after the wife and I have gone, somebody will still have the birds I’ve fed.” In captivity, parrots often live anywhere from 60 to 100 years.

The walls of the nursery look like scrapbooks of certificates and plaques. One reads, “Bayou Bird Club Breeding Award in 1991 for the red-sided eclectus”; another says, “Bayou Bird Breeding Club Award in 1992 for the scarlet macaw.” It’s no wonder that other breeders want this Cajun bird guru to touch their cages, maybe sharing his luck and legacy. While he feeds the baby birds, the rain even stops.

The Bird Man
Randy Fogleman has been successfully breeding and raising parrots for more than 15 years, something that he credits to his own common sense and the meaning of his last name. In German, “Fogleman” means “bird man” –– an apt title, judging by the fund of knowledge this Lake Charles resident has to impart on the care of exotic birds.

Fogleman, owner of F & R Aviary, might say that Shakespeare got it slightly wrong: All the world’s a cage, not a stage. That’s because along the Louisiana coast, where hurricanes may sweep in at hundreds of miles per hour, a bird farmer had better get it right building his cages the first time.

A carpenter by trade, Fogleman designs his cages to make them hurricane-proof. “They’re all metal, so there’s no wood to have to rebuild down the road,” he says. “I didn’t even take the birds out of the cages during Hurricane Rita. The cages are all on slabs.”

His mantra for remedying many problems, particularly breeding problems, is giving birds proper diet and nutrition by feeding them Roudybush pellets, rice, beans and corn and limiting their intake of seeds.

“I’ve helped a lot of people who had their birds on seed and the birds would holler and bite,” he says. “But if we put them on pellets, they stopped being mean.”

Fogleman became a believer in the nutritious value of pellets when his 10 pairs of ringnecks laid 86 eggs (54 of them fertile) after five months of a pellet diet. On a seed-based diet, birds can get fatty liver syndrome and also lose their authentic colors. Females may get too fat to secrete the proper liquids during intercourse.

Fogleman has a lot of other advice contrary to conventional wisdom: “I don’t keep spotless cages because the birds wouldn’t build up their immunities. The mama bird even feeds her babies her own poop at times to give them essential bacteria. Anyway, birds in the wild aren’t spotless. And if you use cleaning agents, they leave poison in the air.”

Fogleman raises his birds on the premise that there is much to be learned from the way birds live in the wild. He seldom gives his birds vaccines for diseases because exotic birds in the wild can cure themselves. He doesn’t wrap his cages during winter because the birds already have natural down to keep them warm. He won’t feed his birds much seed because commercial seed isn’t harvested from the birds’ native habitat.

Collector’s Paradise
A black wooden fence girds Loraine Shea’s 80 acres of rolling hills and pasture near Covington, where she’s owned LaJon Aviary for roughly 25 years. The land is high and open, not likely to flood much during the hurricanes that roar into southeast Louisiana. During Hurricane Katrina, 500 trees fell, but Shea’s aviary and birds were unharmed. In stark contrast, many bird farmers in the New Orleans area were completely wiped out during Katrina. They lost all of their birds in 8 feet of water in places like Plaquemines Parish. According to Dr. Greg Rich, an avian veterinarian practicing in Metairie, Katrina had a “phenomenally bad impact.”

“So many breeders lost stock and have been unable to replenish stock,” he says. “I’d say the number of quality breeders is down by about 50 percent, and the number of baby birds I see is down about 50 percent, as well.”

Hurricane Katrina also thinned out membership in the state’s bird clubs, many of which have dispersed or cancelled their fairs.

Behind Shea’s farmhouse, groupings of small red wooden structures encircled by a high privacy fence house one of the farm’s many collections of exotic animals. Behind that fence, one sees hundreds of round black pupils staring from the eyes of caged parrots both bizarre and beloved. Behind those cages, some macaws perch side by side, and others adopt playful but cockeyed poses, clinging crazily to cage wire, even hanging upside down while keeping a tenuous toehold. The brilliant scarlet macaws and rose-breasted cockatoos brighten the wintry afternoon. 

Shea pauses in front of the hyacinth macaws’ cage. These birds run about $20,000 a pair because of their rarity and unusual indigo color. Shea likes raising more expensive birds. She loves hand-feeding hawk-headed parrots and rose-breasted cockatoos, two of the more expensive larger birds.

For anyone who ever wondered, “Why parrots?” Shea has an answer. She likes them all for so many different reasons. The hyacinth macaws command a high price, the cockatoos are gentle and sweet, and the macaws are like pictures drawn with 64-color boxes of crayons.

Any collector worth her salt acquires objects of peculiar interest and value; Shea and her late husband, John, showed that same kind of discrimination in the animals inhabiting their property. The aviary and land support an eclectic mix of wild exotic beasts that freely roam the fields. A few llamas and zebras graze here and there, and the Hackney ponies that her husband trained for 50 years are still trained at John Shea Stables and sold to a discerning, wealthy clientele.

“My husband really started our aviary,” she says. “He got a bird for a pet; then he got another one and put them in the kitchen. They were so loud whenever I was on the phone that I finally told him, ‘Either me or those two birds are outta here.’ He traveled all over gathering up more pairs, but it always ended up being my job. Well, 25 years ago he wanted me to hand-feed a pair of baby macaws while he was out of town, and the only way I’d do it was when he told me they were worth $2,500 hand-fed. My husband knew I liked money,” she finishes with a smile.

But the truth is, making money off birds is not that common anymore. “A lot of buyers used to be able to buy cheap imported birds, fool with them a little bit and then sell them for a big profit,” Shea says. “Now these birds are more plentiful because there’s more people raising them. You have to raise them yourself and put more effort into it.”

Shea says that she bought the pair of hyacinth macaws nine years ago but that this is the first year they’ve raised babies. In this enterprise, a breeder without patience is sunk.

Shea likes sharing her collection of birds with the public when she can. “Most people are really weird about letting visitors into their aviaries,” she says. “They won’t take you out to see the birds because they’re scared of diseases spreading or the birds’ breeding cycles getting messed up. But I will. My birds are here for my enjoyment.”

Groups of schoolchildren have been allowed to visit Shea’s immaculate facility on several occasions. The children get to see about 100 pairs of breeder birds in facilities that closely emulate the concept of a “closed aviary” –– an aviary with separate breeding cages, nursery, hospital, quarantine and office. A closed aviary always keeps new birds, sick birds, young birds and breeder birds separated from each other and from visitors in order to reduce the possibility of diseases infecting the aviary. Most breeders in Louisiana fall short of a closed aviary, but Shea’s facility closely adheres to the concept, even while her collections of birds now and then stir the imaginations of little kids.

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