Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Parrots International

On Friday May 5th, I made my way from the Bird Talk offices in Irvine, CA to the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles Westside in Culver City. I used MapQuest, and it took me some crazy highway hopping way to this city I've never bothered to go to outside of LAX. Being a Friday, traffic was bad in that way that only Southern California traffic can be -- lots of gas guzzling SUVs fighting with convertibles. After a 2-hour trip that should have taken me about 40 minutes, I found my self at the Radisson, my home for the weekend and the location of the Parrots International Symposium 2006.

The first person I saw as I walk into the hotel is parrotlet breeder and avian fun girl Sandee Molenda decked out in another one of her eye-catching outfits. I was in jeans and a t-shirt and could probably have used a shower. But Sandy didn't bat an eye, so I threw my stuff into my hotel room and went downside to join her in the bar for a margarita -- after all, it was Cinco de Mayo ( a National Holiday in Southern California I later explained to Bird Talk's Chicago-based Group Publisher who also flew in that evening). I barely got to chat with Sandy and PI speaker Dr. Donald Brightsmith, who I see every year or so when he's not running around in the rain forest in Peru, before they were whisked off by limo for an evening of fun with the other PI speakers. As Brightsmith later remarked to me, Mark Stafford, president of Parrots International, always treats his speakers well.

There was no rest for me though as I was meeting the BIRD TALK Group Publisher, Bill Rauch, to discuss Bird Talk editorial planning for the upcoming year. After our meeting, I got to my hotel room in time to see one of my favorite TV shows, Numbers, before falling asleep to the lullaby of the 405 freeway traffic.

Bright and early the next day, I went downstairs to get my badge and itinerary for the symposium. This is one pet peeve I have regarding avian symposiums, if I can regress for one moment, they always start early in the morning. You'd think they would start at 10 am and let us get a little coffee and breakfirst, but no. I don't know a single convention, show or symposium that doesn't start briskly at 8am. And this was no exception. Assistant editor Connie Cho and associate editor Rose Gordon joined Bill and me outside the lecture room where a table of coffee, tea and pastries awaited us. Even our marketing guru, Gary Koltookian, drove up to meet us and spend the day at the symposium to get a birds eye view of avian culture.

Dr. Stafford started the day off with a welcome speech before we went into the first topic. He and his wife Marie started PI, a nonprofit organization dedicated "to the conservation of endangered parrot species and improving the welfare of both companion parrots and parrots in the wild."

There were around 7 presentations each day, mostly concentrating on avian conservation efforts around the world. What makes the Parrots International Symposium so fascinating is that the organization brings in these speakers from other countries who talk about the work they have been doing in the field, plus they bring a lot of great photos. I just want to touch on some of the topics presented at the symposium.

The first topic was the "Puerto Rican Parrot," given by Jafet Velez-Valenin. According to Velez-Valenin, the Puerto Rican Amazon parrot is the only living parrot species that is endemic to the United States, and there is less than 20 in the wild with only five breeding pairs in the wild. His organization is trying to save the Puerto Rican Amazon through captive breeding efforts in two aviaries in Puerto Rico. You can read more about this fascinating battle to save this parrot from extinction by going to this website:

Dr. Donald Brightsmith spoke on Ecotourism and Science in Tambopata, Peru. I met Dr. Brightsmith years and years ago at a MARE conference when a few of us took off one night to a nearby roller coaster park. You certainly know someone once you've ridden a roller coaster with him! Dr. Brightsmith took over the direction of the Tambopata Macaw Project in 1999. He has been living in Peru a lot since then working with the macaws and climbing really tall trees. He's a great speaker and person and, if you get a chance, you should either go hear him speak, or better yet take a trip to Tambopata. For more information, go to

Dr. Darrel Styles spoke twice. He is one of my favorite all-time speakers, and he is worth the price of admission -- always. Dr. Styles was a research veterinarian at Texas A&M's Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center but he is currently working with the USDA Avian Flu Task Force -- thank goodness for us pet owners. He gave a great lecture on, you guessed it, "Avian Influenza: Mechanisms of Disease, Consequencces and Prevention Strategies." He told us a lot of what we are hearing from the media is mostly propaganda. (This doesn't include BIRD TALK, which I must say has logically and rationally covered the Avian Flu.) Dr. Styles stated that," Any successful virus adapts itself to its host. It doens't kill it but holds on, so it can reproduce." Basically he was saying that the viruses try to adapt to the host, not kill it, because it kills itself. He was talking about the possibility of the disease jumping to other animals, including people. He also talked about finding his words repeated incorrectly on the internet, so I'll stop quoting him now. For more information regarding the avian flu, go to

Another talk I enjoyed a lot was given by Nigel Collar, a Senior Reseach Assistant at the Cambridge University Department of Zoology. He has worked with Bird Life International for more than 25 years on the documentation and conservation of threatened birds. Now Dr. Collar is not a sweet and fuzzy pet bird owner, but a researcher, who may believe that our warm and fuzzy attachment to birds that leads us to keeping them in cages, might be a little strange. At least that is the impression I got, but I certainly found him to be a knowledgeable and entertaining speaker. His talk on identifying parrot species, or should I say misidentifying parrot species kept me glued to my seat. In fact, Dr. Brightsmith, who was sitting behind me leaned forward and whispered to me that Dr. Collar was definitely one speaker he really wanted to hear. Some of the audience members didn't enjoy it so much, because his presentation used pictures of, bluntly said, stuffed dead birds used as examples of discovered species. Taxonomy aside, it was fascinating how a group of five or six birds were all lumped together as ones species yet had enough major differences to identify them as separate species with the knowledge we have today. Those early days of discovery and research were not always accurate. For more on Bird Life International, go to

There ends my too brief overview of the two-day symposium. There was a great silent auction and raffle, plus a banquet that included being entertained by a mariachi band. When PI holds its symposium again next year, I plan to attend. For more information on PI, go to
-- Melissa Kauffman

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Bird Flu

Stop the panic. Please. Is it just me or are we seriously panicking over bird flu? Let's look at some facts. Since this wave of avian influenza (A - H5N1) began in 2003, there have been 113 human deaths and just over 205 cases of infection. This is a drop in the bucket when compared to other causes of deaths. AIDS, now that's a serious problem. It claimed 3.1 million lives in 2005, according to the WHO, and there are more than 40 million people living with HIV today. Cancer, another big one. This disease kills 7 million people every year. Indoor air pollution alone kills one person every 20 seconds. In the United States, more than 40,000 people die in a motor vehicle accident. So, I guess, 113 deaths just doesn't seem like a lot to me. Of course, I'm not a health expert or animal disease specialist, but it seems that there are bigger things to worry about right now.

Don't forget that this disease first broke out in developing countries (Thailand, Vietnam, etc.) where sanitation standards are not exactly perfect - and it killed only 113 people. If it were so deadly, wouldn't it have spread a lot faster? Although bird flu has not yet traveled the ocean to the Americas, I think we'll have the tools to deal with it. The virus is still not hopping from person-to-person or mutating as many health experts feared. Most infections are still due to prolonged exposure to infected poultry.

Yes, we probably need to keep our pet birds inside and away from fowl or other outdoor birds. If bird flu does break out in the U.S., it seems likely that exposed flocks of birds - whether poultry or parrot - will be culled to prevent the further spread of the virus. This is what has happened in every other country with an avian flu outbreak, so there's no reason to believe that it won't happen here. Keep your birds inside or in a secure, covered outdoor aviary, and report any illness of your own, and I think you'll be safe. Please stop the panic. Yes, this is the largest outbreak of H5N1 to date. We need to be cautious and vigilant, but 113 deaths doesn't justify panic in my mind.

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