Zoo Highlights: Lincolnshire Wildlife Park and the National Parrot Sanctuary

Pretty Polly

Home to over 1500 parrots and other psittacine birds, The National Parrot Sanctuary is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, with up to 150 birds arriving at the park each year from all over the UK and Europe. But why are so many stunningly beautiful and expensive birds in need of rescuing or rehoming?

“There are two common scenarios that we see time and time again,” explains Steve, “and both are a consequence of the same issue.”
“The first scenario is one we see regularly, where the parrot hasn’t been with the owner very long at all because it doesn’t take long for
keepers to realise they’ve made a costly mistake. The other scenario we see is people who have reached the limits of their patience and compassion, and eventually decide to let their pet go after several years of trying to make it work. The common theme of each of these is that the pet the owner thought they were getting is not the pet they eventually end up with.” 

It’s easy to see how this could happen. Walking past the parrot aviaries at the Park is deafening, especially near the cockatoos, and even more so when Steve is in tow.
“They know who I am and they’re calling for my attention.” Steve explains, his voice only just audible over the din. The consistent screech of dozens of birds is only a little worse than the constant screeching of a single bird in your living room, and this is, sadly, what many keepers find themselves having to endure.

Expectations vs Reality

The prospect of owning a parrot is an attractive one and, for those people who know what they are getting themselves into, owning a parrot is an enormously rewarding experience. Steve is quick to point out that he’s not at all against people keeping parrots and is very much in favour of pet
keeping in general – so long as owners understand and know how to care for their charges. “But there’s the problem. Most new keepers have no idea.”

A naive image of parrot keeping looks easy and fun. They’ll sit quietly and happily in their cage, eating an off-the-shelf diet, interrupting only occasionally to say something funny, and will happily sit on your shoulder or perch to be admired and tickled. In
reality, this is only a snapshot, and the true extent of parrot keeping is far more complex.

An important point to remember is that parrots are essentially monogamous in their nature and will bond closely with only one member of the household. Often this is not the same individual who wanted to own the parrot in the first place, creating conflicted allegiances and frustrating interactions.

“The bird might let other people feed and fuss it if the bonded human isn’t there,” says Steve, “but as soon as their number-one buddy comes back, the parrot can become aggressive and territorial. And nobody wants an aggressive parrot for a pet.”

For many people, parrots make fabulous pets. They’re colourful, often friendly and sometimes, amusingly vocal. But, for those who don’t do enough research, parrots can also be an aggressive and annoying nightmare. We spoke to Steve Nichols at Lincolnshire Wildlife Park, home to the National Parrot Sanctuary, to find out what prospective parrot keepers need to know.

Another common issue is caused by the noise these animals will routinely produce. While copying the, shall we say, less polite aspects of your household interactions can be amusing and perhaps tolerable, a parrot’s incessant screeching will often drive keepers to despair. This habit is exacerbated by modern lifestyles where fewer households have people who stay at home all day and where modern technology, such as phones, gaming consoles, laptops and televisions, monopolise the attention that parrots might otherwise get.

“Something we see quite often is a parrot which speaks only in quiet, muffled tones, which indicates an animal which has been relegated to a hallway or spare room,” explains Steve. “It happens when the parrot is making such an intolerable racket that the owner can no longer stand it, so they move the animal as far away as possible. Then, instead of mimicking the clear words and conversations it hears when nearby, the parrot mimics the muffled, abstract sounds it can discern from its distant location. It’s a dead giveaway and we know immediately what the situation is, but it’s quite understandable under the circumstances.”

A more worrying problem facing parrot keepers is aggression. “Many species have the strength to cause significant injuries with their beaks. They shell nuts in the wild, remember!” Mix together the parrot’s territorial allegiance to a single family member, their predisposition to explore and gnaw with their beaks, the parrot’s strength, and the keeper’s habit of perching the animal on their shoulder near their face, and you have a perfect storm – an accident waiting to happen.

All of these factors come together to explain why the National Parrot Sanctuary is such a necessary service, and why Steve and his team are kept busy educating people about parrots’ needs. But, if that’s the reality of parrot keeping, why is Steve so in favour of people having these complex and demanding animals as pets. Steve justifies his position perfectly by stating, “Because, in the right hands, parrots are a fantastic and rewarding pet, and that experience should not be denied to those who know how to look after parrots properly.”

The average parrot has five homes in the first two years of its life.

A rewarding pet

“Parrot pets were probably at their happiest in the 1960s and 70s,” states Steve, cryptically. “Think about it – most households had at least one parent who would be at home all day, so the parrot got plenty of interaction, stimulus and enrichment. It was common to see pet parrots sitting on the washing line while mum was hanging out the laundry. Not only was this a form of enrichment, but also a great opportunity for the parrot to soak up the sun to produce the necessary vitamin D3 they require. Then, when the chores were done, the parrot would be returned to a cage with a blanket draped over it so that mum could listen to the Archers or watch TV. Most would be fed a variety of food similar to that which the family was eating. There was a reliable routine and a solid relationship, both of which are an important part of a good parrot/human bond.”

Those were the days before the internet, before artificial smells, before commercial parrot foods and seed mixes and before many homes had conservatories made from glass which filters out UVB light. The stimulus and enrichment would be satisfying for both the keeper and the bird. And when the parrot was put away in its cage and covered, it would preen itself and fall asleep uninterrupted.

Compare this to the situation in most households today and you can see why a lot of homes would not easily accommodate a pet parrot. Many have no option but for both parents to go out to work, leaving parrots with limited stimulation for most of the day. Children are often too distracted by phones, tablets, TVs, computers and gaming devices to spend time entertaining a parrot. All told, the typical modern-day family simply doesn’t have the time to dedicate to caring for these demanding social creatures.

“Interestingly, a lot of the elderly parrots we know that have lived with their owner for many years, are mostly owned by women,” smiles Steve. “Make of that what you will.”

“I’ve got an idea…”

The idea of opening a parrot sanctuary occurred to Steve in the late 1990s. He had been visiting children’s hospices with a selection of friendly parrots, offering play and education opportunities with these wonderful birds. However, the project was halted due to fears about diseases being introduced into the hospice, much to the disappointment of everyone concerned.

“Looking back, it’s quite understandable – given what we now know about zoonotic diseases, but it was such a shame as the kids really enjoyed meeting the birds and I really enjoyed helping people learn about parrots. So, after some thought I decided to do the next best thing – I’d build a facility full of parrots where children and families could visit of their own accord. The rest, as they say, is history.”

After viewing over 150 potential sites and travelling over 10,000 miles, Steve finally located a site in Lincolnshire. It was nothing to look at, just a flat piece of land with not a tree, plant or even grass. But it had one enormously valuable asset. There were no houses nearby. This was where The National Parrot Sanctuary would be built. Finally, in 2003, having attained a zoo licence, the Sanctuary opened its doors to the general public. And as expected, welcomed even more birds!

Fifteen years on and the Sanctuary, nestled within Lincolnshire Wildlife Park, is one of the largest of its kind in the world, with Steve rescuing more pet parrots than anyone on the planet. Along with that, Steve and his team also care for the country’s largest collection of Bengal tigers which have been rescued and rehomed from private collections around the UK. And just last year the park launched the National Turtle Sanctuary to address the hundreds of turtles in the UK which need new homes.

The National Parrot Sanctuary

Each bird arriving is received at the Sanctuary’s newly-built reception and hospital facility. “We realised our facilities and systems were set up perfectly for the birds that arrived here, but the experience of the keepers who were giving up their pets left a lot to be desired. Giving up your pet is a sad, sometimes harrowing event, and we had nowhere suitable for keepers to be while this was occurring. It’s not unusual for fully grown men and women to be in tears and inconsolable – the public areas of the Park were not the right environment.”

The new 660 square feet reception and hospital facility has a dedicated family room where goodbyes can be said in a more sympathetic environment. From there, the parrots enter a biosecure quarantine facility where they are examined, microchipped and treated for any ailments, if necessary. Quarantining will last for at least 30 days, or longer should any issues be detected before the birds are relocated to their permanent new ‘forever’ homes as part of the Park’s on-show exhibits.

The new facility opened in 2019. It cost over £350,000 to build and equip with state of the art facilities, including food prep areas, staff mess room and two separate hospital areas – one of which has a glass-walled public viewing area. “We have two hospitals because the Park’s visitors like to watch us doing interesting or cutesy things like feeding baby birds or health checkups, but we do the more invasive veterinary work out of view of the general public. Few people want to watch that part of our operation.”

When asked about the commercial viability of the new facility, Steve laughs. “This facility costs money, it doesn’t make money. But it’s necessary and important, and if we want to do what we do well, we have to have these facilities. That money was well spent, in my view.” 

Steve’s pet parrot DOs and DON’Ts

Modern lifestyles mean most households are empty for much of the day, with nobody home to entertain the parrot. In the wild a parrot would be part of a large social group, rarely spending more than a few minutes alone. They view solitude very much like we view solitary confinement. It drives us crazy. If keepers had more than one parrot that would solve almost every problem they might encounter if they only had one. It would greatly reduce the number of parrots we receive here at the Sanctuary for sure.

This would ideally be a large outdoor aviary and an indoor perch or cage. A couple of parrots will be quite happy to spend most of the day in each other’s company, preening, sleeping, feeding and exercising. Then, in the evening when the family is home, they’ll appreciate an hour or two of attention from you.

These birds love to be stimulated and learning tricks is a great way to keep them entertained. There are plenty of great videos on YouTube to give you inspiration.

This is especially important if you have central heating as the dry atmosphere will affect their skin and feathers. Spray the water in the air to fall onto the bird as aiming the spray directly at them will be stressful. The water should be warm, the same temperature as bathwater so that when it reaches the bird it is still warm. You’ll notice that spraying like this triggers the bird to open their wings to absorb the moisture. If you soak them well enough it will take them a good hour to dry off and preen themselves properly, which is, of course, fabulous enrichment for them.

This sounds counter-intuitive and controversial, but spending lots of time with your new parrot is usually akin to making a promise you can’t keep. Most people have busy lifestyles and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to sustain a parrot-petting routine for the long term life of the bird. It’s much better to set a routine that you can stick to and that the bird can rely on. My point
about having two parrots is the best way to ensure you have a happy parrot and a happy keeper. An hour or two of your attention is plenty, under these circumstances.

As an extension from the previous point, if you can develop a routine and stick to it, that’ll be great for your parrot. Don’t set yourself up with a routine you can’t adhere to, and do what you do at the same times every day. Your parrot will thank you for it.

Yes, I know there are plenty of pictures and videos of me doing exactly this, but I’m resigned to the likelihood of getting bitten now and again. Let me tell you, a bite on the face is no fun at all, so it’s best to avoid this happening in these delicate areas.

Parrots have a particularly delicate respiratory system and Teflon is poisonous to them. Indeed, parrots are particularly susceptible to absorbing toxins due to the way their lungs and air sacs work. Air fresheners and other sprays are similarly problematic, so avoid using these anywhere near your parrot.

You’ll often see this being done, but it’s a bad idea. It reinforces artificial behaviours and encourages regurgitation. Treat the parrot like a parrot, and it will then behave like a good pet.

A typical parrot’s crop and stomach are each about the size of a grape. That’s how much food they need in the bowl each day. Unfortunately, many keepers treat parrots like grazing animals, which they’re not. They spend a lot of time finding food, foraging, playing with food, peeling it, shelling it and eating it. Wild parrots never get fat, but pretty much every parrot we receive at the sanctuary is overweight to one degree or another. Give them a small amount of food in their bowl once each day, about 1.5 tablespoons. Then, also offer a variety of fresh fruit, veg and other titbits in the evening.

We got some wonderful footage from our visit to Lincolnshire Wildlife Park, including information about their great efforts to now also offer sanctuary to turtles in need of a home.
If you liked this article and would like to see extra content, it featured in our December 2020 edition of EK, which is available to buy from our site. The December issue also covered expert opinions on bioactive herp enclosures, how and why to use solarmeters, an interview from another zoo (Tropiquaria) on extremely endangered fish, plus more! 


Zoo Highlights: Lincolnshire Wildlife Park and the National Parrot Sanctuary

In 1995 Steve founded the organisation Parrot Line, a telephone advisory service helping parrot owners in his local area. The service soon grew into a national call centre and now takes more than 100,000 email enquiries and over 30,000 telephone calls each year.

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