Bird Lady of Whidbey
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:40 PM
"Suffering from empty-nest syndrome - the last of her six children about to leave home - Nancy Wetherbee is filling that nest with little feathered friends. The Oak Harbor woman, with the help of her husband Bill and 17-year-old son Justin, has opened a domesticated bird refuge called Island Haven Avian Rescue. Her passion for helping animals has overflowed into helping birds of the parrot species - everything from cockatoos to macaws. These types of birds are often purchased by people who don't know what they're getting into, said Wetherbee, and sometimes the birds end up neglected, even if unintentionally. Often the owners become exasperated with the birds' untamed behavior, caused by neglect, and seek another home for the bird. In comes Wetherbee. These birds have amazing intelligence, Wetherbee said. You can't put them in a cage and expect them to stay there 24-7. The parrots, which can live anywhere from 50 to 100 years, clearly require a lifetime commitment. That commitment includes a lot of attention and interaction, a bird-friendly environment in which to play, a proper diet and mental stimulation, Wetherbee said. When confined to a cage constantly, parrots can actually go insane, Wetherbee said. The owner of six parrots of different types, Wetherbee has rescued four birds within the last month and placed them in new homes. Island Haven Avian Rescue is not a nonprofit organization - Wetherbee doesn't ask for or accept monetary donations. All of the expenses for caring for the birds comes from the family budget. Wetherbee didn't set out to become an organized rescue agency. She and her family have owned birds for a number of years and she had taken the time to research and learn the proper care of pet birds. I fell into it. People started bringing me birds, Wetherbee said. Then, Wetherbee began to do research on the Internet and went to a bird conference where she met rescue people. And I got hooked, she said. Caring for even just the six birds owned by the Wetherbees is a family effort and requires a lot of time. As the family gathers at home after the workday - Wetherbee works in the business department of the Oak Harbor School District - the nightly ritual of changing out food and water bowls, releasing birds from their cages, and playtime and interaction takes a couple of hours. In addition, the family vacuums their home twice daily, as parrots like to throw their food, Wetherbee said, laughing. Saturday mornings are set aside for cleaning cages, and it takes about four hours to do them all. Wetherbee gets out of work at 4 p.m. and the birds are thrilled to see her approaching their cages. The first one to be taken out is Rocky, a large macaw. Rocky is actually a mixed-breed, something that Wetherbee disagrees with strongly and views as irresponsible breeding practice. Rocky looks like the kind of parrot as seen in countless images of tropical scenes. His feathers are vibrant, in shades of green, yellow, red and blue. As Wetherbee sticks her arm into Rocky's large cage, the bird leaps onto it, knowing that it is playtime. After some cuddling, petting and talking to Rocky, Wetherbee places him on the top of his cage, where he can access a number of brightly colored hanging toys and perches. Wetherbee carefully selects the toys or makes them herself out of materials that are safe for birds. A number of items routinely found around the house are toxic to birds, such as scented candles, air freshener, chocolate, and anything containing caffeine, Wetherbee said. Additionally, certain kinds of wood are toxic and cannot be used for perches. Wetherbee has only untreated wood for the birds to use, and madrona branches are a safe bet, she said. As the birds are all taken from their cages and brought to the main living area of the large house, they settle into the numerous perching and play areas where there is a fresh food supply and plenty of activity. The birds will remain free for several hours, until it is time for the family to go to bed. Angel is a snowy white cockatoo. Wetherbee lovingly called her Velcro-bird because of the way the cockatoo latches onto people, craving and needing human companionship. This bird is a snuggler. She cozied up to Wetherbee's neck, content to stay there as long as Wetherbee was willing to keep scratching the back of the bird's neck.They need so much attention, Wetherbee said. When she takes in a bird that needs a new home, Wetherbee first sets about socializing the bird and providing it with some training. It is important for people to establish themselves as flock leader, she said, much like dog-owners need to establish themselves as top dog. The Wetherbee family also provides lots of love and attention, and a well-balanced diet for the birds. A recent example is Buffy, a green bird that is of the severe macaw species - the largest breed of the small macaws. Buffy used to be terrified of people and would bite everyone, Wetherbee said. Now he is easily handled by Bill and Justin and is accepting of newcomers and strangers. Additionally, the now bright red feathers on his wing tips were pink when he first arrived at the Wetherbee home, a sign of improper nutrition, she said. Wetherbee then matches the rescued birds with carefully-screened new owners. Having a parrot is like having a perpetual 2- to 5-year-old (child) in your house for 70 to 100 years. They are mischievous, Wetherbee said. Parrots should only go to owners that are serious about making a commitment. Since these birds have such a long life expectancy, Wetherbee also encourages parrot-owners to make arrangements in their wills for the birds' care. Part of Wetherbee's mission with Island Haven Avian Rescue is education. She wants to spread the message about the proper care of these pets. This education, she said, should start early. When I retire I'd like to go to the schools and talk to the children, she said. "