Achieving a Lifetime Goal

© Howard Voren. Click here to use this content.

My first attempt at raising birds occurred when I was 5. I was the kid on the block who brought home the baby robins that fell from the nest. (Looking back, there couldn’t have been any cats on our block.) On the way to school, I would occasionally find baby robins that had fallen out of the huge maple trees that lined our street. The babies would be all cuddled up at the base of the tree, and one of the surrounding children would be lecturing that his mother said to leave the birds alone and that the mommy bird would feed them. Inevitably, when I came home from school, the birds would either be dead or barely breathing. Those that were still breathing I would take home. I would bring them to the basement and lay them near the furnace. At the suggestion of a neighbor, I used an eyedropper to drip some sugar and water solution into their beaks. Within a half hour, they would spring back to life. I was overjoyed! Unfortunately, disappointment was just around the corner. Even though I would dig up worms and feed the babies before I went to bed, they would die by the following morning. My parents made me agree to leave baby birds alone after three tries proved futile. Not even the old woman who shared with me the secret of how to “bring them back to life” with sugar and water could tell me how to keep them alive. I will never forget how bothered I was that I failed due to the lack of what I thought would be common knowledge.

The following year, my parents took me to Parrot Jungle in Miami. I had never so much as seen a picture of a macaw before. I had no idea what to expect. Not only did these creatures look like the most incredible things that could possibly exist on the planet, they would also sit on your shoulder, eat out of your hand and talk to you–all at the same time! I had made up my mind. I vowed to have one of these beautiful birds when I grew up!

Fifteen years passed. I finally made it out of the college dormitories and into my own apartment–complete with green-winged macaw. At this point, I made my next landmark decision. Instead of running off to Europe with all my friends, I was going to the Amazon jungle. Just as soon as final exams were over, I was off in a direction that no one whom I had known had ever gone before. I chose Bogotá, Colombia, as my start off point and went from there directly to the Amazon River at Leticia. Leticia was a frontier trading town that sat on the river at a point where Colombia, Peru and Brazil came together. It was everything I had ever dreamed about. In fact, it seemed straight out of a movie. Indians would paddle all night from distant jungle villages to bring items to trade and sell for fishhooks, knives and other civilized paraphernalia. And what marvelous things they would bring! Necklaces, artwork, dried fish, macaws, parrots, songbirds, monkeys, ocelots, tortoises and giant snakes were just a few of the items that would show up at the port regularly. I bought the most beautiful scarlet macaw I had ever seen for $20 and a blue-and-gold macaw to go with it for $15.

At that time, there was no quarantine in the United States. Parrot-type birds had to be treated for “parrot fever” with tetracycline in their country of origin. They were then allowed free entry into the U.S. I made arrangements with an exporter to treat my birds and to ship me a few more after I had left. The exporter was a friendly Texan who laughed when I told him that I wanted to breed macaws. He looked me straight in the eye and confided in me that the secret to breeding macaws was that they would only copulate in mid-flight and that was why Parrot Jungle was the only place that had any success in breeding them. “Take my advice, son,” he told me. “Sell the birds, make a bunch of money, and buy some more. Forget this crazy idea about captive breeding macaws.” He went on to explain that he would supply me with macaws at $75 each. That was the price that the wholesalers in Miami were paying for them. They, in turn, were wholesaling them throughout the U.S. for $150 each to the pet shops. He told me that he preferred to deal with someone like me who had the drive to “get off their duff’ and travel personally to the jungles to set up contacts. He assured me, “Now that we’ve met, you sit back in Boston, let me ship you the birds, and we’ll both make plenty of money!” This was the opportunity of a lifetime. With a business arrangement like that, I could stockpile a reasonable quantity of breeding stock in no time at all. After receiving one shipment (half of which I kept), the U.S. closed down importation because of exotic Newcastle disease. I was shattered.

Some time passed, and the U.S. began to allow birds to come into the country via USDA-approved quarantine facilities. I now had a second chance, and I was determined to make a go of it. In fact, I made the decision that breeding parrots was what I wanted to do as a full-time profession. My wife and I packed up everything we owned, including the 30 pairs of birds from the basement aviary that was adjacent to our apartment, and moved to Florida’s subtropical climate. We opened a small antique shop to try to pay for our living expenses and to buy more breeding stock. Things were moving very slowly. In fact, we were almost broke.

I spent the next few years getting to know the importers and a few veterinarians. During this time, I heard all the horror stories about the diseased shipments of birds that were coming in from Central and South America. I had acquired a fair share of veterinary knowledge during the previous six years of breeding experience, and I believed that there had to be something I could do to keep so many birds from getting sick and dying. It was then that I made an offer to several bird importers. I would travel to the exporting countries to oversee the care and treatment of the birds from the time of capture to the time of export. It would be my job to make sure that the birds were healthy before they were shipped to the quarantine facility. I wanted no money for my services, just birds. I was confident that I could reduce the disease and mortality if I could get to the birds before improper care and handling allowed them to become ill. If after they saw my work they were not convinced that they were way ahead of the game with fewer deaths and an overall healthier shipment of birds, even after they deducted my percentage, they didn’t have to give me anything.

I thought that I was making the importers an offer they couldn’t possibly refuse. All of them gave me a flat “no thanks.” All, that is, but one. However, he had several conditions: I had to pay all my expenses and could expect no birds in payment. Also, this would be a trial run. I would be permitted to invest some money in birds for myself to make the trip worthwhile. If I proved myself, then he would agree to hire me on my original terms for future shipments. I accepted his conditions. After proving myself to him, several importers requested my services. This sent me off on a 10-year odyssey that would take me to almost every exporting country in Central and South America. In areas where the birds were already arriving into the hands of the exporters sick from poor treatment, I would travel to the interior to where they were being collected. Everyone accepted my ideas wholeheartedly. It was obvious even to the simplest person that fewer dead birds meant more profits. The importers and the exporters made more money, and thousands of birds, that under previous conditions would have perished, lived.

I observed the cliffs along the Paraguayan/Brazilian border where hyacinth macaws nested. I passed through the mountainous areas of northern Panama where I saw a species of Pyrrhura conure that to this day I have never found in any book. I spent months on end in the rain forests of Honduras where I would change forever the way parrots are hand-raised when taken from the nest for export. I was also aware of the golden opportunity that I, a relatively poor man, had to acquire breeding stock at minimal expense. During the following 10 years, my family and I lived at the poverty level. We did our utmost to tighten our belts so we could keep every bird possible. Over the years, I sold only what I had to in order to feed my family and birds, and to buy cage material. I refused to allow hardship to necessitate the sale of any of my birds. I took part-time jobs between shipments and made T-stands to sell to pet shops. I never wanted to lose sight of the fact that my goal was to become a self-sufficient aviculturist, not a bird importer and broker.

During my travels, I spent as much time as possible learning about the breeding and feeding habits of the birds in the wild. I not only studied their habitats, I also spent countless hours interrogating the trappers who spent their lives following the wild flocks. As time went on, and my collection of breeding stock grew, as well as my production, I began to travel less often. During the last five years of travel, I spent most of my time in Honduras, C.A., where virtually all the birds are taken from their nests in the wild and are hand-raised to be shipped to the U.S. pet market. It was there that I gained my most valuable hand-feeding experiences. I oversaw the hand-raising of close to 10,000 birds. This, along with the babies I was producing on my farm at home, was what provided me the knowledge and experiences that went into the writing of the book, Parrots: Hand-Feeding and Nursery Management. Since I have stopped traveling completely, I devote my time to developing ways to increase production by controlling the birds through dietary and social manipulation. This has enabled me to surpass most, not only in production per pair but in percentages of pairs producing.

This knowledge is something that I am happily willing to share with all up-and-coming aviculturists, whether their goals are modest or grand. It was for this reason that this website was created and is currently being maintained.