ST. ALBANS — On a drizzly, chilly, gray March day, the only hint of the Olsons’ tropical household from the outside is the pile of birdcages poking out from the back porch of the Russell Street duplex.
Upon entering the St. Albans house, however, you’re greeted by Triton the cockatoo saying “Hi!” while cocking his head and waving his foot at you. Upon closer glance, you see birds everywhere: in cages in the living room, on the knees and shoulders of the people inside, on the back of a chair.
The Olsons, a family of four, plus their helper, Carly Buswell, are bird people. They run Feathered Hearts Avian Rescue, a parrot rescue, from their home. Though birds rule the home and lives of the Olson household nowadays, this wasn’t always the case.
“My husband has been [a bird person] all of his life, but he brought it home three to four years ago,” said Mysty Olson in an interview Thursday. Tony, who began with two parakeets, encouraged his wife and his two children, Mason, 8, and Marissa, 15, to join him in bird-ownership bliss.
As the Olsons looked for other parrots to bring home, they realized that there were a number in need of proper care – and rescue – across Vermont.
“It ended up turning into a lot of phone calls from a lot of people looking to place their birds,” said Mysty.
The Olsons began to offer to find good homes for the birds they encountered, and three years ago, they realized they needed to talk with the Vermont Department of Agriculture as they recognized what they were: a bird rescue.
“[We talked] to get the ball rolling,” said Mysty.
“Or the feathers fluttering, if you will,” added Tony.
Since they began operating officially as Feathered Hearts Avian Rescue, the Olsons have seen some 400 birds come into their home. Birds have entered every aspect of their lives – they shower with the family members, talk to them, imitate commands to the dog, go out for creemees with everyone, cuddle with them on the couch.
Buswell, who also owns her own African Grey and Green Ecletus parrots as well as a pet grooming shop in Milton, said her birds are always present for better or worse. Whether the Ecletus is in her shop and locking her out of her own cash register or the African Grey is whispering creepy things to her at night when she’s home, it’s hard to be without her birds.
“Birds are like kids – if you don’t hear anything you know something is wrong,” said Carly.
“Every bird is different,” said Tony.
“Just like a person,” added Misty.
When asked how so many birds – each with their own personality – native to Africa, Australia, South America and other tropical areas end up in temperate, winter-heavy Vermont, the Olsons said it’s through major pet stores and breeders.
While those two sources may be able to get the birds here, education and proper care for them are harder to find.
“If you’re going to Petco or PetSmart,” said Tony, “all they care about is selling you that bird and filling the cage with another. They don’t educate the people who are buying them, they don’t even take the time to explain that a seed diet is bad for them.”
For example, Feathered Hearts Avian Rescue received two cockatoos at one point that were fed just seeds. This diet led to one of the birds developing numerous tumors. Though the bird underwent surgery, it didn’t make it.
Other birds that have moved through the rescue have come from conditions where it was clear the owners had no understanding what their tropical birds required. One man in southern Vermont, for example, kept his three Macaws – a bird native to Central and South America – in his barn all year round.
More birds have come to the rescue with missing feathers, toes, eyes and legs as well as Vitamin A deficiencies, abscesses and prolapse – went internal organs literally fall out.
On a more basic level, many birds lacked the attention they need as complex, intelligent animals.
“Very few [owners] actually loved them and cared for them,” said Mysty.
The fact is, parrots are not easy pets to have.
“These guys really do require a lot,” said Mysty.
Diets filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, protein and other foods, fresh water multiple times a day, regular baths and cage cleanings, daily activity and, of course, lots of love, are what keep these birds happy and healthy.
Regular trips to the vet – in this case, Shelburne Veterinary Hospital – are also a good precaution to take.
To provide this for the birds they rescue, the Olsons have sacrificed a lot – their living room (which is full of cages), a more expensive heat bill to keep the house warm enough for the parrots, Mysty’s job, and tens of thousands of dollars.
They said it’s all worth it, though, to see the results.
“The huge reward is that these birds that have been neglected, they come out of the shell that they’ve been in,” said Mysty.
As Marissa kissed her Green Cheek Conure, Pumpkin, her father, Tony, talked to and nuzzled a rescue DuCorps Cockatoo named Chance sitting on his arm. When Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” began playing on Mysty’s cell phone, Chance danced a foot-stomping, head-bobbing jig.
Mysty said of the rescue process, “You can see the hope in their eyes. It’s more joy than you can ever imagine.”
While the Olsons could run their rescue for the past few years without any sort of formal designation, recent changes in Vermont law require Feathered Hearts Avian Rescue to become an official non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.
In the meantime, the rescue has had to register as a pet merchant to continue its work. In addition to the changes to rescue status, the Olsons are considering finding a new place to live, with more space for their rescue efforts.
“There’s a lot of things up in the air right now,” said Mysty. One thing that’s for sure, though, is that Feathered Hearts Avian Rescue will continue to help birds since that’s a real need.
“The need is more than you would ever imagine,” said Tony.
“There’s not a lot of resources when it comes to birds,” said Mysty. At the moment, Feathered Hearts Avian Rescue is the only animal rescue specializing in birds across Vermont and New Hampshire.
“We are it,” said Mysty.
Looking around the Olson living room full of people kissing, smiling at and patting their birds, it’s pretty obvious why the people behind the bird rescue do what they do.
“We love them – it’s our passion,” said Mysty.