When I was assigned to go to Mercer Island to investigate Denise's Parrot Place, I tried very hard to get out of it.
I'm no stranger to parrot lovers. I grew up in Florida, where parrot people were everywhere. But they were all hoarders or catastrophically elderly, so I was never interested in the scene. It's no coincidence that the word used by John Milton to describe the capital of hell in Paradise Lost—pandemonium—is the same word used to describe a group of parrots. As I voyaged to Mercer Island, I secretly feared I'd get a rare tropical bird flu.
Inconspicuously located behind a busy Starbucks, Denise's Parrot Place could be a dentist's office or an H&R Block. A person passing the building wouldn't suspect it houses a colony of screeching monsters. The only signal of what's inside is a neon-green sign in the window: "Exotic Birds!"
As I enter, the pandemonium includes parakeets, lovebirds, macaws, and cockatoos singing, screaming, and teaching each other songs. There are more than 350 species of parrots, and the place is filled with an impressive selection. Not all of the birds are noisy; baby parrots quietly feed in a corner. But the quakers—a tiny green parrot that is illegal in some states because they are invasive—siren away. It seems impossible their piercing sound is coming from their tiny barrel chests.
"You don't have to take off your hat," says one employee, "but they're making that noise because they don't like your beanie."
Apparently, quakers view hats as a threat. The noise stops right as I take it off.
The employee tells me that parrots have different triggers. Some hate ladders, or mailboxes, or maintenance men. Some love maintenance men. Parrots have preferences that are species specific, but then there are outliers. Just like people.
One thing Denise's Parrot Place does not contain, however, is a Denise. Lori Woehler, the store's current owner, bought it from Denise a few years back. When I ask if the business will be renamed Lori's Parrot Place, she says, "No. Denise is like the Colonel Sanders of parrots."
Denise's Parrot Place is split between two buildings: one for retail and one for boarding. "We have fewer birds than usual," Lori explains, guiding me around dozens of caged birds in the boarding building. "Once breeding season picks up, we'll be much busier." A plump, dark-green parrot coos at me as I pass it. "She likes you," Lori says. "When they like you, they lean forward and get fluffy like that."
Parrots are some of the most endangered birds in the world, Lori explains, mostly due to habitat loss, hunting, and competition from invasive species. Some experts claim parrots have been subjected to more exploitation than any other birds in the world. Maybe it's their vibrant colors, or their intelligence, or the fact that they look like baby dinosaurs with feathers, but people have always gone nuts for parrots.
Back in the retail shop, an employee named Peter patiently attempts to teach me how parrots are altricial, which means they're born in an undeveloped state and need attentive care from a parent. That's different from chickens, which are precocial and can feed on their own almost immediately after birth. Lori and Peter stress that parrots continue to need constant care throughout their lives. While they're happy to stay at home when their owners go to work, they shouldn't be alone for 24 hours. Parrots are incredibly social, maybe even more than people.
"Do you want to wash your hands so you can meet Zoe?" Lori asks.
Of all the remarkable birds inside Denise's Parrot Place, Zoe is the crown jewel. She is a 17-year-old hyacinth macaw with a lot of life ahead of her. There is no such thing as "parrot years." People years and parrot years are the same thing, and Zoe will likely outlive me. (I bet she does fewer drugs.) Many of the regulars at Denise's Parrot Place have grown up with Zoe, including Peter, who first met Zoe when both of them were kids.
Zoe's feathers are a deep royal blue, sort of like the main bird in the animated movie Rio, except she's much larger—the biggest parrot in the store. The hyacinth macaw is the largest macaw and longer than any other parrot. They're a threatened species, with their conservation status teetering between vulnerable and endangered. Native to central and eastern South America, the hyacinth macaw is in decline in the wild, and breeding the macaw in captivity is difficult.
Zoe lives in a massive cage the size of some Capitol Hill aPodments. She's content to live her life inside Denise's Parrot Place. Besides the parrots here for boarding, Zoe is the only parrot who isn't for sale. She's unique.
"Her beak is 10,000 psi," Lori whispers, explaining that it stands for pound-force per square inch. "She could chop off a human limb or a finger. It's like one of those gigantic bolt cutters."
"But don't worry," says Peter, taking Zoe out of her cage and placing her on my arm. "She doesn't want to hurt you."
He's right. Zoe delicately perches on my arm, making sure not to pierce me with her claws. "Hi, Zoe. You're pretty," I say.
She stares back sweetly. I don't mean to sound like a pervert, but I must admit there's something special about a parrot's touch. She bobs her head back and forth. Lori tells me she's flirting. I swoon and then feed her a banana chip.
At the end of the visit, Lori says I'm welcome to come back anytime. I find myself saying I'd like to. I don't know how this happened, but I might be on my way to becoming a parrot person. Fortunately for my roommates, my building manager already said no.