Debbie the Human and Alfie the Macaw
- an ideal partnership

When a work colleague (not a parrot person) told me about the social skills of her neighbour, Debbie Delmer's Blue and Gold macaw and claimed that the bird was free flying and played with the local children in the street. I was frankly sceptical so arranged to find out for myself.

Debbie and Ian Delmer, five-year old Amy (daughter), and eight-year old Alfie (macaw) live in Basildon an East Anglian town in the UK. When I arrived, Debbie was indoors and Alfie was sitting calmly on a neighbour's shoulder at the front gate. This gentleman, unable to work, often visited Alfie and Debbie explained he found Alfie's companionship comforting. In the Delmer's small house, Alfie does not like to fly. In each part of the house he has a special perch or spot.

It was a sunny day and Debbie suggested we take Alfie for a walk in the nearby nature reserve.  She clipped a dog lead to Alfie's leg ring; put him on her shoulder and off we went. Debbie allows Alfie total liberty within her house and its immediate environs but will but a leash on him if she travels farther away until she is sure that the environment is safe.  Arriving ten minutes later, in the wooded reserve, she unclipped the leash and allowed me to hold Alfie. At 1.5 kg he weighs a lot more than both my African Greys together. 'If he wants to fly he will,' said Debbie.  For the duration of the walk, Alfie stayed on one of our shoulders; he was put on the ground for toileting and climbed back to Debbie's shoulder. He remained alert, watching everything around us but showed no inclination to fly.  Debbie said that Alfie knows when raptors are about.  'He chooses not to fly and later you'll see the buzzard or the hawk.' We saw none that day but I found the explanation reasonable.

We walked around the quiet leafy streets of the housing estate where the family lives. Local children were quite accustomed to Alfie, greeted him and went on playing. Debbie pointed out the difference the behaviour of the locals, those adults and kids who knew the macaw and those that didn't. A stranger walking a dog stopped and exclaimed, 'I thought that I was dreaming. Indeed a woman walking along the street a blue and gold macaw on her shoulder is not a common sight in Basildon (or anywhere else for that matter).

At 17, Debbie left her home town in Wales and came south where she completed her nurse's training. She specialised in working with children. In addition to nursing Debbie began giving motor cycle riding lessons. At twenty-four, she was deciding to give up nursing entirely and concentrate on teaching when tragedy intervened. She was entering a car park on her motorbike when a truck ran into her and broke her back. It took her two years of harsh rehabilitation to make a partial recovery, and fourteen years later, she experiences pain and increasing mobility problems.  After she recovered from the spinal injury, she received a grant from the Princes Trust (Prince Charles' charity) to set up a small business. She started Duck and Design art gallery. The duck was Sausage, an Indian runner that she'd reared from a duckling. Sausage went everywhere with her and was a popular draw in the shop where he was at liberty with his own quarters behind when he had enough of the public.

In 2004, Debbie gained another award as Innovative Business woman of the year. This award with its cash prize allowed her to fulfil a childhood dream and buy a baby macaw. A bird lover from childhood, as a young girl, she used to help out at a macaw breeders. Brought up in company with Sausage, the tame Indian Runner duck, Alfie decided he was a duck and waddled everywhere after his friend, although he didn't actually quack. She has been lucky with Alfie's temperament. She had not enquired into his parents' temperament. 'I should have known better,' she says, 'but he's been friendly from a baby.'

Alfie came to her at 18 weeks having suffered a brutal wing clipping. Before the bird fledged one wing was cut right back. We both agree that clipping unfledged birds is a cruel and unnecessary procedure to avoid at all costs. 'I did not know enough at the time,' Debbie admits, 'to prevent the breeder clipping the bird like that.'

She took him home and took him out with her starting from the word go. There was no question for her of leaving the baby bird alone in a cage at home. Alfie went everywhere with Debbie and Sausage the duck. They would visit shops, pubs and cafes. Out on country walks Alfie would be placed on a tree branch and be a part of the group.

Debbie wanted the bird to fly. Alfie was 18 months old before his wing feathers grew back. It took 5 months for the badly clipped wings to regrow. He could not balance and fell off the perch. She had to put cushions underneath him. Her vets insisted on a proper clip of both wings then allow wings to grow out.  Debbie trained the macaw to lie on his back and play dead. 'I did it as a game but it meant he would allow the vet to cut his wing feathers and not need any anaesthetic.' On the  vet's instructions,  Debbie gave him exercises to encourage him to flap but he showed no inclination to fly. She encouraged him to fly by running fast with her arms in the air.

Alfie's first flight however was a milestone. On the memorable day, Sausage the duck was asleep in the doorway, Alfie was perched in the small garden. A cat jumped the fence, crouched and made an attempt to get the duck. Alfie launched himself in the air and went for the cat. The cat beat a hasty retreat; Alfie's wingspan is pretty impressive. To this day, Debbie does not know if Alfie fell off the perch in surprise or intentionally launched himself at the intruder. She says, 'Even after years he still lands awkwardly; he will fly up into the air and become the most graceful creature.'

Owners will sometimes need to rehome a parrot because of a new baby. Debbie married Ian who already had a daughter Katie, who often stays with them.  When Alfie the macaw was two and Sausage the duck four years old, Debbie fell pregnant.  Her attitude to the pregnancy and the pet birds was unusual.    'I made sure that Sausage and Alfie were not excluded. It was their house and I was introducing someone new. I spent time with birds. I never spent time with baby instead of the birds.' The result of this was more than Debbie hoped for.  'My birds adopted the baby and brought her toys. The duck wouldn't let anyone enter the room where Amy was unless I brought them in. Alfie would cry when the baby cried. It was his baby.'

Just recently, Ian has painted  the living room where Alfie sleeps so Alfie's sleep perch has been moved to Amy's bedroom until  the  new paint has settled.  Ian going into Amy's bedroom to bring Alfie down found Amy still sleeping. 'Morning Alfie,' said Ian. Alfie instead of replying 'Hello,'  as usual made shushing noises and insisted on whispering  until they had both left the room.

My own experience with babies and children and parrots has mirrored this. Well-socialised Greys, parakeets and cockatoos can become suitable companions for children in properly managed conditions.  Watching Alfie react with Amy and seeing photos of him with Debbie's stepdaughter Katie took this concept further than I'd imagined possible.  I was also sceptical of the anecdote of Alfie and the local children playing in the street. However, on the day I visited several children were playing on scooters and Alfie rode on the handlebar of one.

Debbie brought Alfie and Amy to visit my birds.  Alfie has boarded at an aviary so he's seen other birds. What a successful afternoon! Alfie didn't want to fly in the aviary but chose a thick rope perch where he held court while we drank tea beneath him. Amy shared her cake with Artha Grey and Perdy, the LSC cockatoo. Almost all my aviary birds flew across to see the giant visitor. Some like Perdy approached closely; others kept their distance.  'If he gets nervous' said Debbie, 'he makes a siren sound.' During our tea party he said nothing but Hello. He stepped up politely onto the hands of my other visitors all of whom were entranced with his stately and amiable behaviour. When he does not want not step up he simply turns his head away and shuffles a couple of steps along the perch.

On the subject of birds feeling and expressing emotion, Debbie definitely believes, as I do,  that they can and do. When Sausage the duck died of natural causes, Alfie was four years old. For several months after the duck's death. the young macaw demonstrated depression. What made Debbie conclude he was grieving? By sensitive observation of small signs: Alfie did not want to go for walks that he had gone on with Sausage. Alfie ate less.

After five years of success, ill heath forced Debbie to close the Art Gallery. However, until Amy was six months old, she still continued taking Alfie to hospitals and old age homes. Research has shown that animals' presence has a beneficial effect on stress. This affects many types of mental and physical illness.  For three years the pair participated in a part-time scheme in Basildon, visiting patients in hospitals, 'I was working one night-shift a week...You would not believe that an elderly woman with Alzheimer's would relate to Alfie by talking to him and saving her biscuits.' This practice had to stop when Debbie had another operation. Once Amy goes to full-time school she'll resume these visits if her health allows her to.

Is there a secret to her success?  Debbie is modest and won't comment. She is self-taught in bird management. Watching them together, you can see the subtle way they are attuned to one another. Debbie knew about positive reinforcement from her work with autistic children. I lent her Dr Susan Freidman's lectures. She said that the practices were those she used with Alfie. 'I did with Alfie what I had learned during my nurse training with children and it worked.'

What Debbie shows when she handles her macaw (and I would like to share it with as many parrot owners as possible) is that delicate attention to the birds' behaviour and body language, which results in such an inspiring partnership?

© Dorothy Schwarz, 2013