Micah and Genevieve Davis are a young, hard-working, blue-collar Eau Claire couple. They just bought their first home last year — the same year they got married. There’s little about them that’s exceptional.
Except for their eight “kids.”
None of them are potty-trained. Three of them are named after fruit. One them is a human eight-month-old baby boy. The others are anything but.
“We’ve had Kiwi for 10 years, the four conures for nine, Chester for eight, and Lee for one year,” said Micah.
“They are very much a part of the family,” Gena affirmed. “We used to say that the birds live with us, but now we say that we live together.”
Kiwi and Lee are Australian Cockatiels. Chester is a Budgerigar, also an Australian bird species, and the others are Green-cheeked Parakeets, or conures, whose ancestral stock originated in the forests of central South America.
“When the conures were babies I held them all in my hands,” said Gena. “I call them my feather babies. It has been such an adventure to watch them grow and change, like watching my own children.”
Parrots are members of the bird order Psittaciformes (pronounced “sit-TASS-ih-form-ease”). They are bright, noisy, omnivorous birds with sandpapery tongues, and an anatomical feature they share with woodpeckers — feet splayed out two toes forward, two back.
Parrots have the longest life spans of any birds. Large pet parrots often reach 75 years of age — sometimes outliving their owners. One pet macaw reportedly lived to a raucous age of 112. There are more than 350 kinds of parrots on Earth.
Even before entering the Davis’ home, one is met by parrot patter.
“I enjoy the wildness and energy of the squawking,” said Micah. “But, it can also be unsettling at times. When the birdies are really crazy, I’ll say to myself, ‘So you thought having seven parrots in a house would be all fun and games?’”
After dogs, cats, and fish, parrots and other caged birds are the most popular pets in the U.S. — but the toughest to raise. They’re highly social, but needy. They’re impetuous as children, but the “terrible two stage” lasts for 15 to 75 years. They’re messy, destructive, and loud, and they can bite. Hard.
If confined to a cage, boredom and loneliness can make them neurotic or self-destructive.
Before the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA) in 1992 there were few limitations on the capture and sale of wild birds, and parrot populations suffered. Each year, an estimated 800,000 birds were shipped to the U.S. as pets, not including those that died during transport. Now, the import of exotic birds is banned, except under strict regulations.
“Kiwi was hatched in our college apartment in Stevens Point,” Gena explained. “The four conures were hatched by Micah’s Mom in Milwaukee. Chester was an impulsive purchase from PetCo.”
And one of the cockatiels needed shelter — in a hurry. “We got Lee from a lady in Menomonie off of Craigslist,” Gena said. “She told us that he showed up at her doorstep, barely escaping a crow attack, likely an escapee from a traveling aviary exhibit.”
Unlike dogs and cats, pet birds never really lose their “wild edge.”
“While dogs have been domesticated for 10,000 years, parrots are considered undomesticated, and are often only a few generations removed from wild,” Micah explained. “This means that our birds are genetically and physically identical to their (non-pet) cousins. This makes their friendliness and sociability all the more remarkable to me.”
All of the birds have regular 8:30 p.m. “bedtimes,” spending the evenings in blanket-covered cages. However, the Davises display a most liberal attitude toward allowing the birds freedom at other times of day.
“Birds are meant to fly and have space to move around. I mean they gave up their arms so they could fly!” Micah said. “So we do it largely for their benefit, but we certainly enjoy the thrill of seven birds squawking and flying through the dining room during a meal. And it’s lovely to have Lee on my shoulder as I wash the dishes.”
It’s not uncommon to see four or five birds using Micah or Gena as a convenient perch.
“They are extremely social creatures,” said Gena. “They will often want to be by or on us. They enjoy dancing with us. Lee will come to the dinner table and eat off of our plate. When we give them attention you can see them light up. They have this strong sense of presence, of personhood, if you take the time to look them in the eye.”
Like all good parents, the Davises know they have to establish firm “family” limits. Kind of like in the Air Force.
“There are designated ‘No Fly Zones’ in the house.” Micah added. “They’re not allowed to perch on ceiling fans, and they’re only allowed in the nursery, bedroom and kitchen if they’re perched upon a person.
“Lucy, Sandy, Pico, and Mango (the conures) are in the cage whenever we’re not home, but the cockatiels and budgie will sometimes be out. They get into far less mischief, and their beaks aren’t as destructive. Also, we find that the conures require some de-stimulation time in the cage if they’ve been out for several hours.”
The Davises are amazingly adept at telling the birds apart. Kiwi is the “scruffy cockatiel,” and Lee the “handsome cockatiel.” To the untrained eye, the four conures look like quadruplets.
“We can tell the four conures apart 98 percent of the time,” said Micah. “They have slightly different facial proportions, but the easiest way is by their behavior. They certainly have distinct personalities.”
Sandy, the most dominant bird, can be rough on his sisters. Mango is prone to hanging upside down. Lucy is a “cuddler,” who likes to nuzzle with her curved beak. And Pico, the littlest conure?
“Is usually very timid and will stay in the highest, safest place,” said Gena, “but she definitely has a wild side. Kiwi the scruffy cockatiel is quirky and loves to be near Mango and pretend she’s a conure.
“Sometimes she gets too close to Mango and then she gets beaked. Lee enjoys being sweet with Kiwi and also enjoys relaxing on our shoulders. Sometimes he will want pets on his head. But not too many pets or he will get upset.”
The lone lemon-yellow budgie is just fine sticking to the background. “Chester is the most independent bird. He will often be singing and kicking it in the conure cage. He squeezes in and out as he pleases.”
And the most recently-added family member, Isaiah, is also learning to kick it with the conures.
“He seems to enjoy them,” Micah shrugged. “If Isaiah is fussing, we’ll bring him over to the birds and he will usually calm down. There is definitely a mutual curiosity, and the birds are a bit more wary of him than he is of them.”
Sure. Makes sense. Beware the eight-month-old without feathers.
“They get kind of freaked out by his spastic movements,” said Micah. “He’s a wild card. He’s getting used to the sensation of a bird landing on his head. At first he would really react strongly, grimacing and shaking his head. Now he just looks surprised.”
And so, like any typical parents of eight, the Davises are figuring it out as they go: establish a regimen, spread the love, and let the little ones spread their wings — and be careful not to leave the door ajar.
“It’s already happened twice!” said Gena. “Thankfully we got them all back each time.”
“One time all four of the conures got out,” added Micah. “They went high up in a tree and were having a great time. They had their fill and then I coaxed them down with a strawberry.”
“I can’t imagine my life without them,” said Gena. “I also love sharing them with family and friends. When we have people over they are each delighted to meet one another.”
You can reach them at 7 Parrot Place.