BENSON, Ariz. -- A few weeks before a family vacation last February, we happened to watch ``The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill." It's a delightfully whimsical documentary about a flock of wild cherry-headed conures and the man, Mark Bittner, who serves as the birds' guardian angel from his apartment on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. At the end of the film, we learned that Bittner had taken one of the parrots, Mingus, who could no longer survive in the wild, to a place called The Oasis Sanctuary near Benson.
As it happened, we had plans to be in Benson, an hour east of Tucson, to tour the spectacular Kartchner Caverns, discovered in the 1970s by two amateur spelunkers from the nearby University of Arizona. Because my son, Noah, 11, is passionate about birds, we decided to visit Mingus, who stole our hearts by dancing in perfect rhythm to Bittner's guitar music in the film.
The Oasis is far off the beaten path in the San Pedro Valley, some 20 miles north of Benson. Nearly half of those 20 miles is unpaved road that winds through low hills covered with mesquite and cactus.
Don't plan on dropping by unannounced, however. The Oasis is not a zoo or a tourist attraction; it's a haven for more than 400 exotic birds, most with special needs, that are guaranteed loving care for the rest of their natural lives. No bird that comes to the Oasis is sold, adopted , or traded.
Sybil Erden, 55, the driving force behind the Oasis, is an Arizona transplant with the fortitude and attitude of her native Bronx. In the early 1990s, Erden took in her first orphaned exotic bird and cared for it at her home in Phoenix. Others followed as word spread that Erden had a soft spot for exotic birds that were neglected, abandoned, injured, handicapped, or unmanageable.
``I started to realize," said Erden, ``that there was a need for avian welfare and adoption and within two years I had 60 birds."
When Rainbow, a scarlet macaw, arrived in 1996 (Rainbow's owner decided his brilliant coloring didn't match her decor), Erden started scouring southern Arizona and New Mexico for a place to move the nonprofit Oasis, someplace where the weather, zoning, and financing would allow her to spread her wings, so to speak. She found it in an abandoned pecan orchard north of Benson. Erden traded her house for a series of trailers in the middle of nowhere.
``This work selected me, rather than I it," she said. "My artistic career was moving forward and I was having success, but I always felt the need to give back. I had the background in both for-profit and non profit entrepreneurship and the means to start the Oasis. I love animals and at that point in my life the birds needed me more than anything else needed me."
Today, Erden and an on-site staff of seven fill close to 1,000 bowls a day with food for the vast assortment of birds, mostly parrots of one kind or another, and tend to the birds' needs for affection and medical care. Some are blind, some lame, and some, such as Fandago, an 18-year-old scarlet macaw who had bounced from owner to owner, highly neurotic self-pluckers. Many others have suffered from abuse or neglect. It costs more than $350,000 to operate the Oasis annually, including $1,000 in seed each month and $400 a week in fresh vegetables.
Erden knows the name and history of nearly every bird in her care. Not all are victims; some, such as Egor, an African grey parrot, are ``sponsored" birds whose owners have either died and made provisions to have the Oasis care for their birds, or retired to places where they can no longer keep their pets. Most birds accepted by the Oasis have a special need that precludes other placement and come from government agencies or adoption programs. These outcasts make up a loud, colorful, and heart rending community .
We met Archie and Edith, both over 60 , a breeding pair of blue and gold macaws who have been a couple since 1974. Wee-Wee, an 8-year-old male cockatoo, was going to be put down after scratching a child in the home where he lived, until a mutual friend of Erden and the owners arranged for him to live at the Oasis. Suki, another African grey, came with a severe calcium deficiency that caused multiple leg fractures. Living in a cage, Suki lost the will to fly. Now in the company of other African greys, Suki is learning to fly again and may soon be ready to move from the handicapped room to an outdoor aviary.
The Oasis takes in 30 to 40 birds a year, but Erden says she receives more than 1,000 inquiries annually. She sees a looming problem as the estimated 20 million to 40 million pet parrots in the United States, many of which live 60 to 80 years , outlive their baby boomer owners. Those birds will need care or face euthanasia.
A highlight of our visit to the Oasis, besides greetings of ``Hello" from the residents who watched us pass, was standing inside a $20,000 aviary in which more than 100 cockatiels and other small parrots fly free. Noah, who adores his pet cockatiel, Houdini, was utterly delighted when Doc, the friendliest of the cockatiels, landed on his shoulder and remained there as the other birds flew over and around us.
And we did meet Mingus, now suffering from a chronic hip ailment, and two other stars from Telegraph Hill. Addison and Yosemite, also cherry-headed conures, are there, too.
Erden has ambitious plans for the Oasis. She wants to build more free-flight aviaries for birds now housed in cages so that they can live naturally in flocks. And she is on a mission to educate the public about the plight of captive exotic birds, one family at a time, with her informative and passionate tours of the Oasis.
Contact Peter Zheutlin, a freelance writer in Needham, at pzheutlin@ rcn.com.