By Stephen Cripps | firstname.lastname@example.org
According to the American Pet Products Association’s 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey, there are 20.3 million pet birds within 7.9 million households. At any time, at least seven of those birds reside within the home of Steve Howard.
Howard is known as the “Bird Whisperer,” but he doesn’t care for that name.
“People call me the bird whisperer, but I actually hate that. I have scars from talons all over my hands,” said Howard. “I’m not some magic force for birds. I earn their trust and I’m very proud of that.”
Upon entering Howard’s St. Augustine home, a small, ruby-crowned conure flew immediately to the door, alighting on a nearby vase. Originally named Charlie, her name was changed to Charlene upon the discovery of freshly laid eggs.
Howard, an older man with a curled white soul patch and matching walrus mustache, walks behind me with a large pale-pink parrot staring at him adoringly on his shoulder. The parrot’s name is Jimmy, and he has PTSD from 15 years of abuse at the hands of former owners.
Jimmy is Howard’s best friend. In nearly every photo of Howard that can be found online, Jimmy is perched on his shoulder.
“Jimmy is really my safety blanket. He’s gonna outlive me, so all I can do is hope that I can find someone who can treat him as good as me after I’m gone,” Howard said. “I tell him every day, ‘Today’s gonna be a great day Jimmy.’”
He turns to Jimmy.
“Today’s gonna be a great day Jimmy.”
Jimmy hops in approval and squawks happily. The other birds chirp from the kitchen, living room and bathroom in response. Up to now, Charlene has sat stoically upon her vase at the entrance to the home. Upon realizing that someone other than her is receiving attention, she begins to scream.
Howard walks to her and holds out his hand. Charlene flies to his chest and snuggles in.
“Whenever I meet a new bird, I pull them to my chest. I make them feel my heartbeat, the fact that I am calm and pose no threat to them. I call it heart to heart,” Howard said.
Satisfied, Charlene returns to her post on the vase. Suddenly, Howard notices an absent bird. Morgi, a green-cheeked conure, has not made her presence known.
Howard’s movements become quick and precise as he moves between rooms searching for her by her chirp. He knows every bird in his house by their unique voice.
Eventually, he returns from the bathroom with Morgi riding happily upon his hand. She soon moves to his shoulder, where she remained for the rest of my visit.
“I say I’m here to take care of them, but the truth is, it’s uncanny how these critters can wedge their way into your heart,” Howard said.
In 2006, Howard was told he had three months left to live.
“The doctor said ‘Pack your luggage, because you’re going away.’ I sold everything in the house and I moved out of here for a little while, in anticipation of not surviving,” Howard said.
Raggedy furniture dots the house, indicative of years of pecking and ripping. Several armchairs appear to be victim of a pack of toddlers armed with knives. As I sit, Jimmy grabs a piece of newspaper and goes to work shredding it.
“I got healthy and I moved back and filled the house up with [Betty Griffin Center Thrift Store] stuff,” Howard said. “My expectation was that they would tear the place apart, and they didn’t. They have their furniture that will get torn up, but they leave quite a bit alone.”
This page rips into large chunks, much to Jimmy’s chagrin, and so he grabs a different page. This page shreds into thin ribbons, apparently his preferred result. He drags the much better newspaper with him and crawls under the first, cooing happily. It should be noted that the most satisfactory shredding page was an ad for the beloved Flagler College women’s softball team.
Howard did not become known in the animal rescue world around Saint Augustine because of his simple skill with bird handling – although it did get him in the door.
“[In the 90’s] I was working with ARK and Karen Lynch. Everyone had their role,” Howard said. “You could be the squirrel guy. Someone else could be the dog guy. I was the osprey guy, and eventually became the parrot guy as an extension of that.”
Outside, Howard gently grabs Jimmy and flips him on his back. Jimmy holds his finger with his claw and leans his head back. Howard begins to trim and sharpen Jimmy’s talons and beak with a Dremel tool.
“If you dedicate your time and become the center of their universe, then you’re the one. Even if they have that momentary escape they go ‘Whoops!’ and fly right home,” Howard said.
Charlene squawks, signifying that it is her turn on the bench. Jimmy crawls into Howard’s arms to be cradled while Charlene sits calmly.
Since retiring from ARK and his photography business, Howard has a new pastime: finding homes for the birds that come through his home.
Howard regularly receives birds from owners who have passed on. Some parrots can live as long as 100 years, so Howard takes his work very seriously. A mistake can mean a human’s lifespan of misery for the birds he loves so much.
“There’s somebody. There’s some military guy with one leg who’s been through battles and I have a bird who’s been beat up for 14 years and we put them together and they commiserate each other for the rest of their lives,” Howard said.
Mistakes happen in every profession, and Howard has had his share. He has learned and grown from them, though.
“I’ve given birds to what I thought was a good home, and then someone else brings them in three weeks later to have their talons trimmed,” Howard said. “The people I gave them too changed their minds and it breaks my heart.”
Howard loves his birds and those he is charged with helping. Recently, an owner asked him to help them find their bird a new home. Howard identified a possible new owner, and the man came to visit the bird. Howard makes everyone spend time with the birds to see if they match.
“I had a man… who came down expecting to take a bird like Jimmy home. Within two minutes there were red flags going up everywhere and I ended up refusing him,” Howard said. “[The current owner and I] loved that bird too much to let it not go to a great home.”
Exotic birds, particularly parrots can cost a prospective owner a pretty penny. The price adds up when considering the costs of grooming and proper care. Those who Howard trusts with these birds can count themselves lucky.
“I don’t charge adoption fees. I will put hundreds of hours into finding a bird a new home, and I don’t want it to miss out on that home because they can’t afford the bird,” Howard said. “I’m not selling the birds. I’m finding them a place.”
Jimmy hops onto a nearby plank of wet wood and begins ripping it apart. The other end of the plank is much more gnarled – apparently the currently-being-chewed end doesn’t get wet as often. He pelts me with the shredded pieces and chirps at me.
Inside, the others scream as the sun goes down. It is about time for the jungle to go to sleep, and these birds have made their own jungle within Howard’s home, with him as their trusted leader and protector.
“I’ve kind of become a little bit of a teacher. I obviously know a bit about them, I live with them,” Howard said. “They have a lot of personality, they keep me occupied. People love to come over when they have their grandkids in the area.”
Jimmy resumes shredding the plank of wood, stopping occasionally to pose for a photograph as the sun sets. Howard watches his pale-pink friend, cooing and clucking to Jimmy in the wild language only the birds and himself understand. Bird talk.
Steve Howard can be found every Saturday at PetSmart around 1 p.m., most likely treating, grooming and loving birds. He asks that anyone who wants to help animals consider helping ARK, a local wildlife rescue.