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Active in rescuing birds whose owners no longer want them, Debra Morgan has gotten a clearer view than she might have wished of an unwanted bird’s plight.
Daily photo by Eric Fleischauer
Active in rescuing birds whose owners no longer want them, Debra Morgan has gotten a clearer view than she might have wished of an unwanted bird’s plight.

Watching out for flighty heart
Nature Chest owner takes care when pairing humans with bird companions

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

Most business owners would be worried if sales in a core product were dropping, but not Debra Morgan.

Morgan owns Nature Chest Bird Shop on McGlathery Lane Southeast, and bird sales are swooping the wrong direction from a business standpoint. After 12 years owning the business and a lifetime of loving birds, however, other issues trump sales for Morgan.

“The market for birds is fine. Our sales have more to do with me evolving,” Morgan said. “I’m more aware of the situation many of these birds end up in, and that makes me a lot more careful about who I sell them to.”

Plight of the unwanted

Active in rescuing birds whose owners no longer want them, she has gotten a clearer view than she might have wished of an unwanted bird’s plight.

She continues to sell a menagerie of parrots — sun conures, green amazons, budgies, cockatiels — but she is increasingly aggressive in making sure the buyers understand the level of commitment needed for the birds.

The sun conures, for example, are gorgeous, a water color of blinding yellow, red and green. They also are loud, so she generally won’t sell them to people who live in apartments, even if they want them.

Morgan, a certified avian specialist, is not worried about the owner so much as she is worried about the parrot. An unwanted bird is a suffering bird.

Indeed, the sales process she describes sounds like it comes from the manual of an adoption agency. On large, hard-to-care-for birds, she has had families come to the store to spend time with their prospective pet up to seven times.

When mom or dad want to buy an exciting gift for a child, they can expect a good-hearted lecture.

“If the child is not good about taking care of it, the parents need to step in,” she said. “If they don’t have the commitment to do that, they should not be taking it home.”

Children fall in love with her talkative green amazon parrots, and even at $1,200 parents often want to oblige. In Morgan, though, they meet resistance.

“As green amazons mature, they tend to get more aggressive,” she said. “I’ve found that doesn’t work well with children.”

Gentler birds

She steers children to the more gentle — but drab — gray amazon. For those with eyes for the brilliant green plumage, that means a lost sale.

It’s a flighty business model. Her birds — all of them parrots of various types — sell from $40 to $2,000. Maybe more significant, most bird sales result in a host of other purchases, from cages to toys to food.

Even if Morgan is an ambivalent participant, birds are big sellers. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 6.4 million households own 16 million birds.

Nature Chest’s main sales are not birds but high-end “human-grade” foods and toys.

Lots of toys.

Most dangle from a jam-packed wall like Gypsy earrings. A popular item is the babbleball. When the bird rolls it, it lets loose a cacophony of animal noises.

That’s in case the chatty birds aren’t loud enough for their owners already.

Bird toys are not a one-time expense for caring owners.

“They need to tear up their toys,” Morgan said. “That’s part of their psyche.”

She’s passionate about her food selection, another result of her experience with birds that have received inadequate care.

“The most common health problem with birds is poor nutrition,” Morgan said.

A bird is not just a bird when it comes to food. A good diet for a budgie (also called a parakeet) may leave a sun conure ailing. What satisfies a green amazon may leave a macaw in misery.

She said she also makes sure her foods — and she carries dozens of different types — are fresh. She buys direct from the manufacturer to avoid warehouse time, a practice she believes gives her an edge over her local chain competitors.

Morgan’s concern for birds extends to how she gets them. Shipping, she explained, is terrible for birds. Those that survive, traumatized by the journey, often succumb to disease after their ordeal.

Morgan breeds almost all of her birds. Some she buys from a handful of trusted, local breeders.

Playing matchmaker

Morgan is a persnickety matchmaker, but a matchmaker nonetheless. Finding the right owner for the right bird is an accomplishment that provides pleasure for both, and for Morgan.

For young children (with responsible parents, she reminds), budgies and cockatiels are wonderful pets. Doves, she said, are hard to beat for children. They don’t fluster easily, and are amenable to being held. Older children are usually up to the responsibility of a Quaker parrot.

“A large bird for a small child? That,” she scolded, “is not an appropriate situation.”

Morgan has a knack for business, even if her avian ethics occasionally get in the way. She has a thriving nationwide Internet business in food and toys.

“We sell a lot on the Internet,” she said carefully. “I don’t want to tell our competition too much.”

When she realized many of her Internet sales were for Jimmy Buffet fans — who call themselves “parrotheads” — she started another Web site devoted to merchandise that appealed to them.

She also fosters a love of birds in elementary school classrooms, where she frequently gives free programs. She brings the birds in for the students and, of course, makes sure they know the importance of attentive care.

Customers love the brilliant colors of parrots, Morgan said, but the birds’ most popular characteristic is their linguistic ability.

Morgan has a yellow nape amazon at home with a 400-word vocabulary.

“There’s something unique about having a pet that will say ‘goodbye’ when you leave, and ‘Are you OK?’ when you hurt yourself. We even have birds that will say, ‘Are you OK?’ when another bird falls.

“I like dogs and cats,” Morgan said, “but you don’t find many animals smarter than a parrot.”

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