Baskets of baby parrots liven up the comfortably furnished back room of Rafael Zúñiga’s home in the northwestern Central Valley town of Palmares. Beyond the windows and French doors, a yard full of more than 80 birds flashes a rainbow of colors.
Zúñiga runs a zoocriadero, or wildlife-breeding center, called El Manantial. The birds are his pets, but they are also part of a scientific experiment and an educational project. And they are for sale.
A lot of confusion exists over what is legal and what is illegal when it comes to dealing with wildlife, and the specifics of Costa Rica’s hefty Wildlife Conservation Law are largely unknown to the public. It is a crime to take anything plant or animal away from its natural environment; however, animals bred in zoocriaderos, under the supervision of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET), may be kept or sold. All sales, whether of orchids, iguanas, birds or other wildlife raised in artificial habitats, must include a receipt or certificate with a stamp or seal from MINAET to prove the plant or animal was produced under supervision and not stolen from nature.
Zúñiga, 58, a Traffic Police officer, began raising his flock of parrots and macaws 20 years ago as his contribution to saving endangered species. He’s always loved birds, he says, and even as a boy he raised chickens and small birds. Aware that habitat loss and the stress of increasing humans, roads and noise are endangering bird populations, Zúñiga began raising parrots. He started out with two mating pairs, and dedicated himself to studying the birds’ habits and diets and providing them with as natural a setting as an urban home can offer.
Zúñiga has two spacious, enclosed areas covered with wire mesh so the birds don’t get notions of flying off. The back area, away from noise and movement, is for nesting pairs. He builds the boxes himself and provides material for nests. With the help of family members, all birds get daily attention: fruit and concentrated food, medicines for controlling parasites and some petting. MINAET officials visit every three months for checkups.
The birds outside have shelters, though they love being in the rain, Zúñiga says. Baskets of baby birds are kept inside the house, out of the rain and wind. The smallest ones live in a box covered with transparent plastic; others at different stages of growth have cribs built of plastic crates and made cozy with towels. Zúñiga and family members keep close tabs on the birds’ growth and feed them formula with eyedroppers throughout the day. Seeing the featherless babies, or little birds covered with growing, green or blue stubs, it’s hard to imagine that they, like the ugly duckling, will someday be beautiful.
For Zúñiga, it’s not a business, he says. He loves the birds and knows them all. It’s also the satisfaction of seeing new birds emerging from their nests and developing into magnificently plumed adults. His work has produced many more than the 80 birds in his yard. He takes pride, too, in knowing he is helping a species that might disappear from Costa Rica if left on its own.
Zúñiga takes as much care in selling his charges as he does in breeding and raising them. At $1,500, not just anyone can buy a parrot. Buyers are hotels, tourist places and people who are willing to take good care of their pets. Parrots can live up to 100 years if properly looked after, and a pair may have four to five offspring a year.
Parrots make good pets, Zúñiga says. They come to their owners, learn tricks including words, can ride around on shoulders, don’t demand much and are normally quiet and content. Zúñiga tells a story of how a pair of parrots he sold flew out of their cage after the owner inadvertently left the door open. Two days later, a friend called Zúñiga to tell him there was a pair of parrots high up in a tree in the neighborhood. Zúñiga drove over. The birds were so high up he could barely see them, but when they heard his voice they immediately flew down to meet him.
Zúñiga takes his parrots to visit schools to show the children the beauty of nature and to encourage respect for wildlife. Anyone interested in knowing more about parrots, arranging a talk at a school or club or buying a pair may contact Zúñiga at 8883-7409.