Debbie Stafford realizes that some people might consider her a little crazy — cuckoo, even — for keeping 50 brightly colored, highly vocal parrots at her home.
But to her it's a passion and a serious business — one that may even be part of her heritage.
Stafford, 56, is descended from Cherokee and Kiowa American Indians, she said. Her Indian name is Many White Feathers, which can be shortened to Feather. For that reason, she's named her nonprofit parrot rescue, along with her for-profit bird marketing business, Feather to Feather.
In the nonprofit part of her operation, she rescues abandoned birds, trains them to be more sociable and finds homes for them free of charge.
Stafford also markets parrots at bird shows and online. She charges $25 for in-home consultations, and charges clients for retraining their birds at her aviary.
Veterinary technician Lynn Sawyer at Advanced Veterinary Care of Pasco, a certified avian practice in Hudson, said she knows of no one who makes house calls or trains parrots like Stafford does. "She's an original. She's one of a kind," Sawyer said.
Stafford and her husband of 23 years, Bruce, live amid their flock of pets and pets in training in a forested neighborhood off Route 98 north of Brooksville.
In 1997, Debbie Stafford was approached by a friend who had become the owner of two white cockatoos but didn't know how to raise them.
Stafford didn't know either, but was determined to teach herself — reading and even watching bird behavior at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo.
"I'm the type of person, I read a lot," she said. "I want to learn everything about (a subject)."
Stafford successfully cared for the fledglings and trained them for human companionship. In payment, the friend gave her one of the cockatoos.
At the time, Bruce Stafford was driving a tractor-trailer and Debbie Stafford rode with him. For seven years the cockatoo, named Sir Lancelot but affectionately called Baby, rode along with them.
But the time came when Debbie Stafford felt Baby needed a feathered friend. Today the bird has 49 friends — cockatoos, cockatiels, mini-macaws, conures — the number fluctuating as eggs hatch, birds are sold, and parrots are rescued and adopted.
She names every bird and knows all of their backgrounds, and even their calls.
Standing outside her house recently, with a red-blue-yellow macaw perched on her shoulder, Stafford cocked her head at bird sounds coming from inside the home behind her.
"That's Sammy and Baby Blue," she said.
One of her birds has some local fame.
Oscar, a rescue parrot, is able to see only shadows. Because awareness of vision impairment is one of the missions of Lions Clubs International, the newly organized club in Ridge Manor has chosen Oscar as its mascot.
Stafford attributed Oscar's poor eyesight to an all-seed diet lacking in fruits, vegetables and vitamins.
"We thought we could get the word out about parrots and feeding," she said, adding that nutrition can affect human eyesight, too.
The story of Wind Dancer, Stafford's first rescue parrot, has an even happier ending. Stafford first saw the cockatoo, which was then nearly bald, at a bird show a decade ago. The owner claimed the 4-year-old bird had plucked out his feathers because he was distraught at not having a mate.
But Stafford suspected the real problem was a lack of attention from the owner.
Wind Dance was fitted with a jacket to prevent him from plucking his feathers and given lots of care.
Then, four years after adopting him, she posted a magazine photo of a well-feathered bird near Wind Dancer's cage. She told the bird: "If you stop plucking your feathers, you'll be beautiful like the picture."
In her home two weeks ago, she showed off the snowy, scallop-plumed parrot.
"He hasn't plucked a feather since," she said.
She has often encountered caged parrots that scream. Some owners give them food to stop, which Stafford says only encourages them.
"Once they learn to scream, it's hard to change them."
But screaming is also a natural reaction to alarm, which can sometimes be eased by slight changes in their surroundings, Stafford said.
Recently, she was called to a home where a parrot had been screeching continuously for about a week.
Stafford looked at the living room where the owner kept the parrot's cage, and noticed a belt.
She asked, " 'How long has that belt been lying across the back of your couch?' " she asked the woman.
About a week, the owner answered.
" 'Your bird thinks it's a snake and it's screaming because it's afraid,' " Stafford said.
She moved the belt and the parrot grew quiet.
Stafford advises owners who get a new bird to sit with it, talk and sing to it, and mimic its movements.
Eventually, the bird will understand that the owner can be trusted. Once it looks the owner in the eye, Stafford said, the bird can be brought outside of its cage and handled.
And, in some cases, taught tricks.
As a visitor prepared to leave two weeks ago, Stafford told a Catalina macaw to wave bye-bye.
Sure enough, the bird shifted its weight, lifted one claw, and waved.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]