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Exotic hobby takes wing

Their flat, round eyes dilate. They flap their wings and shriek "caCAW, caCAW, caCAW." The two scarlet macaws, staring at each other from separate cages, are ready to become "love birds."

When their owner, Linda Meade, sees these signs that the birds are compatible, she moves them into the same cage to breed.

Even then, it's done slowly, moving one bird at a time to get it used to its new surroundings. "Birds have different personalities," Mrs. Meade said. "They're like people. Some can be sweet, and some can be mean."

And, like people, some birds will never be compatible. "They've got to want to be with each other."

Mrs. Meade and her husband, John, have been breeding exotic birds at their Riverview home for 11 years. They are among hundreds of bird enthusiasts in Hillsborough County, and many have turned an interest in birds into a full-time occupation.

They are part of a growing industry that in coming years could get even bigger if the federal government passes laws ending the importation of exotic birds. With environmentalists pushing for stricter import laws, that could happen soon.

Breeders say cutting off imports would be a boon to the captive-breeding industry, especially in Florida and other Southern states where the business has grown rapidly in the last 10 years.

"It starts out as a hobby and evolves into something else," said Richard Clarkson, owner of Brandon's Pet Shop and also a bird breeder. "It's the satisfaction of seeing a baby bird grow and seeing it become independent, and then seeing somebody get joy out of (owning) it."

Mrs. Meade, with more than 100 pairs of birds in her care, is almost like a mother to these feathery, and often noisy, creatures.

She knows which birds breed at certain times of the year. She can tell when a bird is sick. She knows their tastes in food.

She learned her trade from "asking questions of anybody who knew anything" and quickly realized there is much more to breeding exotic birds than simply putting a male and female in the same cage.

Sometimes it takes years for a pair of birds to reproduce.

And often, the hardest work starts when the eggs hatch. At 2 to 3 weeks old, the delicate chicks are taken from their parents and hand-fed with a syringe every two hours. As they get older, they begin eating fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts.

Just as with a human baby, the hand-feeding creates a bonding with the bird, tames the animal and makes it easier for a new owner to adopt it for a pet.

"There's nothing like a domestic baby bird," said Mrs. Meade, standing in her kitchen as she hand-fed a 2-week-old, fuzzy gray eclectus.

A 6-week-old Moluccan cockatoo, a bird distinguished by its high crest of feathers, sat nearby. Mrs. Meade said she took the cockatoo from its parents right after it hatched because she feared the parents might kill it, as some birds will do to their young.

Although they can be finicky, captive-bred birds can make great pets, said Clarkson, the pet shop owner. Clarkson has been breeding exotic birds for about 30 years. He sells many of the birds he breeds at his store, which specializes in exotic birds and fish.

Birds are becoming more popular as pets, especially in apartment complexes where tenants are not allowed to have cats or dogs, Clarkson said. Prices range from about $45 for the popular cockatiel to thousands of dollars for some rare species.

Most birds native to North America, such as the robin and the bluebird, can't be sold, under federal wildlife protection laws. These laws also make it difficult for private citizens to raise or breed native birds in captivity.

But there are few regulations on breeding exotics, or birds from other countries. So many breeders work with psittacine, parrot-type birds that are native to Australia, South America and other places outside the United States.

In Florida, all that's required to get into the breeding business is a permit.

"We don't have the manpower to inspect every breeding facility," said Capt. Jerry Thompson, wildlife inspections coordinator for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. Inspectors check out any problems that are reported to the commission.

Thompson said he has seen a growing number of permits issued for exotic birds in recent years. He said some bird breeders aren't aware that a permit is needed.

"A lot of bird-breeding clubs and organizations have been helpful in getting the word out," Thompson said.

One such club is the Greater Brandon Avian Society, of which John Meade is president. It is made up of about 200 bird breeders and hobbyists who meet once a month to exchange information and network with other bird enthusiasts.

Mrs. Meade, a self-described animal lover, said she once wanted to be a veterinarian. But breeding has turned out to be the perfect alternative. "It's something that we can both stay home and do and raise our children, too."