What started as a hobby some 20 years ago has developed into a full time busy business – that of breeding and selling beautiful exotic parrots – for a Bathurst woman, Wendy Mills.
Born and raised in Queenstown, Mills started her working life as a hairdresser in the town. Content with life at that stage, she had no idea that it would all change quite dramatically when she married the well-known auctioneer Paul Mills 30 years ago. The couple moved to their farm on the outskirts of Bathurst at the same time and 10 years later husband Paul started his hobby of parrot breeding.
“We bought every parrot we could because they were pretty. But we then decided to specialise in breeding Amazons, African Greys and Macawas,” she said.
Even in those years this proved to be an expensive “hobby” with their first pair of green wing Macawas costing R20,000 and red Macawas sold for R40,000. Over the years these prices have doubled. As a result, they soon saw the potential of this becoming a profitable business, and Mills took this over as it became a full time job with her husband’s work often taking him away from home. As a result, he was unable to give the birds the attention required for the operation to be a success.
“The hobby had now become a full time business and required my full time attention. It is worse than having a small baby in the house when you have small chicks to feed,” she added.
Mills said she was a “town girl” and knew nothing about parrots, let alone breeding and raising them. She learnt what she could from her husband and also picked the brains of other breeders. One of the first things she had to learn quickly was parrots’ diets, as it was not just a case of feeding them sunflower seeds as most people think.
She explained that once the eggs were hatched after an incubation period of 28 days, the birds were immediately put on to a special diet suitable for the chicks. The reason for this was to get the chicks used to this food in preparation for them being taken away from their parents when they are two weeks old. They are then placed in a special bird room fitted with incubators and lights to keep them warm. It is not uncommon to have between 30 and 40 chicks in this room at the same time.
In addition to this, Mills hatches eggs (parrots lay three) in an incubator and then the real work begins. Besides having to regularly feed her “babies” that have been taken away from their parents, she has to feed these every hour. There have been times when she has spent 10 sleepless days when she has had to feed these chicks on the hour. This obviously restricts her movements, but when she has to go away she takes her chicks with her in specially made boxes to keep them warm. A keen bridge player, her chicks travel with her and she interrupts play to quickly feed them.
It is during this time that she handles them often to get them tame and starts teaching them to talk. “They get very tame and think I am their mother, so much so that they jump and sit on me,” she said.
This has paid dividends when one day a cage door was left open by accident and 10 of her young parrots escaped and took refuge in a nearby tree. She explained that a parrot can go without food for three days and during this time she continued to call them with food in her hand. Because of this and the fact that they were tame and were accustomed to her she managed to retrieve all 10.
The parrots are sold at between three and four months old after they have been sexed by a vet and most are exported through an agent in Cradock. She also sells some to individuals.
Mills said parrots lived to an average age of 80 and were fairly easy to teach to talk. She explained that the art was to start them with one word before you taught them to say short sentences.
Yellow Napier Amazons will learn to speak “flat out”, but won’t change the tone of their voices. She concluded by saying,” The African Grey is a better talking bird. They will mimic ones voices and noises and easily change the tone of their voices. They are very clever.”