Over the past seven years Ian Sprague and Janine Couture have opened their Sherwood Park home to more than 72 species of birds.
The couple set up their shelter, Meika’s Safehouse, to give lost and surrendered pet birds a comfy place to live and a chance to one day find new families.
The couple's adventures in bird rescuing may have had their beginnings some time ago, back when Couture was still a girl.
“Janine had an African grey when she was a child. It was a family pet,” Sprague said. "And that's where she got the spark for it.”
Meika’s is home to about 10 to 30 birds at any time, typically ones that owners are no longer able to care for, as well as lost birds brought in from Edmonton's Animal Care and Control Centre when their owners can’t be tracked down. In 2016 the couple made room for a large number of birds left temporarily homeless during the Fort McMurray wildfires. They also took in 32 birds that urgently needed a place to go after their Vancouver Island shelter shut down. A few of the B.C. birds, including a moody umbrella cockatoo named Clyde, are still hanging out at Sprague's place.
“He might just stay with us forever because he's got a lot of emotional issues," Sprague said of the cockatoo. "He was kind of a bird that was left. So he was basically in solitary confinement for a really, really long time.”
The kitchen and bedrooms are the only places in the couple's house off limits to birds and their belongings. Right now they’re keeping busy looking after some macaws, African grey parrots, Senegal parrots, Indian ringnecks, conures and a few wayward racing pigeons.
“We don’t have a living room or dining room or anything like that,” Sprague said, adding that they’ve built some backyard aviaries to give the birds enough room to spread their wings some of the time.
"We have very good neighbours.”
Caring for a houseful of birds is a full-time task. The daily routine of feeding and cage cleaning – the birds get fresh fruits and vegetables along with their pellet diet each morning – starts at 7 a.m. and doesn’t wrap up until about 3 p.m.
Sprague and Couture also have a business to run, selling wild and domestic bird supplies and food at their Sherwood Park shop, Meika’s Birdhouse.
Every week Sprague has to turn away bird owners looking to give up their feathered friends. He points out that owning a parrot, an "incredibly intelligent" animal that is essentially still wild, is not the same as owning a people-pleasing dog.
“They're not domesticated in any way, shape or form,” he said. “If they're having a bad mood day, they're going to have a bad mood day and that's it. They're not worried about hurting your feelings.”
A Gofundme campaign, adoption fees and some animal rescues and other groups that regularly drop off food help Meika’s Safehouse continue feeding and housing the region’s unwanted birds.
People looking to adopt can arrange a visit to meet some of the safehouse birds to see if anything clicks. Feizi, a red collared lorikeet, and Jasmine, a macaw, are just a few of the flock looking for homes right now.
“It’s always good if the bird picks you. Because then you know it’s going to work,” Sprague said.
Potential bird owners must also fill out application forms and pass a home visit, giving Sprague a chance to help out with setting up a suitable pet bird environment. Next comes the vet checkup.
“Once the clean bill of health goes on, the adoption can take place.”