HARMONY, Maine — A cacophony of screeches, whistles and random words erupted as Margaret Buschmann opened the door and slowly walked into the “big parrot room.” About 50 exotic birds were in the spacious room Tuesday, and many of them were out of their cages, flying, climbing and performing acrobatics on dangling ropes and ladders.
“We like to let them move freely, out of their cages, as much as possible,” Margaret Buschmann said as she coaxed a scarlet macaw parrot onto her arm. The large bird nestled its bright red head into her chest as Margaret ran her free hand over its silky feathers, a rainbow of colors.
Margaret and her husband, Fritz, are the founders and sole operators of Siesta Sanctuary, which the couple describe as “assisted living for retired parrots.”
For more than a decade, they have been taking in rescued and displaced parrots and giving them a permanent home at the sanctuary, which is connected to the Buschmann’s house in Harmony.
“I feel very fortunate to have a house full of these — I really do,” Margaret said. “But most people think I’m insane.”
To date, the Buschmanns, who are both in their mid-60s, care for an all-time high of 80 parrots of all sizes, shapes, colors and dispositions.
On the weekend of Aug. 13-14, they’re inviting the public to an open house to see their many beautiful birds. The sanctuary will be open from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at 104 Brown Road in Harmony.
“We just love watching them — what they figure out, who they decide to play with. It’s like a soap opera,” Margaret said. “It’s just hilarious to watch.”
Some of the parrots dance and perform tricks while other talk and even sing.
But where did they all come from?
Almost all of the parrots the Buschmanns have received over the years have come from Maine homes.
“You would be amazed at how many parrots are out there,” Margaret said. “There are an awful lot of birds in Maine.”
Some of the parrots were rescued from bad situations, but the vast majority of the parrots at Siesta Sanctuary came from good homes, where they were beloved pets.
“People’s lives change,” Margaret said. “The biggest source of parrots for us is older people, who have had a beloved pet for 30 years and now have to go into a nursing home or a condo that doesn’t allow birds, and they’re just beside themselves on what they’re going to do with their birds.”
Parrots are long-lived animals. Macaw parrots and cockatoos often live to be 70 to 80 years old, meaning they often outlive their owners.
“We have these horrible dramas in here, when people are dropping their birds off and crying,” she said. “I feel very committed to those people, to honor their request. They gave me their beloved pet, and I will do the best I can to keep it going and give them a permanent home.”
Then there are many people who thought it would be fun to have a parrot as a pet, then realized parrot ownership isn’t so easy.
“They’re wild animals. You don’t get them to just match the drapes,” Margaret said. “They’re loud and they’re messy and they can bite.”
Margaret’s love for parrots began in 1956, when she was 6 years old and her parents took her to a cockatoo show at Busch Gardens in Florida.
“I thought those have to be the coolest creatures on the planet,” Margaret said.
In the 1970s, Margaret met Fritz at Bates College. Both animal lovers, the two married and moved to Harmony to raise animals on 50 acres of farmland.
“She and I both wanted to move to the country and have animals, but the parrots were her idea,” said Fritz, who nevertheless does half the work to take care of the birds, dicing up vegetables to make 80 salads every day to feed them.
Together, it takes about four hours per day to care for the birds. And in addition to the birds, the couple own four cats, two dogs, an emu named Moe, a turkey that has assumed the role of mother for two peacocks, a variety of chickens, a guinea hen, a flock of “old lady” sheep, an old horse named Steve, a miniature horse, a donkey and a llama. Most are “retired” farm animals.
“They’re all pets,” Margaret said. “We don’t expect them to do anything.”
To fund the menagerie, Margaret has long worked as a diabetes educator, and Fritz is a site surveyor.
For the parrots alone, it costs about $16,000 per year to feed and care for all 80 of them, the Buschmanns have calculated, and about three-quarters of that money comes from the couple’s own pockets. There are a few people who donate to the sanctuary on a regular basis, Margaret said, and they have two volunteers that help them with parrot-related chores twice per week.
“I’m not looking for more birds,” Margaret made clear.
The annual open house, which Siesta Sanctuary has hosted for the past four years, is one way for the Buschmanns to educate people about parrots, spread the word about their operation and possibly gain some support. The event is free, but the sanctuary will gratefully accept donations, which will go toward caring for the birds. They also are looking for volunteers.
“Any help that can be given is great,” Margaret said. “If someone wanted to just come out and spend a day here, we’d find things for them to do. … And the birds would love the company.”
Siesta Sanctuary is at maximum capacity. In addition to the Big Parrot Room, the sanctuary consists of a Small Parrot Room, for smaller species of parrots, where two Congo African greys sat side by side on Tuesday.
“Maxwell!” one of the African greys hollered. “Maxwell!”
The parrot’s name is Maxwell Dickerson, Margaret explained. He was owned by the late Ruby Dickerson of Athens, Maine, who taught the parrot to say his name and phone number, just in case he ever got loose. When Ruby Dickerson passed away, Maxwell attended her funeral. He then found his second home at the sanctuary, where he became fast friends with another African grey parrot, Ebon.
Clinging to a cage nearby, a yellow-naped Amazon parrot named Bud — originally from a Calais home — squawked “Hello! Hello!” tilting his head from side to side.
“He can sing ‘Jesus Loves Me,’” Margaret said with a chuckle.
Every bird comes with its own personality, tendencies and talents.
“We’ve not had a bird that went into a big depression for coming here,” Margaret said. “Every single one of them decides it’s a good place to be. Some even pair up and find a mate.”
The sanctuary doesn’t breed parrots. The birds that do pair up simply stay in the same cage and spend time together. Large parrots need certain conditions, including privacy, for breeding to take place, Margaret explained.
The sanctuary also doesn’t sell parrots or attempt to find them new homes. The Buschmanns used to do that, but they’ve learned it’s difficult to judge whether a person is truly committed to owning a parrot. Often, the parrots were returned to the sanctuary, and in several situations the person would turn around and try to sell the bird for hundreds of dollars.
“I know I’m going to do this until I croak,” Margaret said. “I’m committed to it. I’m going to keep them here, and we’ll do what we can for the birds.”
Of course, Margaret understands that many of the parrots will outlive them, too. Now retired, she’s working on a plan for what to do with her flock when she and her husband pass. No one in her family is interested in taking on the sanctuary, so she either needs to find someone with the same passion for parrots that she has, or she’ll need to work with an organization to find them all good homes.
“My grandmother lived to 104, and my mother lived until 90, so I hopefully will have time to work through this,” Margaret said. “I spend all this time, and I love these birds. I don’t want to just suddenly close down and have these birds get [sold in] Uncle Henry’s.”
For information about the open house event, call Siesta Sanctuary at 683-6322 or visit siestasanctuary.org.