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BT Interview: Jean Pattison, The African Queen

This bird breeder, artist and lecturer adds her own flair to aviculture.

By Susan Chamberlain/photos courtesy of Jean Pattison



They don't call her "the African Queen" for
nothing. Pattison's enthusiasm for African
parrots is quite apparent by her keen interest
in raising African bird species, such as the
Un-Cape parrot.

I first met L. Jean Pattison (the L. stands for Lila) at a bird show in Florida in 1987. When I ran into Jean the following year at the American Federation of Aviculture Convention in Tampa, she was a whirling dervish of long black hair and wide-eyed excitement. Her first pair of African grey parrots was sitting on eggs, and hatching was imminent. I’ll never forget her joy and exultation when she got the news that the first chick had hatched. Now, nearly 17 years later, Pattison retains that special delight and wonder with each new clutch.


Originally from Chicago, where she was a color corrector in the printing business, Pattison moved to Florida in 1980. She put her talents to work customizing motorcycles with airbrushed artwork. Her creativity extends to her hair, which has been cut short and subtly colored to mimic the hues of the African grey parrot!


Now Pattison devotes her energies to the birds. Her nickname, “The African Queen” came about because she specializes in breeding Timneh and Congo African greys, unCapes, Jardine’s, Senegals, Meyer’s, red-bellied and brown-headed parrots at the farm she shares with her husband in Florida. She has approximately 300 birds: 100 pairs and another hundred that are retired or waiting to be of breeding age. 


Pattison lectures regularly for bird clubs and at symposiums and bird shows in the United States and has traveled to Canada and Australia for speaking engagements. She is a past president of the African Parrot Society, a member of the American Federation of Aviculture (AFA) and belongs to the Hernando County Exotic Bird Club and the Imperial Bird Club.


Pattison has written numerous articles for publications such as BIRD TALK, Bird Breeder, AFA Watchbird, Grey Play Roundtable and the Canadian quarterly Parrot Life.


BIRD TALK: How did you first become interested in exotic birds?


Jean Pattison: I had a budgie as a child. Although there were pet stores that had macaws, it wasn’t something I could imagine as a pet. I saw drawings of Carolina parakeets, then saw jenday conures at Busch Gardens and said, “There’s the bird I want.” I found one with a local breeder. It opened a whole new world for me.


You have no idea what a bird is until you live with one. Then, around 1982, I turned a corner at a flea market and saw an African grey parrot, and it touched my soul. I bought that grey and named him Greystone because he never moved. He sat like a stone. He was ancient, he was wild caught and he never allowed me to touch him. It was my dream to own three pairs of African greys and three pairs of Senegal parrots. At the time, it seemed unattainable. 


It’s strange, but over the years, seven different psychics told me I’d run an orphanage with lots of children. I didn’t see it happening. I told the last psychic ‘I could never do that, I’m a bird breeder and I take care of so many birds.’ Then she said, ‘Oh, little souls.’


Pattison  is an accomplished artist who has
donated some of her sketches to raise money
for aviculture.
BT: Many people are frustrated in their attempts to get their birds to breed. To what do you attribute your breeding success?


JP: When I was a child, I spent summers on Grandfather’s farm. He taught me to sit still and watch what the animals did. I would sit for hours without moving. What he taught me about being observant has helped me more than anything else in bird breeding. He’d come in from plowing, take me out to the hedgerow, and we’d sit in the undergrowth, and, all of a sudden, along came some hummingbirds. I sat in a hayloft and watched barn swallows build nests. 


I’d get so excited when he’d come into the house and say ‘I want to show you something.’ I knew it would be something wonderful. I always had a sense, even when I worked in the city, that someday I would live on a farm. Who figured it would be a bird farm?


BT: Is conservation at odds with pet bird ownership? 


JP: I went to a Renaissance fair, and as I was getting ready to leave, I came upon a birds of prey demonstration. At one point, a woman walked onstage with a scarlet macaw. She said to the audience, ‘This is a scarlet macaw. It is endangered, but it will never become extinct because we are breeding it domestically.’ That really hit home with me. What would you give to be able to see a Carolina parakeet? I do fundraising for the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) Working Group with the University of Natal in South Africa. They’re trying to save habitat and stop poaching. They’re also studying psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD) in wild Cape parrots in South Africa.


Many pet people who have Cape parrots have donated to the cause, so, no, I don’t think conservation is necessarily at odds with pet ownership, In fact, owning a bird may make people more aware of conservation issues.


BT: What has been your most rewarding “bird watching” moment?


JP: Probably when the first baby greys hatched in August 1988. It really is a miracle. It was so rewarding that a pair could bond and for me to be able to make the conditions right. The birds have to be compatible. I felt very privileged that I was able to bring all the circumstances together where the birds were in a situation to reproduce. It is still a miracle. There was a baby in a Cape nest the other day was that pair’s first baby, and it was almost as exciting as the first grey. It’s always thrilling when a pair hatches their first clutch. I feel like saying, ‘We did it right, the three of us.’ 


It’s rewarding too when you hear that your birds are okay. The only birds I ever incubated and hand-fed from Day 1 were a clutch of four Jardine’s parrots. All were shipped to different parts of the country about six years ago, and all four are now living back in Florida!


BT: What’s your position on selling unweaned baby birds?


JP: I generally don’t sell unweaned babies, but if I feel potential parrot parents are capable, I’ll teach them to do it. If I’m not comfortable with someone’s ability to hand-feed, they will not take the baby until it is fully weaned. People come to me three times a week or even every day to learn. I try not to terrify people about hand-feeding. It’s pleasurable and wonderful for some. I work with them. I don’t allow them to take the bird unless I’m 100-percent confident in their abilities.


BT: Who takes care of your birds when you travel?


JP: I’m never away for long, but when I am, I hire a trusted friend to hand-feed my birds. I call her ‘Nanny Roo’ because she made a pouch to wear around her neck and carries the babies around in it. When I’m home, I do all the hand-feeding myself. It’s where my heart is. I want to be out there visiting with the birds.


BT: What do you wishsomeone had told you before you got your first pet bird?


JP: They could have told me that parrots are like potato chips É you can’t have just one. I wish we weren’t so tied down sometimes, but I wouldn’t change it. Raising birds can also be stressful on a marriage if partners aren’t in agreement about it.


BT: What do you feel is the biggest mistake people make with their pet birds?


JP: They treat them like grandchildren. If you’re a mother and you take your children to the playground, you swing them as high as you can. If you’re the grandmother and you see your daughter do that with your granddaughter, you get upset. We’re overprotective. We treat our birds like hothouse flowers -- and we don’t need to. Let the bird be a bird. 


Well-adjusted birds are accustomed to noise and activity. Have a party; let the birds be part of the family. Greys can be sensitive, but don’t coddle them. I do a lot by natural instinct and you can too. Observe your bird, there’s a happy medium. 


These are not dogs or cats; these are birds. Even though they’re domestically bred, they’re still essentially wild animals. Respect their stature in nature. Don’t try to turn them into little kids with feathers. Let your bird train you. Pick up on what the bird enjoys and likes and encourage that. If the bird is chewing on wires, move the cage, give the bird a piece of wood. The bird is going to chew and won’t discriminate between wires and wood. It’s up to you.


Accept the bad with the good. One day, I was depressed because of a chewed windowsill -- my bird had destroyed it.  I was complaining, ‘I’m never going to have a nice house.’ My friend laughed and said, ‘This is the life you chose,’ and she was right. I wouldn’t change it for anything and, someday, if it’s important to me, I’ll have a ceramic tile windowsill!


BT: Do you have pet birds as well as breeders?


JP: Yes. One is a feather-plucked grey given to me by Bobbie Brinker. I named her Gypsy because she’d had so many homes. She fears nothing -- noises, commotion, big packages -- nothing fazes her! She’s amazing. She even grows out her feathers once in awhile. Another love of my life is my 16-year-old pet hawk-headed parrot. Then there’s Spirit, a 2-year-old African grey that was one of my babies. Bobbie Brinker took her and hand-fed her and then gave her back to me as a gift.


BT: Were you affected by the hurricanes of 2004?


JP: We were hit by three major hurricanes. No birds were lost. We’re not on the coast, but we had 75-mph winds and the birds were out in their flights enjoying it, playing and flapping their wings! They have shelter they can go to and they chose not to. The first hurricane took out perimeter trees. We had a good wind block with them. Luckily, the other trees fell away from the flights. Some people were criticized for not taking their birds inside during the storms, but often more harm can come from doing that.


BT: What’s your best hurricane tip?


JP: Tie things down with lengths of garden hose. Rope frays and breaks. Garden hoses stretch and hold on.


BT: What's your favorite bird care hint?


JP: Quarantine you birds! I’m a stickler for quarantine. I don’t care who you buy your bird from, if you already have a bird, the newcomer must be quarantined in a separate area of your home for 90 days. It protects both bird -- the new bird is being introduced to a new environment and exposed to a whole new eco-system. It has to build up immunities and become established in the environment. If the new bird gets sick, it’s shedding germs it brought in. I recommend full blood work to rule out psittacosis, PBFD and polyoma, and a full blood panel. 


When a bird dies ina multi-bird household, it is imperative to have a necropsy done and the tissues sent off for analysis. It’s essential for the welfare of the other birds. This is especially true when proventricular dilatation disease (PDD) is suspected.


BT: What advice would you give someone who is considering breeding?


JP: Don’t buy a pair of birds to breed until there’s a test for PDD. Every time you buy a pair of birds, the risk goes up. I went through PDD years ago before I began breeding the African species. I lost every bird I had at the time, 10 birds in all.


Specialize. Research a species. Get a mentor. I have a friend who got me over a lot of humps and a lot of scares. I called her crying at 2am because my babies wouldn’t eat, and she drove two hours to get here. I was keeping babies so well fed that they didn’t have a feeding response. She let them go overnight, and they were hungry in the morning and ate just fine.


There are lots of people who will help you. I didn’t have a mentor per se, but there were many breeders here in Florida willing to give advice and share their experiences. They were willing to help a newcomer. People told me they’d be secretive, but I never saw that. It helps to have other breeders around so you can compare results. Be selective. Don’t ask 15 different people, you’ll get 15 different answers. Meet someone you’re comfortable with who’s doing things the way you think you’d like to do them, and learn that method. Once you become confident, you can venture out and weigh what others tell you. When you first start out, you need someone special.


BT: What do you predict for the future of aviculture?


JP: Right now, there’s lot of dialogue about ‘so many unwanted birds’. I produce more than 100 grey babies a year, and I’m a very small-scale breeder. All my breeder birds are wild caught. They’re getting older. If all were to die, I’d only have seven pairs of domestically bred birds. In 30 years, we’re going to have a shortage of breeding stock. Pet owners hear horror stories about ‘production breeders.’ They have horrible pictures in their minds.


I’d like to see sanctuaries specialize in species or geographic areas instead of accepting every species unless they can keep them well separated. African parrots have no business with cockatoos. Birds should be in situations that are best for them. Some should be pets and others should be breeders.


I predict shortages of certain species. I no longer see the large-scale bird breeders at conferences. More than 50 percent of breeders have gone since I started. As breeders die or retire, there are birds that must be placed. Flocks will be dispersed.  The industry will get smaller. Breeders will specialize. You can’t afford to buy a lot of different species. There’s an overabundance right now, but the story will change when you look further ahead.


BT: What are the biggest problems aviculturists face today?


JP: I think some of the animal rights groups will eventually succeed in getting some legislation against keeping exotic birds in certain areas. Even though I don’t generally sell unweaned babies, I think if the California law against selling unweaned baby birds had passed as originally written, it may have done more harm than good. People who are implementing these laws don’t really understand how everything works. Use the money to donate to PDD research instead. Some laws that are going to be written will undoubtedly do more harm than good to the animals they’re trying to protect. As John Stossel said about an unrelated topic on 20/20, ‘The unintended consequences are worse than the problem.’ “Disease is always a big problem. We need to support avian medical research.


BT: What advice would you give to BIRD TALK readers?


JP: Many of us are getting older. We need to keep our flocks at manageable levels and budget for help when we need it, and we will. Right now, offer to help someone. If you see that someone is overwhelmed, volunteer your assistance.


BT: If you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be? 


JP: Of course I’d be an African grey because they’re mystical, magical and soul touching.


Susan Chamberlain lives on Long Island, New York, where she shares her home with eight pet birds, including a scarlet macaw. She has been a contributor to BIRD TALK since 1984 and also operates The 14 Karat Parrot, a bird-related mail-order business.


* This article appears in the May issue of BIRD TALK.


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BT Interview: Jean Pattison, The African Queen

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Reader Comments
@parrot lover, London -- there are people who buy 10,000 dollar hyacinths and put them in tiny cages...there are people who buy a lovebird for only 100 dollars and hardly ever put them in a cage--loving them dearly, caring for them like an only-child. you see...when i was a kid, there was a family that *paid* people to take their human children away for the summer when the kids came home from boarding school--so the parents wouldn't have to deal with their own children...yet, other families would never do anything without including their children. so, it's not the money. and, birds can have a hard life in the wild--esp given the deforestation and pressures from urban development and illegal clearings being done by drug-traffickers. and, if you encounter people who have a problem bird, why don't you help those people like we do, rather than wishing ill on others? you need to think twice before forcing bad stuff onto everyone--including the birds.
cb, chicago, IL
Posted: 2/3/2014 8:08:54 AM
looking forward to the times when parrot breeders will become sparse, then the price for birds will go up and people will think twice before shoving their pet in the basement and leaving it there for years.
parrot lover, London
Posted: 8/31/2012 11:51:07 AM
I have a African Gray that was raised by jean that I named Luci and she is my world, Jean is the best breader I have ever known.
Jarrod, Alexandria, VA
Posted: 4/25/2007 1:17:32 PM
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