Birdland in Ballard

Call Jamie Wertz at home or at work, and you will hear a cacophony of birds in the background. "All the chirping and singing is a comforting soundtrack," says Wertz. "If it stops, it really gets my attention."

Jamie Wertz was born in 1948 in Aberdeen, Wash., and raised in nearby Montesano. As a child he began to collect budgies - budgerigars, better known as parakeets. After graduating from high school, he attended a culinary-arts school in Tacoma. He went on to work as a chef for more than 20 years and managed a music store for a decade after that.

Wherever he lived and whatever he did for a living, Wertz always had budgies. In 1975 his collection grew to include a variety of parrots: cockatiels, lovebirds and parrotlets, the smallest true parrots in the world. He built an aviary for them in the basement of his Queen Anne home, where he began to breed them. He sold birds to pet stores and participated in bird shows. At times he has had as many as 300 birds in his home aviary.

On June 1 of this year he united his work and passion for birds by opening the Tweetery. It's in Ballard; he couldn't find an affordable location on Queen Anne.

The population of the Tweetery is about 150. The birds range in price from $15 for a pair of zebra finches to $1,250 for a spectacular male ecletus with green plumage and an orange beak.

Jamie sells a few birds on consignment, but mostly he acquires birds to sell from local breeders - including his own aviary at home - and others in California.

The birds originate in the wild from all over the world. Lovebirds come from Africa; ringnecks, from Burma, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka; Amazon parrots, which can live up to 100 years, come from Central and South America; and cockatiels and cockatoos, from Australia.

These last two are related, but differ. Cockatiels are less colorful, usually gray and smaller. They cost from $50 to $200. Cockatoos are larger, have white plumage and a magnificent yellow crest, and cost 10 times more.

It is now illegal to import birds, for collectors have caused some species to become extinct.

Besides birds, the Tweetery inventory includes many other products: feed and treats, cages, toys and books.

Controversy surrounds the issue of what is the best bird feed. Some believe birds should be fed seeds only, just as in nature. Others believe in feeding them fortified pellets.

Wertz doesn't think pellets are essential, but he sells them. He has more than 20 bins of various types of bulk feed (different types for different birds), plus sup-plements and vitamins.

His birds also get fed juniper berries, fresh fruit and vegetables, pasta without sauce and hard-boiled eggs in the shell. Eggshells contain lots of calcium.

In the wild, birds eat seeds and grasses. A diet of mostly seeds is fattier, but in nature, with the daily struggle for survival, birds need that fat. They instinctively find sources of the vitamins they need.

As for cages, Wertz recommends wide ones, so that the birds can fly and get exercise. Height is not important; birds don't fly straight up and down, but horizontally, gaining and losing elevation gradually. Also, the larger the bird, the stronger the bars should be.

Do birds really need toys? They don't have them in nature.

"Absolutely," says Wertz. "They need to stay occupied. If a caged bird becomes bored, it will pull its feathers out or otherwise mutilate itself." In the wild, birds have plenty of stimuli to keep them occupied.

Zootie, a female Blue Front Amazon parrot, will play for hours with a string of beads. She ties the string in knots with her beak.

A bright corner of the Tweetery is a designated play area, where customers can watch the birds interact and interact with the birds themselves. This helps them make an informed purchase, but also it is a pleasure in its own right. "Watching birds play and preen each other," says Wertz, "you can really tap into their peace."

The Tweetery also offers bird boarding and daycare, at $2.50 to $6.50 a day, depending on the size of the bird. Customer Tom Whipple doesn't trust anyone else to take care of his bird when he is away.

"The term 'birdbrain' is a misnomer," says Wertz. "Birds have short attention spans, but they are very smart." Take African Grey parrots. "They're the best talkers," he says. Sample quote: "Give me a kiss - a great, big, wet one."

"African Grey parrots also have the best logic," Wertz continues. "They'll go to great lengths to get a treat." For example, they'll patiently spin a treadmill to move a treat through a maze.

At home Wertz has a parrot who calls his cat by name and meows like his cat (cat and bird are friends, a fact substantiated by photographic evidence).

Some parrots invent their own vocabulary. One asks her owner for water when she is thirsty by imitating the sound of running water. Another alerts his owner that the phone is ringing by imitating its sound.

Most parrots understand "yes" and "no." They do tricks like dogs -e.g., "roll over." Some are quickly potty-trained; they relieve themselves not only in a specific place, but on command.

Tom Whipple's bird Katie, a 9-year-old White-Bellied Caique, has a sense of humor. Prompted to unbutton Tom's shirt for the "new people" (me), she obliged. When the new people laughed, Katie interrupted her task and laughed, too.

A member of both the Washington and American Budgerigar Societies, as well as the Avian Society of Puget Sound, Wertz is very knowledgeable about the care and behavior of birds and gives advice generously. He might remind you to keep a bird's water fresh, tell you what to watch for when a bird molts or tell you what to do when a bird gets aggressive.

When his pet Big Bird, a 5-year-old Lilac-Crowned Amazon parrot, gets nippy, Wertz gives him time-out just as one would a 2-year-old human. "Lock-up!" he admonishes, and places Big Bird in his cage. Half an hour later Big Bird is set free, his behavior reformed.

Many of the Tweetery birds fly freely about the store; at least, the bigger parrots do. They are hand-tamed and their wings are clipped, so Wertz can leave the door wide open and they won't fly away.

Whether to clip a bird's wings is another controversy. Wertz is a pro-ponent of the practice, if you want to keep your pet around, or "grounded." Others may prefer that their pets be fully feathered, but the birds might not stick around.

Wing clipping is one of the services Jamie plans to offer at the Tweetery in the near future. He also will provide toenail clipping, photographic portraiture of pet birds and DNA sexing.

The gender of some birds can be identified by their coloring. For example, the male ecletus is green with an orange beak, while the female has purple and red plumage with a black beak. But not all birds are so easily differentiated, so DNA sexing is necessary. The process requires only a few feathers to be sent to a lab for testing.

Finally, Wertz is developing a Web site for the Tweetery, and store items will be available on eBay soon.

"Birds are wonderful companions," says Wertz. "They greet you, they respond to you, they appreciate the care you give them."

Big Bird (who is not for sale) hops from his owner's forearm to his shoulder.

Wertz smiles. "You get back as much from the bird as you put into it."

Plus, many birds are beautiful, and the exotic ones remind you that, even if they hatched in your basement, the world is large.

The Tweetery is located at 5701 15th Ave. N.W., 782-1009.

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