LOS ALTOS — From the street, you’d never know what was hidden behind the tall fences and lush foliage of a large suburban Los Altos home. After walking through the garden gate, though, you know that Pandemonium Aviaries comes by its name naturally.
Amadeus, the one-legged Amazon Parrot, sings hello. Olivia and Ferguson, big ostrich-like birds called East African crowned cranes, screech a racket. African Greys, macaws, parakeets, rare doves and fancy pigeons each call out in their own language, above the rhythm of hundreds of fluttering wings.
Michele Raffin — a Stanford Business School graduate, entrepreneur, writer and stay-at-home mom — never intended to become a self-described “crazy bird lady.” Twenty-two years ago, she opened up her backyard to rescued birds. Her mission pivoted toward endangered bird conservation and breeding.
“The birds changed me,” Raffin said. In the business world, she said, there’s much pushing and striving. The birds have shown her that it’s more important to connect and help others. “Who I was as a person became more important than external achievements.”
Now, she’s looking for the next generation of stewards to offer a new home for her flock of nearly 400 birds.
Shortly after, she responded to an ad seeking a home for another white dove, then found herself with a half dozen.It all started with an injured white dove — the type released at weddings — discovered on the side of a road. Raffin wasn’t sure she even liked birds, but she doesn’t want any animal to suffer. Thinking it had been hit by a car, she took it to the vet and visited the bird every day until it succumbed to its wounds, which she learned had been inflicted by a hungry hawk.
Raffin didn’t know the first thing about birds, so she met people who could teach her. She befriended a bird breeder in Sebastopol, who gave her some birds that needed a home. At his Christmas party, she met a whole brood of elite breeders and birders. Later, Raffin went to zoo school in West Virginia to learn what she could about bird husbandry.
Her goal was to take in birds that nobody wanted, find them mates, and provide species-appropriate housing. Housed as pairs or flocks, they’re never isolated. “Who wants to be all alone?” Raffin asks.
The death of a female green-naped pheasant pigeon led to an epiphany: The urgent need to restore populations. The bird’s mate started crying and wouldn’t stop, yet when Raffin tried to find him a new companion, she discovered that there were only 32 birds, worldwide, left in captivity. Tribal feuds and land rights issues make it too difficult to initiate conservation in their native New Guinea.
“I had no idea there were so few left,” she said.
Raffin already had a number of these colorful pigeons given to her by zoos, breeders, agricultural societies, and fish and game conserves. So she decided to use them to build a species “bank” — like a crop seed bank — to ensure that there was enough genetic diversity to support a healthy population. If the species became extinct in the wild, these captive-bred birds could help restore it, she dreamed.
In 2009, Pandemonium Aviaries stopped taking in strays and converted to a nonprofit devoted to conservation-driven breeding. It specializes in six species of endangered birds from New Guinea and the Philippines.
Her project has successfully bred birds even after they’ve been pets, and it has shown that captive birds can raise their own.And those green-naped pheasant pigeons? After solving some challenges, Pandemonium now has the largest flock in the world — four generations, with 14 distinct bloodlines. They thrive under Raffin’s care.
But the achievement hasn’t come easy. It takes four hours a day to feed the birds. Pandemonium depends on major donors like Whole Foods and Costco to provide outdated produce. The food — strawberries, blueberries and papaya — must be sorted and chopped, then doled out with seeds and grains, so each flock gets its ideal diet.
Raffin doesn’t treat them as pets, preferring to retain the birds’ knowledge, culture and integrity. A sign in the aviary reads: “You were wild once; don’t let them tame you.”
Carol Stanley, president of the Avicultural Society of America, said Raffin “has brought awareness of the plight of the birds in the wild to the public.”
“Michele Raffin has put her heart and soul into increasing numbers in the endangered species she works with at Pandemonium Aviaries,” Stanley said. “She is focused, tireless and steadfast in Pandemonium’s mission.”
But Raffin never expected to house the birds this long. She had hoped to reintroduce them back into their native environment in New Guinea but it has been mostly destroyed by mining and agriculture.
It’s not the ideal way to conserve, she knows. In the past, breeders tried to establish colonies in their native habitats. But Raffin’s birds were destined to be pets or zoo animals, which is why she created a U.S.-based conservation. And it worked.
Although New Guinea is not safe for her pigeons now, Raffin is confident the nation will someday discover ecotourism, and native habitats will improve.
Her dream is to someday see them fly in the wild.But, until then, they need to go somewhere, she says — somewhere with lots of room to fly. Her organization is seeking corporate or institutional sponsors to continue the conservation effort, preferably someplace warm like southern California or Puerto Rico, where solar panels and heat lamps wouldn’t be needed.
The Amazon Parrot in her native Puerto Rico offers inspiration: Its numbers plummeted to just 13 in 1975 after decades of forest clearing, but have since rebounded after captive breeding and release.
“People do want to protect animals,” Raffin said, “but the best way to do that is to protect their habitat, the environment.”
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