Turtle Bay's Charismatic and Colorful Lorikeets
By Kayla Anderson
Photo by Sarah Marie Spectrum
A visitor walks into the Parrot Playhouse with a small cup of nectar and immediately eight lorikeets flock to him, perched all over the place trying to get to the nectar.
“Lorikeets are the clowns of the parrot world; they make me laugh and they’re beautiful. They are so fun – I love to see the look on people’s faces when lorikeets land on them. They light up,” says Turtle Bay Exploration Park Head Curator and Animal Trainer Sharon Clay.
An animal trainer for more than 28 years, Clay came to Turtle Bay in April 2007 when there was an opportunity to help revamp its animal program and add some educational value for guests.
“When I came on board, they just had a handful of animals. They sent out a survey and got an overwhelming response that people wanted to see more of them,” Clay says. Originally earning her undergraduate degree from The State University of New York at Buffalo with an emphasis in ethology, Clay found herself at Turtle Bay years later with the opportunity to build a new animal program from scratch.
Before Clay arrived, Turtle Bay filled its aviary every summer with an exhibit of parakeets, which they contracted through an agency specializing in turnkey exhibits. However, Clay realized that hosting an aviary in-house would cost less money and could be open to guests year-round. Soon, the Parrot Playhouse was implemented in 2011.
So why did she choose lorikeets as the featured bird?
“They are unique and show diversity in the bird world,” says Clay. “When you see a squirrel, what do you say? ‘Look, there’s a squirrel.’ We don’t say, ‘Look, there’s a mammal.’ For some reason, we specify mammals, but people don’t do that with birds. They don’t see the individualism.”
She also adds that lorikeets aren’t like a parrot – they have special bottlebrush tongues that lick up nectar and are pollinators. There are 55 species of lorikeets in the world, and Turtle Bay has eight of them.
Originating from the Australasian region, lorikeets (also called lories) were imported into the United States until a few years ago, when Australia banned exportation of native animals. Lorikeets, parakeets, parrots and other exotic birds are now either in captive breeding or smuggled in.
“A lot of people don’t know that lorikeets are an island species; they live on all the little dotted islands around Indonesia and Australia. In isolated areas like that, the bird species are vulnerable and don’t handle change very well,” Clay says. In talking to guests about birds and their native habitats, it’s also an opportunity to point out the species that is only found in the North State – the yellow-billed magpie.
“Birders from all over the world come to see (the yellow-billed magpie) and you can only find them here in the Sacramento Valley,” she says.
Turtle Bay works with two certified lorikeet breeders from Florida and Texas, and with zoos that may not be able to house them anymore. Turtle Bay keeps around 30 lorikeets at any given time that live to be 15 years old or so. Clay emphasizes that Turtle Bay does not take in unwanted pets, and she often discourages people from buying parrots because of their wild nature, how much of a mess they make and the fact that they can live up to 100 years.
“Most people have trouble with a dog or a cat, but you really have to know what you are getting into with a parrot and be willing to invest a great number of years into caring for it,” she says. However, if someone has done their research and still decides they want a parrot, Clay says to always go through a certified breeder or find a parrot rescue website.
“Reputable breeders will send parrots out with a solid metal band, which shows they were captive-bred (rather than taken from the wild),” she says. “So if you are determined to have a bird, make sure it has a band around its ankle.”
Visiting the animals at a place like Turtle Bay is probably one’s best bet, and Clay finds that birds usually like to cuddle more than other mammals (you can definitely see the smiles on their faces when they get head rubs). However, when asked who her favorite lorikeet is, Clay can’t name one.
“I don’t play favorites, but I am partial to dusky lorikeets because they look like a chocolate candy corn,” she says. With their orange, brown and yellow striped bodies, Clay calls them the Halloween lorikeets.
The mission of Turtle Bay is to inspire wonder, exploration and appreciation of all the world, and the animal program is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The Parrot Playhouse is available to guests every day from a half-hour after Turtle Bay opens until the time it closes, with a lunch break in between. •