Anyone strolling through the Winter Garden Farmers Market on a Saturday morning is bound to recognize the beautiful blue and gold wings of the community’s favorite bird, perched on John’s or Karen Blonn’s arm.
The 15-year-old macaw, known as Blue, has become a fixture in the West Orange community.
His talents are vast, ranging from playing basketball, waving and goodbye, kissing his owners, stacking rings on a kid’s toy, playing fetch, and more. Plus, she can speak half a dozen words, laugh, and dance, which the pair call her Stevie Wonder impression, as she bobs up and down so hard her whole perch will shake.
The Blonns, residents of Horizon West, describe their relationship with Blue as a partnership.
“I don’t think I’m his master or his owner; I am his friend,” John said. “When people say, ‘Make her talk’ or ‘Make her dance’, I say, ‘I can’t make her talk or make her dance.’ I can ask her if she would do it, and then it’s up to her to do it.
Blue is extremely food-motivated and loves sunflower seeds and fruits like blueberries and grapes.
Although she’s not overly cuddly, John said that if he sits on the chair and puts his feet up, she’ll sit on her toes and watch TV with him. One of his favorite places is his outdoor playground.
Blue’s personality is exceptional and undeniably close to that of a human being, and the Blonns truly treat her as they would any other member of the family.
Blue is not your typical macaw.
Her favorite thing is being around people.
On weekends, she likes to go to events in the community. She even loves walking with John to local hardware stores and sitting outside restaurants with her family while they enjoy a meal.
While the social aspect is nice for Blue, John says it’s also a necessity.
Blue-sized macaws can live between 80 and 100 years in captivity and need constant care. John said that when a macaw stays locked in a cage, it starts pulling out all its feathers.
Also, going out keeps Blue friendly and helps her stay comfortable around people.
However, Blue isn’t the only one enjoying going out.
John says she also helps him come out of his shell.
“I tell people I’m shy,” he said. “She makes me open up and talk to people. She understands that’s kind of what we do together.
Blue’s relationship with people hasn’t always been so easy, although Karen has said the macaw’s sweetness is part of her personality.
“Just like people, they have their own personalities, but part of that is also that we try to be nice to them,” she said. “We try not to be aggressive with her or do things that would make her uncomfortable. It’s like raising a child.
John explained that trust was born out of a lot of manipulation at the start of the relationship.
The couple often played with Blue, rolling on the floor and arguing with her.
“If you’re not willing to touch the bird, handle it, it will never trust you,” John said.
Macaws will reach maturity in about 3 years and stay there for the rest of their lives. The couple said that if Blue was to live to be 100, they wanted her to be happy for each of them.
Although Blue doesn’t like being a pet – hands cover her wings and make her vulnerable – John said she is incredibly gentle, especially with younger and older people.
“Personality-wise, she’s just a very sweet bird and she has tremendous understanding and empathy for older people and for little children,” John said.
In their hometown of Chicago, John said he would take Blue to preschools, nursing homes, hospitals and more. However, they couldn’t do the same in Florida because Blue is considered an exotic animal.
The couple plan to get Blue a pet therapy license so she can visit area hospitals.
“People bring in therapy dogs all the time, but birds are something special,” John said. “People are fascinated. Some people are afraid of dogs, and they see the bird, and she’s so different. You can see the joy on their faces, and I think that’s great.
Blue is comfortable perching on anyone, as long as John is the one guiding her. For toddlers, the macaw’s claws can be a bit overwhelming, so John makes sure to use his hand as a barrier.
Although Blue cannot fly—her flight feathers have been clipped—she likes to spread her wings for a photo on demand, even occasionally making the move unprompted when she sees a camera.
John tries to make interactions with the community as educational as possible, sharing facts about the bird’s species, characteristics, likes and dislikes.
THE BEGINNINGS OF BIRDS
The Blonns have owned birds together since their first marriage 48 years ago. The two even grew up with birds in their homes.
The first macaw John and Karen ever owned was an amazon parrot that they put together as a 25th anniversary gift. The bird immediately took to John, and Karen knew she wanted one of her own.
“My wife isn’t too fond of big fancy jewelry and diamond rings and stuff like that, even though she has it,” John joked. “But that’s not what she really wants. She wanted a present that we could both enjoy.
The couple conducted some research and decided to look for a rescue bird, although they were never able to find a good fit. They even saved a cockatoo for a year, but it turned out not to be a good match.
The Blonns decided they were interested in a scarlet macaw and explored the option of a breeder in Chicago. However, the scarlet’s larger, intimidating beak worried Karen. The breeder suggested Karen try holding Blue, even though they weren’t looking for a Blue and Gold Macaw.
Within seconds, month-old Blue curled up in the crook of Karen’s arm and fell asleep.
“How could we ever say no?” John asked with a laugh.
Karen said a responsible bird keeper will not allow individuals to bring home a baby bird until it is fully able to eat on its own. If a bird is malnourished, it can burn its trachea and kill it. The couple were able to get Blue earlier, in July 2007, because of their experience in feeding baby birds, having raised cockatoos earlier.
The couple moved to Windermere in 2009 after he retired, and because the amazon parrot they had for 20 years was jealous of Blue, the couple decided to bring the original parrot back a few years later to a single veteran retired to Windermere.
When Karen’s father moved in with the couple, the couple decided it was time for a new home and moved to the Horizon West area.
The Blonns are currently working on potty training the macaw, as well as getting it used to being touched and handled by others. They expressed interest in taking her to local elementary schools and children’s hospitals.
John said one of their grandsons, who just turned 8, also helps coach Blue. He asked if he could take care of her when John was gone. In the end, John said there was nothing more that would give him peace than knowing that Blue was happy, healthy and with family.