Birds Enlisted to Brighten Lives

IF birds of a feather flock together, maybe their owners do too. This seemed a logical premise to a disenchanted businesswoman, looking for new meaning in her own life. To find it, Marilyn Larkins decided to use pet cockatiels, gray birds with bright-yellow faces, to brighten the lives of shut-ins and individuals with disabilities. Companion Birds Society Inc. has grown like topsy since Larkins launched this nonprofit organization out of her Lakeland, Fla., home 4 1/2 years ago.

Perhaps not since the movie ``Birdman of Alcatraz'' has anything so clearly illustrated the role birds can play in combatting loneliness.

``This little bird means the whole world to me,'' says Onnie Mae Luke, a septuagenarian who shares her trailer-park home in Lakeland with Dusty, a cockatiel given to her by Companion Birds. Dusty practically lives on Mrs. Luke's shoulder, where he perches as she makes some of his favorite foods, including cornbread muffins and scrambled eggs.

Beyond the interaction between human and animal, Companion Birds has shown how effective a mutual interest in pets can be in the expansion of person-to-person contacts.

``Many of these people don't have anything to talk about but the weather or the soap operas,'' Ms. Larkins says. ``What this club does is unite them with a common interest.''

The birds, paid for by sponsors, are given to individuals of limited means. Referrals are usually made by Meals on Wheels or health-care services; about 75 percent of the Companion Bird club members are senior citizens.

Cockatiels have some special characteristics that make them ideal for the companion program. They are a nice size - about twice as big as parakeets, but smaller than parrots. They have strong constitutions, good dispositions, love to ``talk,'' and even make dependable ``watch birds.'' They are wonderfully loyal, too, so long as they don't feel slighted.

``Doctors have stated that our program has helped people to shift the attention off themselves and their medications and surgeries,'' Larkins observes. ``They heal better, emotionally as well as physically.''

For more information on the Companion Birds Society, write to P.O. Box 7088, Lakeland, FL 33807-7088 or phone 813-644-2473.

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