Bird Whisperer of the Desert
Thirty Chilean flamingos lounge in their pool at the entrance of the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa. Inside the enormous lobby – complete with boat rides – a dozen macaws and other tropical birds squawk and sing. The colorful plumage and noise add to the allure of this golf resort in Palm Desert, California. You could almost believe in a life of seamless glamour as you stretch out by one of the swimming pools, your drink refilled while swans glide by.
But Linda Whittington, animal care specialist, knows the truth. “Behind the scenes, it’s a lot of cleaning crap and doing dishes and dirty work.” Not that she’s complaining. Birds are messy, but their company is her great reward.
Whittington, who’s originally from North Carolina, has cared for the Marriott’s birds for 20 years now. Before that, she worked other jobs within the hotel. Aside from a few animal science classes, mostly her training has been on-the-job. “You can learn something new about them every day,” she said.
The Lobby Birds
The dozen birds in the Marriott’s lobby include toucanets, parrots, sun conures and several types of macaws. Most were donated by people who realized birds require more care and company than they could give.
The lobby birds spend their nights in individual cages in a back room. In the morning, Whittington brings them out to large cages in the lobby. “Birds are very set in a routine,” she said. “They like to go back to their cage to go to sleep at a certain time. They like coming out at a certain time.”
In the lobby, they interact with guests. “They love it when the people come over to the cage and talk to them. Birds just don’t like being alone.” Sometimes she lets kids hold the yellow and green sun conures.
Whittington’s days include lots of food prep, cleaning cages and generally tending to the birds’ physical and emotional welfare. “When it comes time to trim nails, beaks, and wings, that’s not a happy day,” she said. She usually requires assistance to accomplish the task unscathed. The birds especially dislike getting their nails trimmed. “I don’t know what it is about birds and dogs, they just don’t like their feet messed with.”
One of Whittington’s favorite birds was an African gray parrot named Joshua who could sing “Happy Birthday.” Whittington laughed as she remembered one time when Joshua sang to a guest in the lobby. “The lady was so taken aback because it was her birthday. And she just knew that bird was psychic. And I told her, ‘Well, he sings “Happy Birthday.”’ ‘No, no. It’s my birthday. How did he know? How did he know?’ I’m like oh my gosh, he sings ‘Happy Birthday’ just about every day. It was hilarious. She was in the lobby freaking out.”
Flamingos in the Desert
You can tell the original flamingos apart from the ones born at the JW Marriott Desert Springs. The founding fathers and mothers have green tags just above their knees. The native Californians are bare-legged.
But early on, the flamingos weren’t nesting or breeding. So Whittington helped by building their nests. “I had some soil brought in, that was so much clay, so much sand, a mixture. And we took it over to the island in wheelbarrows across a board. And then I made probably 14 nests, and we had about 10 flamingos that were nesting.” The nests resemble construction cones and measure about 13 inches high. Both parents take turns sitting on the single egg inside for 28 days.
The following year, the flamingos built nests themselves. And while they don’t nest and breed every year, they’ve done it enough to maintain a stable population.
Whittington hopes for more baby flamingos soon. “Oh my gosh, they are so cute. They’re tiny, solid gray with little long black legs, their beaks are black. It takes about two years before they turn pink.”
Outside, by the golf course, ducks and swans glide across ponds. “There’s a lot of wildlife here that stop over because of the water,” Whittington said. “I saw brown pelicans there. We have egrets, we have blue herons, green herons, mallards, coots, Canada geese.”
While these wild birds aren’t generally Whittington’s responsibility, she has been called in to help. Notably, the time a guest and a Canada goose got into an altercation, and the goose wound up in a pond with a camera around its neck.
“We had to get a boat and a net and get in the lake and chase the goose,” Whittington said. “Thank goodness the goose couldn’t go airborne, I guess the camera had him weighted down. We were able to net him and get the goose, but the camera was totally ruined.”
While Whittington was sorry a guest’s camera was ruined, she’s loyal to the birds. “I think it was more the person’s fault. I think the goose probably got aggressive and they were probably swinging the camera for it to get back or shoo it away or something. And it ended up around that goose’s neck.”
What does a bird whisperer do on her time off? Once Whittington finishes her eight-hour shift caring for the Marriott’s birds, she goes home to two dogs, two macaws, and a cat. “It’s like a zoo at home. When I leave here it’s like going to a zoo and starting all over again.”