SLO man's free-flying parrots delight downtown visitors

Vern Ludwick's nine macaws live at his home in San Luis Obispo.
Vern Ludwick's nine macaws live at his home in San Luis Obispo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

George and Killian take flight from the front porch of Vern Ludwick’s Johnson Avenue home, soaring together in perfect unison above the bustle of downtown San Luis Obispo.

The vibrant red, blue and green feathers of the two macaws glisten in the mid-day light as they climb higher and higher to fly a perfect circle around the neighborhood before returning home.

Back on the front porch ledge, they vie for Ludwick’s attention. George, who is actually a female, was hand-raised by Ludwick four years ago.

“She’s a pest,” said Ludwick as he nuzzled the feathers on the back of her neck.

The pair of macaws, who always fly together, has been spotted all over downtown San Luis Obispo. One of their favorite hangouts is the train station.

They like to fly downtown when the Thursday night Farmers Market is in full swing. George likes to people-watch.

The pair has also been seen hanging out by the courthouse on Palm Street.

“George is street-smart,” Ludwick said. “She won’t just sit down anywhere.”

Ludwick owns nine macaws, which is not something that he planned. Rather, each bird has come into his life by happenstance over the past six years.

He also takes care of 12 more birds for a couple in San Luis Obispo, including four rare hyacinth macaws. The radiant blue birds, native to central and eastern South America, are the largest of the species.

The personality of each bird is evident upon first encounter.

Killian speaks more than 380 words, often in complete phrases.

Once, Ludwick said, Killian was hit by a car when flying home. He wasn’t hurt badly, but when he landed on the porch, he looked at his owner and said, “Ouch, that hurt.”

Satan and Rosita, the macaws that Ludwick has had the longest, are the parents of George. The mates are always kept together and are inseparable.

“You cannot take them two feet apart and they go nuts,” Ludwick said. “He is very dedicated to her, which is one of the reasons I keep him.”

Satan earned his name when he bit the middle finger of Ludwick’s right hand to the bone — and refused to let go.

Tabasco, a scarlet macaw, has a fiery attitude. He won’t poop in his cage, instead banging on the cage with his beak until Ludwick gives in and takes him outside.

On a recent afternoon, the birds were acting up, squawking loudly. Ludwick told them to quiet down and they listened — only after he warned them they would be doused with a cup of water.

When Satan, the instigator, began to get the other birds riled up again, Ludwick gently tossed a cup of water on him to hush him. As Satan grumbled and hung his head, Tabasco, in the cage right next to him, cackled.

The living room in Ludwick’s home, overlooking Johnson Avenue, is filled with large iron bird cages.

Sitting on a perch, visible from the street, is Blackjack, a recent rescue who was caged and abused for years. Ludwick doesn’t have the heart to put him back in a cage.

People passing by his home often stop to admire the birds. Most days you can find Ludwick outside, either teaching Tabasco to fly or sending Killian and George off in flight.

Tourists from Brazil and Mexico often stop in amazement, Ludwick said, because in many cases they have seen macaws in their own countries but never flying free.

Ludwick doesn’t believe in clipping the birds’ wings. He’s spent hours and walked dozens of miles with each bird to teach them their surrounding area.

“Every bird is an individual, and if it bonds to you, and you show them how to fly … they will always come back to you,” Ludwick said. “They know where home is.”

Ludwick said he has only had one person complain about the birds in the last five years.

“Everyone thinks they are fantastic,” Ludwick said. “When they go out there is always someone who hasn’t seen them, and they are awestruck.”