Tremica Wise’s 8th Ward shotgun house is tidy and cool: tile floors gleaming, windows curtained against the heat. She keeps the temperature between 60 and 70 degrees — not for her sake, but for the sake of her 30 parakeets.
“This is the bird room,” said Wise, aka Tia the Bird Whisperer, stepping into a bedroom where dozens of parakeets are perched on, in and around cages of varying heights and shapes. “They can only be in temperatures 60 degrees and up.”
Tia brings her parakeets to parties and festivals, including the Kenner Freedom Festival and the upcoming Gentilly Fest. There, the colorful conures inevitably draw a crowd. It doesn’t cost anything to hold a bird (or 10), but she does charge for photos.
“I put three on each hand, one on each shoulder, and I put them on your head,” Tia said. “They’re very well-trained animals.”
First thing in the morning, Tia wakes her birds with a whistle and runs them through their training. “I make some of them swing, climb the ladder, do a small chore. Then I allow them to eat.” After a breakfast of seeds, the birds are free to run around on top of their cages. Tia bathes the parakeets every two weeks. They drink bottled water only, never tap.
Tia’s avian passion places her in a lineage of New Orleans characters that includes Ruth “Ruthie the Duck Girl” Moulon and Fred “Chicken Man” Staten. But neither of these storied eccentrics were as ambitious as Tia.
“I want at least a million people to say they’ve held a bird,” she said. “I’d like to give birds to special-needs people, who might not be able to hold a dog or cat. Everyone wants to be able to hold an animal.”
Born in New Orleans and raised by a single mother, a seamstress, Tia stood out among her six siblings because of her passion for animals. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and Sidney Collier Technical College. In her early 20s, she moved to Bayou St. John, where long walks along the water often yielded injured birds. A friend taught her how to splint a fractured wing or leg.
“I’ve rehabilitated several ducks, several crows,” Tia said. “I love all animals, but birds are one of the animals that can be trained. You can subdue them, and it doesn’t take long. They’re very smart.”
All of the parakeets Tia trains know her voice within a week or two. She teaches them to stop biting, turn around, be quiet, give kisses, bathe, climb a ladder and swing. She got her first parakeet, Jance, five years ago, and gradually acquired more.
“Jance is my teacher,” Tia said. “She shows the other ones what to do.”
“If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Jance,” said Sky Wise, Tia’s 9-year-old niece, who assists Tia when the birds are booked for parties or when Tia offers face painting (with a side of parakeets) in City Park. A pale blue parakeet is named after Sky. Though she doesn’t want a bird of her own, she thinks her aunt has “a pretty good business.”
At a recent bird demonstration in City Park, Tia’s blue floral dress and silver hoop earrings complemented the parakeets’ vivid hues. Lined up on a stick, the parakeets resemble nothing so much as pastel teacups; when a bird falls, one expects it to shatter like porcelain. But the birds sit obediently, waiting for Tia to offer her finger as a perch.
“I’ve always taken care of animals, kids and the elderly,” said Tia, who at 51 has two sons and four grandchildren. “Now I’m up in age, and this is what I’d like to do for the last years of my life.
“I’m willing to go as far as the birds allow me to. They are God’s gift.”
Tia the Bird Whisperer appears at Gentilly Fest, which takes place Oct. 6-8 at Pontchartrain Park Playground (5701 Press Drive).
Tia the Bird Whisperer at Gentilly Fest
WHEN: Oct. 6-8
WHERE: Pontchartrain Park Playground, 5701 Press Drive