Birds and paradise in Palm Desert

Guests call her the Bird Lady, but her real name is Linda Whittington and she loves her job at the Marriott Desert Springs Resort and Spa in Palm Desert.

Linda Whittington is the Marriott’s “Bird Lady,” charged with maintaining the health and welfare of the exotic birds, swans and flamingoes on the Palm Desert property. Each day at 11 a.m., she holds court with the “very social” exotic birds in the hotel lobby so visitors can get acquainted with her feathered friends. Photo by Jerry Ondash

The animal care specialist and aviary expert has charge of the health and welfare of the hotel’s bird and fish collection. You can meet Whittington almost any day at 11 a.m. in the recently renovated, grandiose lower-level lobby of the Marriott. This is when she introduces the birds to hotel guests — or maybe it’s the other way around.
Among the feathered participants are Gracie and Elliott (African Grey Parrots); Romeo and Juliet (Eclectus Parrots); Goldie and Sunshine (Sun Conures); and Sonny and Cher (Tucanets).

“These birds are very social and they need a lot of attention,” Whittington explained on a recent Friday morning as she removed the birds in turn from their cages. As she handled one pair, other birds in nearby cages squawked in protest because, well, “they want attention, too,” said Whittington, who has been with the Marriott for 24 years.

She inherited the bird-keeper job 16 years ago.

“I took over a really fun job,” said Whittington, who is responsible for all of the birds’ diets, nail trimmings, wing-clippings, and cage-cleanings. Though this last job is not the most glamorous, it could be the most important.

“You have to know what to look for,” she said. “The birds are good at hiding illness, so their droppings and body language can tell you a lot.”

Whittington also likes meeting hotel guests.

Gathering clouds above the Coachella Valley create a dramatic panorama as seen from the seventh floor of the Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert. The hotel’s 450 acres includes two 18-hole golf courses, several restaurants and swimming pools, and a spa. Photo by Jerry Ondash

“They love to interact with the birds and take photos,” she said.

Other feathered friends that reside in and around the ponds and lakes of the Marriott’s 450 acres include 18 Australian Black Swans, 5 Mute Swans (so called because their calls are less noisy than other swans), and 31 flamingoes, including three babies.

In general, the bird populations have to be managed, Whittington said, but when it comes to the flamingoes, “the bigger the flock, the happier they are.”

My husband and I stayed at the Marriott Desert Springs 25 years ago when a portion of the hotel was still under construction. It has recently been given a $25 million facelift that has produced a more organic feel to the amazing lobby/atrium and spacious rooms. Golf fans will love the two upgraded 18-hole golf courses originally designed by Ted Robinson.

The stunning, eight-story atrium lobby offers conversation pits, a sushi bar, a regular bar and a boat dock. Intimate wine-and-food pairing dinners are held here almost every evening. Photo by Jerry Ondash

During this stay, we enjoyed a unique wine-and-dine experience on the boat dock that is inside the lobby. With three other couples, we learned about five Italian wines from Paul Bologna, a well-schooled sommelier, and Chef Gregorio Calderin of the hotel’s Lake View Restaurant. He prepared a to-die-for truffle risotto and seared, salsa-soaked lamb right before our eyes. The food-pairing culminated with a scrumptious tiramisu.

The next morning, I enjoyed a 90-minute massage that used warmed stones and bamboo rods. If there’s a heaven, I think I was there. If you go, ask for Myrna.

Help for those with food allergies

If you are one of millions who has food allergies or sensitivities or celiac disease, it’s challenging enough to eat out in the good ol’ USA, but visit a foreign country, and dining out can be downright scary. There is help and it comes in the form of the “Let’s Eat Out” series of books, ebooks, pocket guides, and (yes!) apps for iPhone, iPad and iPod. Visit allergyfreepassport.com for a demonstration and more info.

All of the “Let’s Eat Out” products are designed and written by Kim Koeller, who has celiac disease and food allergies, and Robert La France, a restaurant industry veteran who focuses on cross-contamination and hidden allergens.

“The information in the series is based upon over seven years of market research, personal experience…, two-plus million miles of travel and quality assurance reviews from hundreds of individuals and professionals worldwide,” said Koeller.

There also is a single pocket guide for translating words and phrases about food concerns into French, German, Italian and Spanish.

Restaurant owners, take note: According to Koeller’s research, 92 percent of gluten- and allergy-free guests will return frequently to the same eating establishment after a positive experience.

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