Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

When your bird has flown the coop,
every minute counts. Here's what you can do to bring him back home.

By Marc Johnson

THE UNTHINKABLE has happened. You opened the door to grab the morning paper or left a window cracked. The parrot you thought was clipped or safely inside a cage wasn't, and in the blink of an eye, your best friend was gone.

An escaped bird is every owner’s nightmare. Lost cats and dogs can fend for themselves for a long time. The chances for a bird's survival are much bleaker.

Predators can quickly move in, and cold temperatures and lack of food can take their toll. It's hard to imagine how your pampered bird will make it on his own in such a hostile environment.

But all is not lost. Hardy birds may be able to survive for days, weeks or even months by finding cover and raiding backyard bird feeders. One man I know recovered his orange-wing Amazon after six months. The bird had endured a harsh New England winter by taking refuge in a squirrel’s nest. Many other birds find homes with kind-hearted strangers.

So before you despair of ever seeing your feathered companion again, take heart. What you do in the first few hours and days could make a big difference in the outcome. No matter what anyone else says, start looking and don't give up. Your bird is out there, waiting for you to find him.

Getting the word out
Escaped birds are frightened and disoriented. Strong fliers may quickly travel several miles. Small birds in particular, such as cockatiels, tend to take to the skies, some circling hundreds of feet in the air before settling somewhere.

If you’re lucky, your bird will not leave the immediate area right away. Note the direction he flew in, or ask a companion to do so while you prepare to leave. Take a cell phone in case you need to get in touch with a helper.

Who you gonna call?

ANIMAL AUTHORITIES like the SPCA and humane society don't have the time or expertise to help you find a bird. However, you may be able to get help from:
  • A local parrot sanctuary;
  • a dog-and-cat group that specializes in animal rescue, such as the Animal Rescue League of Boston; or,
  • a wildlife rescue group.

Alert the community by posting flyers at:

  • Pet stores
  • Veterinarian offices
  • Humane societies
  • Telephone poles
  • Car windshields
  • Bulletin boards at swimming pools and other public spots

Another option is posting an ad on the Internet. With more people going online, it's possible that someone in your area who's seen your bird will get in touch with you. Sites that post lost-and-found pet ads include Bird HotLine and Pets 911.

If you don't see your bird, hear him, or even know which direction he went in, you have a bigger challenge ahead of you, but not an impossible one. With luck and persistence, you can find him.

Start by placing his cage outside your home in a prominent location, leaving it propped open.

Comb a one-mile radius of your home. Expand this circle by a mile each day. Call him with familiar whistles or phrases, or recorded samples of his own calls. To cover more territory, have a friend slowly drive you while you listen and watch out the window. Stop at every big tree.

In the meantime, notify animal authorities within a 10-mile radius that your bird is missing. First telephone local vets, pet stores, and shelters, then follow up with flyers including a photograph and description of your bird.

Post flyers on telephone poles and car windshields and inside front doors in surrounding neighborhoods.

Hand them out to everyone you meet on the street, especially joggers, gardeners, kids playing and others who spend a lot of time outside, and ask them to contact you if they see your bird.

Place an ad in the local paper’s lost-and-found section, and check the found section every day.

The thirsty Quaker
Spreading the word will let Good Samaritans who may have found your bird know who to contact.

One man while cutting his lawn took a break and sat down with a glass of iced water. He was soon joined by a thirsty Quaker parakeet, who made himself comfortable on the man’s shoulder and happily went into the house without a fuss.

Because the owner had notified everyone in the neighborhood his Quaker was missing, they were reunited that day.

In another case, we located the owner of a Congo African grey through a dog officer who remembered seeing a single “lost bird” notice on a pole five miles from where the bird was found. We knew we had the right owner when the bird spoke Russian.

Even if your parrot winds up in the hands of someone with sticky fingers, your persistence could pay off in the long run.

When these "finders-keepers" tire of their valuable new acquisition, they may remember your pleas and be all too willing to hand the bird back over to its rightful owner. The promise of a cash reward may loosen their grip.

Closing in
Just as important, getting the word out may bring news of where your bird is spending his days or nights. Parrots are creatures of habit. Once they find an area with food and shelter, they'll stick around.

When that all-important call comes telling you your bird is making a nuisance of himself at a backyard feeder, you can get to work on bringing him home.

All some birds require is their owner rattling a food bowl and calling. You might be able to set up a lawn chair and wait him out. But chances are you won’t be so lucky. Despite the strong bond we think we have with our birds, they frequently won’t budge from a perch. Here's where creativity counts.

One strategy that can work is placing your bird’s cage nearby with toys, food and water. If he has been frequenting a particular bird feeder, ask the homeowner if you can take it down so the cage looks more attractive. If he's in a tree, place the cage as high up as possible.

Prop open the cage door with a stick and attach a string so you can trip the door from a distance.

An ounce of prevention

  • Clip your bird's wings. It may not be foolproof - clipped birds have been known to walk or flutter out the door - but it's still the best way to prevent him from escaping. For how to do it, see's FAQ section.

  • Consider microchipping. If your bird is larger than a cockatiel, you might consider getting him microchipped (see Microchipping: Is it for the birds?). This safeguard could come in handy if he lands at a shelter that scans for microchips or if you need to prove he's yours.

If the tree is in someone else’s yard, the owners might be willing to keep an eye out for your bird's return and trip the door for you. I've left some cages with strings fed through the homeowner's back window. It's amazing how friendly and helpful most people are when it comes to recovering a pet.

Don't have the right kind of cage? If your bird is small enough to fit inside, a $70 cockatiel cage with a drop-down door might be worth the investment.

Don't worry that a strange cage will scare him off; most birds associate cages with food and will enter if they're hungry enough.

Bring a buddy
Does your bird have a best avian friend? Weather permitting, bring him inside a small cage placed inside the larger one.

If your bird doesn’t have a feathered partner, borrowing someone else’s to use as a decoy might sound like a good idea. However, I’ve found that strange birds can actually frighten the escapee away.

I once tried to lure an African grey out of a tree by tempting him with a caged African grey borrowed from Foster Parrots. For about half a minute, the two birds seemed to be communicating with calls to one another, a good sign, I thought.

Then the free bird took off like a shot. I still wonder if the other one told him to make a break for it while he could!

If you decide to climb the tree your bird is in, take a pillow case and twine so you can lower him to the ground and leave both hands free for descending.

Waiting until dark and shining a bright light in your bird's eyes before moving in might work. Parrots don't seem to have very good night vision and the momentary blindness might allow you to grab him.

Just keep in mind that anytime you approach your bird, he could bolt. Finding him again at night would be especially difficult.

Outside help
Don't waste time calling the fire department or asking the SPCA to send someone out. While some fire departments may still rescue cats stuck in trees, few will bother with parrots and I can't say I blame them. What good would it do to bring the hook and ladder out when the bird will probably only fly away? The SPCA has its hands full with dogs and cats.

However, someone in your community might be willing to help you set traps. You could try someone like me, for instance, who runs a parrot rescue. Some wildlife rescue groups might also be willing to lend a hand.

The important thing is to waste no time in looking for your pet. I once received a call from some concerned people about a Moluccan cockatoo that had been roaming a neighborhood for three months. Nobody knew who the owner was.

I tracked the bird for a week with cages and a ladder, traipsing about in a swampy area near a reservoir where he'd been seen getting drinks of water.

Finally, late one evening I heard his cries. I was thrilled to know he was nearby, but it was too dark to investigate. When I returned the next day, a neighbor told me she had seen a hawk chase the cockatoo into a nearby thicket the evening before. Remembering the screams, my heart sank.

This case still haunts me. If I had had a few days more, I think I could have captured this bird and placed him in a new home. But all I found that morning in the thicket was a pile of white feathers.

Never give up
Last year, Foster Parrots assisted in the recovery of eight of 12 escaped birds that were reported to us. Along with a "thank you," many people told me I was the only one who had given them hope.

If you work 9 to 5, maintaining the search for your bird might be difficult. But the important thing is to never give up, even if others tell you it's a lost cause.

Absent physical proof of your bird's demise, it's never too late to try to bring him home. Remember, every effort you make brings the two of you closer to a happy reunion.

About the author

Marc Johnson is founder and operator of Foster Parrots, a Boston-area parrot sanctuary that has been featured on Animal Planet and Alan Alda's Scientific American. Published 2002.


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