The Great Escape
Published in PARROT WORLD Nov./Dec. l993
Psittacine Breeding & Research Farm
Box 13, Point Arena, CA 95468 USA
PH: (213) 819-1723

We've kept a colony of Jendays here at Pinnacle Peak for fifteen years. My daughters initially traded about forty canaries for one proven pair, learned to breed them, and built up their numbers until they had eight sets. They built their own aviary out of what they could afford, chicken wire and metal conduit, and situated it quite a distance from our macaws and from where anyone else could hear them. Conures can be a bit noisy sometimes.

The aviary itself is a large rectangle, with a common hallway and five divided areas along each side, each set up for a pair. The top is mostly covered with cool-painted tin, and reed fencing shades it from the summer sun. This had been quite serviceable, but is now getting old and the wire seems to have softened substantially. Chicken wire is just rolled around itself to make mesh. It's really no longer suitable for hookbills, and we have discussed re-doing the whole aviary soon. All the conures are mine now, as my daughters married and have children of their own.

Our patch of ground is desert, really quite private and lush. We have the tallest, oldest trees for miles in any direction. Some of the native trees, like the mesquite, furnish edible beans that we feed our parrots. Our eucalyptus trees are more than 70' tall, and provide a natural attraction for stray birds. We're always listening for the voices of cockatiels, lovebirds and parakeets that are frequent visitors. We always try to catch them and return them to their owners.

On this morning the voice we were hearing sounded like that of a conure. Wow! I thought I would soon have another Jenday. But I checked the aviary quickly, and sure enough, one of our pairs had apparently gotten loose. Given the deteriorating condition of our aviary, this escape wasn't a surprise. My daughter, Charlie, heard one of the birds calling from a tree about 200 feet from the aviary, but the other half of the pair was nowhere to be found. How were we going to recapture them? They were domestic, healthy fully flighted, two year olds. Chances for recovery seemed slim. First, we had to resist the urge to panic. We had one bird, the male, that was close by. Sometimes, if you don't frighten them, they get their bearings and will remain close by.

The day was spent working in teams. Charlie and I worked the bird that was close to the house. My husband and my son in law, David, began a search for the missing bird. Jendays have such bright colors that they can be spotted easily, but they fly like little jet planes. They are very vocal at certain times of the day, particularly mornings and evenings. They are vocal if upset, or even if they just hear my car approaching the farm gate.

At first, my daughter and I tried to tire the little male out as he circled the property. After 2 1/2 hours of chasing him around a few acres, we were the ones that tired. He would always perch just beyond our grasp, and when we would get close with a long pole and net, he would just fly off again. All this time we were certain he was trying to find his aviary again. Most birds have a good sense of where home is, and we knew our little guy was just trying to get back to safety. Every time he would fly close to the rest of the birds, they would get noisy and excited. At noon he perched as high up in the eucalyptus trees as he could and found a spot for his afternoon nap. As we stood below with our heads turned to the sky, he suddenly flew again, this time away from home about a quarter mile off, perching again just out of reach, to continue his nap. We took a break for a few hours too, He would not be flying around for a while, and we felt confident that he was in a safe spot.

At 2 p.m. we ladies started again. During all this time, Geoff and David had been making larger and larger circles in the area, looking and listening for the hen. She was finally located a little more than a mile away, but by then the men weren't sure if we were all chasing the same bird or not. We hadn't seen each other for more than two hours. After spotting her, they tried to get behind her and sort of direct her back to the farm. She would always seem to fly about a quarter mile at a time and perch again, always just out of reach and out of hearing range. She really is the wilder of the two. After another hour of fruitless pursuit on foot, David came back to get a bicycle and a small cage with two noisy, young conures in it.

The birds in the cage would function as "lures", to coax an answering call from the hen. This would allow them to hear where she was, as she had not been spotted for a while. She was 2 1/2 miles away when they finally got behind her and started to "herd" her back toward the farm; at 5 p.m. she flew the whole distance directly home. What a thrill it was to see her sleek little body fly directly to the trees outside the house. She was calling to her aviary mates as she flew. It was only a matter of time now.

To prepare for an easy re-entry, Charlie and I had cut a large hole in the side of the aviary. The hole was just a little smaller than my net, so as soon as the bird passed through we could cover the hole quickly and easily. We scattered a pail of almonds just inside, as well as some favorite fruit treats. We cleared an exit way through a portion of a Palo Verde tree and placed a large, easily accessible perch into the opening that we had cut. Once the male, who was perched nearby found that, it would be a direct way to enter the cage. It would only require that we wait patiently and watch. We were able to use his instincts to our advantage, because these conures love to sleep in their nest boxes and would soon be looking for it.

About 5 P.M., the male entered his cage. I quickly covered the hole, while Charlie went in his large cage, and placed him into a smaller cage which we left in the large cage as a lure for the hen. Then we re-opened the hole for her. She found the aviary about an hour later after flitting aimlessly around the farm for a while. She entered quickly, and was secured. We congratulated ourselves and took a rest.

There were other things that we did that were helpful, and some that in hindsight that weren't necessary. Setting up a trap cage with seed in it was a waste of time because the birds weren't familiar with it, and had never been in it, and weren't hungry anyway. Trying to wet a bird with a hose is useless, they can fly pretty well wet or dry. You could electrocute yourself if you spray power lines, and you usually get soaked yourself. We didn't feed the entire flock until after we had captured the birds, because a noisy farm would help guide a bird home. My neighbor at the horse farm, Diane O"Connell, says she knows when I feed in the evening because it gradually gets quiet over here. If you own an aviary and a bird gets loose, that's something you may be able to use to your advantage.

Patience and persistence were obviously important. Chaining the dogs and getting the cats out of the way made it easier for the birds to re-enter the cage without being frightened off. I have since rewired the whole exterior with 1 x 2 inch welded wire, much more suitable for conures.

There have been other escapes, and fortunately all but one have been recaptured. One of my young Scarlet Macaws stayed away overnight. When she escaped, she flew off around the house into the tall trees. I didn't see which way she went. It's hard to see a red bird, even a large one, in a green tree. We gathered all the people we could, seven of us, and spread ourselves into a large circle about three quarters of a mile out, one half hour before dawn the next morning. We were certain we would hear her calling to her friends in the morning. When we didn't hear her, we kept closing the circle( by previous agreement on what we should all do at certain times) until we located her in the trees by the house. She circled and circled after we found her, and we gave hard chase for more than 4 hours, just within 1/4 mile of the house.

Finally she flew in a straight line, for about 3/4 mile, and was getting lost fast now. We all went running after her, I in the rear since I'm not as fast as the others. Everyone else had passed her when I found her a few hundred feet away from me. She had doubled back , for some reason. As I reached for her, she flew off again, this time about 150 feet farther, and landed in a tree. I dashed after her, lunged desperately, and managed to grab her by both legs. She was frightened, and kept biting me, but there was no way that I was going to let go now!

The only bird to escape successfully , a Yellow Collared Macaw, still lives in the nearby town of Cave Creek. A cyst had been removed from his wing, and while he was recovering from surgery, he enjoyed perching on a stand in the house. He was fresh out of quarantine, having only been with us for a few weeks, when one day he suddenly bolted from his perch, flew right past my head, and winged his way erratically through the house and out the front door. The last time I saw him he was a small black speck high in the sky. Occasionally folks in town call me and ask if he is mine. I tell them yes, but if they can catch him he is theirs! He seems to be doing well on a diet of stolen dog food and feed store leftovers.. He has been on the loose for more than ten years.

Many of us have had our birds escape; tame babies are no exception. Most of the time our "escapees" are not more than three hundred feet away on the first convenient perch, waiting for someone to come and get them. If you can wait them out and remain calm, chances are they'll put that little foot right up and climb back on to your finger.

Don't give up, don't panic, an keep those wings trimmed. Even a calm bird can be frightened by a stranger, a dog, a car or other disturbance, and fly off. And keep in mind also that the way a bird fly's in the house is NOT the same way it will fly when outdoors , the "runway" is longer!! Keep enlarging your search in ever wider circles, put a few nuts in your pocket, and realize that it is all part of the intrigue of these intelligent little creatures.