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The Great Escape
by Louise Bauck B.Sc., DVM, M.VSc

Every avian veterinarian is familiar with frantic phone calls regarding winged escapees. Even the most vigilant owner can be a victim of unfortunate circumstances: the forgotten open window, the door that no one closed, etc. This is especially true for the modern bird owner, who tends to make a greater effort to provide a more natural lifestyle, including plenty of exercise and an opportunity for flight. After the initial shock and dismay of a loss, bereft owners come to the grim realization that the escaped bird faces many hazards, including some that may occur after being found.

Just last weekend, while I was out working at the local high school in a volunteer education program, my husband received a frantic phone call concerning the smallest member of the parrot family - a suddenly liberated budgerigar. As a large-animal veterinarian, my husband isn't too familiar with such cases, so the best he could come up with was: "Make a Lost Pet sign" (not too many swine and cattle make that break for freedom I guess). Fortunately he also mentioned my location at the high school.

An obviously upset mother burst into the gymnasium a short time later, with a story of a distraught 12-year-old and an escaped budgie named Zazu. It turned out that the young owner, Erin, was shoveling snow out on the deck while her two pet birds were enjoying their daily exercise session. The door to the deck was left open for just a few moments. Unfortunately, something startled Zazu, and the bird veered out the open door.

Although Erin had done a remarkable job taming her two birds (they were obtained as adults that had not been handled before), the normally outgoing Zazu seemed oblivious to his owner's frantic calls, and was unsteadily clutching the branch of a large pine tree in the back yard. Normally Zazu would readily come to perch on a hand or head, while chattering intently but cheerfully on various subjects of budgie interest, but his break for freedom seemed to disorient him.

In this case Erin did exactly the right thing. She rushed back into the house to catch the companion bird Petrie, to use him as a sort of budgie bait. Placing Petrie in his cage, Erin then raced back outside, cage in hand. After securing a ladder against the pine tree, the young owner climbed painstakingly upwards, slowly edging the cage closer to Zazu, hoping to convince him to hop into the cage. All went well until a sudden breeze sprang up. This new factor startled the bird again - and away he went, soaring over the roof of the house and into the forest beyond.

What to do in such a situation? Here are some of the suggestions I made to Erin's mother:

1) Do make those "lost bird" signs - lots of them. Make sure all key information is on them - especially the date of escape, and the address the bird was lost from. Use a scanner or a color printer to make color pictures of the bird for the notices, or sacrifice color photos from a bird magazine that show what the bird looked like.

2) Post the lost bird appeals around the neighborhood to at least a 5 mile radius, and don't forget the local convenience store and postal box center or post office.

3) Call neighbors and friends to help with daily "tree checks" in the area of escape. Look at rooftops and fences as well.

4) Call the local radio station and all local pet retailers, animal shelters and avian veterinarians.

5) If you have a remaining bird, place him in a secured cage outdoors in a prominent location (weather permitting). Protect him from excess heat or cold, marauding pets, theft, and make sure the cage cannot drop or fall. A second empty cage should be placed adjacent to the first, with an open door and plenty of familiar food and treats. Someone must be home at all times to supervise and watch for the lost bird.

6) If you have only a single bird, you might wish to try a plastic decoy bird, or tape-recorded bird calls (preferably from the same species), as well as the empty cage with food. Your local pet retailer may be able to help you record sounds from the type of bird you have lost.

Zazu's family was understandably very concerned about his safety, especially since snow was still on the ground and food would be difficult to come by. Although parakeets (budgies) are tough little birds, I was not optimistic about Zazu's chances for survival if he was not found quickly. In warmer weather, pet birds can be very resourceful about finding seed grasses to feed on, and some will also visit wild bird feeders. In this case it seemed possible that the combination of harsh weather and lack of familiar food might prove to be too much for Zazu. However, my experiences in veterinary practice have taught me that a surprising number of pet birds ARE rescued. Yet some never make it home simply because no one knows where they have come from. One celebrated parrot in England was returned to the original owner because the bird had been taught to recite his telephone number and street address! Leg bands are rarely helpful in returning lost birds to their homes, but (in larger birds) microchips may be useful. "Scanning" a found parrot is certainly worth a try - talk to your avian veterinarian.

The afternoon following Zazu's escape, the worried owners had just returned from another fruitless neighborhood search when the phone rang. The news was promising - a local restaurant owner had just spotted a small green bird in a tree near her parking lot. The restaurateur remembered having seen a "lost bird" appeal at the local postal outlet, and had driven back to the notice to get Erin's phone number.

The entire family, as well as Petrie and two cages, raced to the scene - almost 4 miles away! The restaurant was also located on the other side of one of the largest and busiest highways in the area. How little Zazu had managed to make his way to this location is still a mystery. Someone called the local press, and the dining patrons emptied from the restaurant to watch the rescue attempt. No one wanted to leave for fear of upsetting Zazu with the starting of a car engine. The lost bird was high up in a sugar maple, obviously exhausted, sitting motionless with his head tucked under his wing. No one knew exactly how to proceed, until Petrie suddenly started bugling the ear-splitting chirp of the calling budgie. Petrie had previously only used this industrial-strength version of the normally pleasant rolling call in competitions with the vacuum cleaner! Luckily, the loud chirping from his cage-mate caused an immediate "un-tucking", and Zazu seemed to study the situation. Now, slowly, Zazu began to make his way down the tree. Erin carefully placed the empty cage in front of Petrie's, and patiently waited for Zazu to come closer. Finally the wandering bird flew to the cage top, and then allowed Erin to gently shoo him toward the door. Slam! It was done. The crowd cheered. Erin cried. A happy ending!

Escaped parrots can often be retrieved in a similar manner. Perhaps the single greatest factor in the recovery of an intelligent, highly social bird such as a parrot is a strong bond with people. Training sessions and daily handling are wholly worthwhile, for this and many other reasons. And you should normally keep a bird wing-clipped or partially wing-clipped throughout the year. "Managed flight" is now a very popular concept; it basically means that the bird can fly well enough to obtain exercise and have fun, but cannot ascend easily, or fly easily over roof tops! In windy conditions however, even a fully wing-clipped bird can fly great distances.

Employ some sensible preventative measures. Under most circumstances, pet parrots should always be confined while outdoors - either in a flight or aviary, or in a bird carrier. A sudden breeze can arrive when least expected, allowing even clipped birds to fly away. Another thing you can do to cope with a disastrous escape is to make sure that you always have a spare cage, and plenty of photographs of your pet. Record any identifying microchip numbers and brands, leg band numbers, and keep the records and photographs in a safe place.

Once you have recovered your bird, you will still need to consult with your avian veterinarian immediately. You will probably be asked to monitor your bird's droppings and behavior very carefully, checking daily for any signs of stress-related disease. If the weather has been cool, problems such as an upper respiratory infection (cold) may occur. Also, your vet may want to make sure that the bird has no sign of any puncture wounds or injuries that could have been caused by cats or other predators. These kind of wounds need immediate antibiotic therapy.

Preventing an escape is obviously much easier than recovering a lost bird. Be careful - and be prepared!

Louise Bauck B.Sc., DVM, M.VSc. is director of veterinary services for Hagen Avicultural Research Institute. She coordinates preventative medicine programs and pathology at Hagen's parrot breeding farm and research institute.