Last week, Chris, a member of the Birdtricks community, posted a horrifying message on facebook that his beloved african grey, Kendi, had flown off. We were heartbroken for him because we knew how much love, time and effort he had put into turning Kendi into the trusting bird he had become. There were many issues to be worked through in the beginning of their union, but diligence and dedication had finally paid off and the two shared a wonderful, while hard won, relationship.
Kendi escaped from Chris on Saturday and flew into a tree and perched about 100′ up, where he stayed within view until Sunday morning.
I think we can all fill in the blanks – without a doubt, Chris called relentlessly to Kendi while he was up in the tree and I’m sure he tried to bribe him down with food and treats. But Kendi didn’t budge for 15 hours.
It could be argued that Kendi might have feared the descending flight, which is often the case with escaped birds who are not exceptional fliers. But that argument fell apart when Kendi finally decided to move and did descend to fly right past Chris, then over a building and out of sight.
The story has a happy ending. Kendi was found not far away and was safely returned on Tuesday after three long days for both he and Chris. The hardest part about hearing Chris recount his story, was his description of what he was feeling during the ordeal – especially the part where Kendi remained in the tree, refusing to come to him.
Chris walked away from the experience happy and grateful to have his bird back, but heavy with feelings of betrayal. Kendi chose to fly away from him after he had been trying for so many hours to save him. To his way of thinking, it was not reflective of the relationship he thought they shared. And he began to have doubt about his place in Kendi’s heart and wonder if the effort is all worth it in the end.
Many people who envision themselves in this situation are falsely comforted with the idea that, as long as their bird remains within view, their powerful mutual bond will draw the bird home again. It almost never plays that way in reality.
When a bird in that situation chooses not to fly back to you, it isn’t a statement about the relationship. A bird’s seemingly uncharacteristic behavior is merely a part of a decision making process in a stressful event, in which he might not see you as a viable part of the solution.
We don’t know what Kendi was thinking and we don’t know what he might have been seeing from his vantage point that would explain his actions. All we know is that in the same situation, a human would run for the comforting arms of a trusted friend. However, we must be careful not to impose human emotional responses onto that of a bird.
A bird’s behavior outdoors might be the result of instincts coming into play. A bird may be thinking: “Look at this huge new room to explore!” and head out to do just that, or it might be experiencing terror causing it to behave with only survival in mind.
The lesson here for everyone is that you cannot count on predictable behavior from a bird that suddenly finds itself in unfamiliar territory – and possibly in jeopardy. Do not count on your tight relationship to influence your bird’s decisions. Your bird has reasons for its actions that are its own and cannot be taken personally.
This is one of the first things you learn in freeflight training: before you even consider letting your bird fly outdoors, you must acclimate it to the new environment so that behaviors will not be fear-based and unpredictable when there.
Clipping your birds wings should not be used as a precautionary measure to an escape. Most birds with clipped wings are quite able to ascend up and away from you – especially when frightened by a loud noise or sudden movement. Should this happen, clipping puts them at a terrible disadvantage.
The clipped bird's hampered flight ability makes them vulnerable and unable to outfly predators and could cause reluctance to attempt to find safety with a human when they become hungry.
Freeflight is the future of companion bird ownership. Certain people, magazines and websites that have been railing against it for years are finally coming to realize how beneficial it is for our birds. However, If you and your bird are not trained by a professional, you should simply never take your bird outside without a harness.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.