O Budgie, Where Art Thou?

"who can shed light on what happens to a cockatiel loose in minnesota"
- Post at Toolady.com

Few things have ever made me feel quite so helpless as watching an escaped budgie fly off and vanish from sight. Hopefully nothing like this has happened to you and youíre reading this as a precautionary measure only. However, itís much more likely that your bird is currently lost and that Iíve referred you here from Toolady.com. Or perhaps youíve found a bird and are wondering what to do next. Whatever your reasons for reading this article, I hope it helps enlighten you on how best to deal with this heartbreaking experience.

Case Study:
Live and Learn

Iíve lost quite a few birds, all before I switched to aviary breeding. Originally I bred my budgies outdoors in rabbit hutches, which had very large access doors that made it difficult to catch breeder birds for routine clipping without them escaping right then and there. I even lost my first budgie twice! The first time took off fast in a direct line and disappeared. I had to go to school and spent all day worrying about her. I was fortunate enough to get her back in the afternoon, when two other neighborhood kids found her exhausted next to their pool. The second time she flew around the side of the house and went into the garage, where I promptly shut the door and was able to get her down.

I also lost my very first cockatiel. I thought it was so cute how he flew to me if I left the room and let his wings stay flighted. Unfortunately my mother was in a habit of taking him outside on her shoulder. One day my step-aunt happened to be staying over along with her little dog. It barked and my tiel was lost forever. I got wise and have clipped all my pets since then, but that's far from the last bird I've ever lost. If you're going to keep birds outdoors, you MUST have some sort of security porch to prevent escapes.


There is one very simple way to prevent birds from escaping. Unfortunately, most people are lax about doing it and consequently I receive numerous questions about lost and found birds. Many species can fly well with only one or two primary feathers. Add a gust of wind and you may never see your bird again. Clipping the wings regularly is very important if you want to prevent escapes. However, one clip per molt just doesnít cut it (no pun intended). Birds do not shed all their feathers at once, they grow new ones a few at a time. This means that it takes a while for the primaries to grow back. It only takes one feather to lose your bird. Waiting until all of them are grown in before clipping can be disastrous but few people are willing to bring their birds in to be groomed for each individual feather.

I highly recommend learning to clip your own birds. Grooming can then be done at home, per feather. If you have a good relationship with your bird this should not be a problem. Clipping is a painless procedure that takes mere seconds when done correctly. Your bird may be slightly stressed the first few times, but will not hate you for it. After a while clipping becomes routine- your bird wonít like it but will at least know what to expect. Even Fry, the conure that hated hands, did fine during clipping. He would try to run if he saw hands coming and wriggle away once I had him, but he trusted me not to hurt him and would never attempt to bite. If you have a large or squirmy bird like Fry, you can hold it while someone else does the clipping. Birds that are very tame and used to handling may not need to be restrained at all- yet another area where proper socialization helps.

Another way to prevent escapes is to limit outdoor time. Let the bird sit by the window for part of the day or build a sunroom both you and your birds can enjoy. If you must take your bird outdoors, donít take any chances. Even if your bird canít fly there are still dangers. What if a hawk or cat gets it? What if the bird is startled and manages to get into a tree, climbing up out of your reach? Or worse yet, manages to get into a neighborís yard? Murphyís Law always applies to birds, so plan accordingly. Take you bird outside in a cage or on a harness. If brought out in a cage, twist tie or otherwise secure sliding doors. Bird harnesses are available but most people canít get their birds to use them. They also tend to be much too heavy for the smaller species. Even my goffin finds his harness very cumbersome.

Hereís another tip that wonít prevent escapes, but will make your life easier if your bird does get loose: teach it to sing/whistle a tune. This works best with birds like male cockatiels, who love to whistle along. A unique tune will help you keep track of your bird should it get out of sight. Where did it go? Which tree is it in? If your bird sings you can better pinpoint its location.

Case Study:
Birds of a Feather...

I keep all my breeders outdoors and they do attract escaped birds. My cat is the first one to notice. He never gives my aviary birds a second glance since he knows he canít get to them. If I see him staring at something by the aviary I know thereís a loose bird.

Iíve had three escaped budgies hanging around my aviary this year, two of which I managed to catch. The first was easy- I just walked over and grabbed him. The poor thing was starving, emaciated and trying desperately to find a way into the budgie cages. I placed him in quarantine and a day later notice that he seemed to have bulked up, an impossibility. I examined him and found that his skin was stretched taut, especially around the thighs. He had a punctured air sac and the area under his skin was filling with air. I called my vet and made an appointment, then made several pin pricks to his swollen thighs to release the air. Luckily this solved the problem. After a vet visit and 30 day quarantine, he was ready to join my flock.

The second budgie I caught was just last month (December 13th or so). She was much better off, hanging out in the neighborís yard up in a tree all day. It was cold out and she didnít seem to be enjoying herself. After about a week I found her eating seed spilled from my aviaries. Thereís about a one foot gap between my second aviary and the roof and I managed to scare her from on top of the cages into this space. Once in the gap she was reluctant to leave, though sheíd run/fly all over the place trying to avoid my net. It took about 20 minutes and a second person, but we managed to net her. She too went through quarantine and joined my flock just this Saturday.

Can they survive?

Iím often asked about survival odds. Some people hear about wild flocks of parrots in California and Florida and think that their birds have a pretty good chance. Unfortunately, they donít.

True, budgies and tiels are very hardy. However, all our pet birds are currently bred in captivity. Australia has had laws against exporting wildlife for some time now, meaning that Aussie species are even farther removed from their wild ancestors. Captive bred birds are not very well equipped to survive in the wild. They are not used to the weather. They are not used to avoiding predators. They are not familiar with the native sources of food or where to locate them.

The wild flocks of introduced parrots that you hear about were established back when parrots were still imported in large numbers. They were most likely wild birds, caught and imported, which then escaped or were released. Birds that were intentionally released, like by smugglers, would most likely have been released as a group, making the introduction a bit easier. Most of these parrots are also larger South American species like amazons and conures. Larger parrots would have fewer predators and be able to access better food sources. Itís not hard to see how larger, wild caught species, introduced as groups into fairly mild environments (Florida and California) could learn to adapt and survive. However, it is unrealistic to expect a single smaller bird, captive bred but native to the Australian outback, to survive a Minnesota winter. Your birdís best chance at survival is to be found.

Finding Your Bird

    There are two scenarios when a bird escapes:
  1. The bird remains in sight but is somewhere unaccessible, like a tree.
  2. You have no idea where it is.
Scenario #1 is bad; #2 is virtually hopeless. YOU HAVE A MUCH BETTER CHANCE OF GETTING YOUR BIRD IF YOU KEEP IT IN SIGHT. Unfortunately, many birds take off flying in one direction and continue to do so until they run out of energy. Parrots are not homing pigeons and will not find their way back on their own.

Scenario #1- KEEP THE BIRD IN YOUR VIEW. If you canít see it, keep track of it by sound. Having someone nearby really helps here, as you risk your bird flying out of sight should you choose to go indoors and get something to help you catch it. Aside from keeping track of where it is, it is also important not to startle it into flying again. If your bird doesnít trust you much, this will be difficult. If within reach, I find that using a long perch helps. Get the bird to step up and then slowly move it to a better location. Attempting to grab an untame bird will only result in a further away escaped bird.

Getting a bird down from an inaccessible tree is tough. Even tame, loving birds will be reluctant to see what the fuss is and climb down on their own. Amazons are notorious for climbing higher into a tree, or flying to another one as soon as you are about to catch them. In a case like this a hose helps- spray ABOVE the bird so that it rains DOWN onto the bird and makes in too heavy to fly. Then have someone climb the tree (if possible, ask around the neighborhood) and get the soggy psittacine. Lures can also be used to get a bird down. Leave out a cage with food in it and the door open. Bring out another bird (preferably a friend of the loose one) in a cage and place it next to the first cage. Play a tape of recorded bird noises.

Scenario #2- This is BAD. Your only hope here is to a) locate your bird or b) hope someone else does. First search the neighborhood. Call out to your bird and pray you can find it through sound. If that fails, put up signs around the neighborhood, place an ad in the paper and call every local person who owns birds (especially if they keep them outdoors) and let them know to keep their eyes peeled. Birds are attracted to other birds, and yours may very well be attracted by the sound of theirs.

Found a bird?

People are often devastated when they lose their pets, and it is unfair to them to assume ownership of a found bird without at least trying to find the owner. Check the local pet stores, vets and newspapers for ads about lost birds. If you canít find the owner you can keep the bird yourself (see my General Articles for basic bird care information) or give it to someone who can take care of it.

Feisty Feathers
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This article and its images are © 2003 by Karen Trinkaus and may not be reprinted or used in any way without the author's permission.