We're all part bird, aren't we? We have wings, but unfortunately they're only a steely imitation of the real thing. Like most avian-ators, I have feather envy. I've always loved birds and think perhaps I was a bird in a former lifetime or maybe will be in the next. Whichever, I have no interest in living in a world without birds, or without airplanes for that matter. When you combine the two, it can be a sublime experience.
I had always wanted a parrot, but my journey of flying with birds started with a baby mockingbird. After shopping one day, I noticed a tiny bird with an injured wing huddled behind the rear tire of my Porsche. Its frantic mother was crying and flapping her wings, but what could I do? I put the little guy in a shoe box and brought him home. I didn't think he would survive the ride, but when I opened the box, I saw him look up at me and chirp! My relationship with Parker (named after the parking lot) began.
Parker and I quickly grew attached, and I became his flockmate and mother. He slept on my shoulder, in my hand or at the head of my bed. I fed him an exotic mixture of baby-parrot formula and live mealworms, and bought him a little cage for when I had to go out. Like any good parent, I worried about his future, but was told that in time his instincts would lead him to being a "real" bird. Birds are very territorial, and in order to make his life a success, I had to introduce him to the local mockingbirds, so I gave him plenty of screened-porch time outdoors to get socialized with the neighborhood flock.
Baby birds and air-show season are both born in early spring. What to do? The care and feeding of a baby mockingbird is very specific, and I couldn't leave him, so off to air shows we went. My support airplane, a B-55 Baron, was fast, comfortable and carried a load. It also gave Parker a big "cage" to fly around in, and he was super happy to travel. He mostly liked to sit on the panel and hop around looking outside. He was really content. When I arrived at an air show, I'd put him in his little cage, and after we got our car, he could fly around inside it and sit on my shoulder again.
Andrews AFB 1999 was a memorable air show not only because I was thrown on the ground and handcuffed (in my flight suit) by overeager security forces for driving across an imaginary line, but also because photographer Erik Hildebrandt featured Parker in the first book of his Front Row Center series. Parker flew around our air-show van, much to the amazement of friends, and as he was becoming a fledgling, I helped teach him to fly on a grassy area by the hangars. I'm a CFI, after all.
Parker grew fast, and a flock of local birds expressed interest in him. After a sketchy first release, he returned with an injured beak (those nasty mockingbirds), but the second release went well. He left for a day or two and returned, and then the breaks got longer, but he still returned periodically looking for food. I always kept mealworms in the fridge just in case he was ever hungry.
It was then I started frequenting an exotic-bird store. A warning to bird lovers: Never go to an exotic bird store—you'll be doomed. But I was in the market. I knew I could fly with a wild bird, so I was looking for a lifetime bird and, of course, I fell in love. Buddha, the little green parrot who owns me, is a domestic-bred hand-fed South American green-cheeked conure, or pyrrhura molinae. He's feisty, smart, demanding, affectionate, beautiful, playful and has a sense of humor. Complex and interesting, all two and a half ounces of him can and does rule the household.
Parrots are simply fascinating. They use tools, talk, and have the cognitive level of a three- or four-year-old child. Just ask Dr. Irene Pepperberg, one of my heroes, who for 33 years studied Alex, an African grey parrot, for its cognitive ability and intelligence. I'm sure she'd agree with me.
Because of their beauty and intelligence, parrots worldwide are becoming increasingly endangered due to smuggling. It's illegal to import or export any species of parrot. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), generally lists parrots in Appendix I—the most endangered species, threatened with extinction; or Appendix II—not necessarily endangered yet, but could become so if trade isn't tightly controlled. Buddha's species, originally from an area where Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia meet, is in Appendix II. Still many parrots, especially the African grey, the beautiful South American macaws, and the gorgeous Indonesian parrots, are smuggled regularly, often to the demise of the bird in the short term, and always to the demise of the species in the long term.
I don't necessarily condone wild-bird ownership unless a license program is put into place, as they have in falconry, for example. People don't always know what they're getting into. Keeping a parrot is somewhat like having a noisy, demanding and messy child, and they aren't for everyone.
Buddha has flown hundreds of hours with me and has been to many air shows. No, I don't do aerobatics with him, but he loves to sit on my shoulder and look out the window of a Beechcraft or a Cirrus. Sometimes, he sits on the headset mic boom—when I send my headsets in for inspection, Bose can never figure out why all the bite marks. On long trips, I'll string a piece of leather so he can play circus trapeze and zip-line upside down. Green cheeks are seen living at elevations higher than 9,500 feet in mossy cloud forests in the highlands of Bolivia, so we fly as high as I would without oxygen. He's quite content to fly with me, and I think one of the reasons he likes it is that he thinks I'm in his cage for a change.
If you're planning to travel with your parrot, make sure they have a suitable travel cage and always have access to water. A word of warning to anyone considering flying with their parrot—don't take off or land with your bird outside their travel cage! The relative motion of the ground freaks them out, and they'll fly down to your feet and, of course, the rudder pedals. Then the only decision is whether to squash the parrot or fly the airplane. I know at least one person who had a prop strike while taxiing because their African grey did just that! Place your parrot back in their cage before you get to your destination (do this well before entering the traffic pattern)! Don't take them out after takeoff, until you're well trimmed or on autopilot at altitude and have everything in order. If they get noisy because they want "out," then cover their cage.
Parrots are great travelers, but you should only consider traveling with them in the U.S. due to strict CITES regulations. I can take Buddha into Canada but can't bring him back into the U.S. without special documentation and only through a USFS-designated entry port. I've heard stories of people driving motor homes into Canada with their parrot, finding out later they have to drive thousands of miles out of their way to get their birds back into the U.S. through one of these ports of entry!
Buddha, who is now almost 13 years old, is well known on the air-show circuit. Often, when I get a request to fly a show, the organizers ask if I'm going to bring him with me. He can be quite amusing in the air-show briefing, too! During the show, he sits in my car, keeps me company and looks out the window. He loves watching everything, and people are fascinated by him, especially kids. I have to be careful because he can bite, but he always recognizes a "bird person" by the way they talk to him, put their hand under him to pick him up, or put him on their shoulder. He's also fun to bring to schools or when I'm giving a talk to a group, and is a great conversation starter!
They say you never own a parrot, they only grace you with their presence. After all, they'll never be a domesticated creature like a dog or a cat. No matter how exasperated I get with Buddha and his demands, I smile because I know how lucky I am to be graced by his trust and his presence.
Pilots have an affinity for flying things. People certainly resemble their dogs. Do we resemble the birds we're drawn to? Parrots generally fly because they're on a mission to get food or get to their nests, which is sort of how I fly, always on a mission. Harriers and hawks hover, crows and ravens wheel and soar, a predator is always looking for prey. Some birds migrate long distances across water, some love to glide…which one are you? Let me know at [email protected]!