Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Birds Of A Feather

Flying with your bird

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.


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