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Monday, May 29, 2017

When Birds Fly The Coop

This weekend, the North Carolina Zoo is asking residents to be on the look-out for a pair of leggy fugitives.  A pair of secretarybirds has escaped from an off-exhibit holding pen and is roaming the surrounding area.  The zoo has set up a hotline - 336-879-7610 - to request information if the birds are seen.  Members of the public are asked not to try and capture them for fear of injuring the birds or potentially scaring them off.

Few animal escapes cause more stress for staff members than birds.  Not so much secretarybirds, cranes, flamingos, and other birds that are normally kept in open-air paddocks.  Mostly aviary birds.  Catching an flying bird on the wing is an enormous headache, as you can imagine.  With the ability to fly, there really is nothing stopping a bird from taking off for Mexico the second it clears the enclosure.

The only factors that really will prevent a bird escape from going downhill super-fast are aspects of the bird's own behavior.  Knowing this is what has allowed me to capture escapees the two times that I've had birds fly the coop.

The first incident was a screech owl, on his way back from a vet check.  I was carrying the crate (by the handle) back to the enclosure... when suddenly my load got a lot lighter.  Looking down, I saw the bottom half of the crate had just... dropped off.  The tennis-ball sized owl took off, with me in hot pursuit.  Fortunately, owls are disinclined to fly much during the day, when they are exposed.  This is especially true for very tiny owls, which are vulnerable to all sorts of predators.  Instead, the little fellow took refuge in a maple tree, about twenty feet tall, not fifty yards from his enclosure, still in the zoo.

We hatched a plan where our smallest, nimblest keeper - who was not me - would climb the tree with a hose and lightly mist the owl.  The water would make it too heavy to fly, allowing her to then grab it with a glove.  I was stationed below with a net, ready to catch the owl - or, possibly the keeper - if things went south.

They did.

The keeper in the tree misunderstood her mission and hit the owl with the full brunt of the hose, basically power-washing it out of the tree.  Luckily, I was ready with my net and caught it in time, and soon the furious, sodden-wet bird was back in its enclosure, dripping irritably.

The second incident involved a parrot that had gotten out from its aviary; fortunately for us, parrots are pretty sociable, and he'd left his twenty best friends behind in the aviary.  Not willing to venture too far, he stuck around long enough for us to try - and fail - many attempts to either trap him or net him.  Some of the most memorable efforts involved keepers balancing precariously on top of the enclosure (which, upon further reflection, was not meant to support the weight of three keepers), racing back and forth along the beams, waving nets.

Finally, we had an epiphany and brought in the big guns... I mean, nets.

A mist net is a long, barely visible net of fine filaments, used by scientists to trap birds and bats for research.  You stretch it across an opening in a forest where flying animals are funneled to and boom, it smacks right into it and becomes entangled.  Their use is very heavily permitted - one irresponsibly used net, say, one that was left up and then ignored, could claim the lives of untold birds and bats.  Luckily, we knew a scientist in our area who had a net and had a permit, so we set it up.

That same afternoon, not twenty minutes after we'd hung the net, that parrot was flying circles around us, cocky as ever... we suddenly it looked like he'd be frozen solid in midair.  I couldn't even see the net from where I'd been standing.  It doesn't seem that he could have seen it either.

Catching escaped birds always makes a great story in retrospect... if you get the bird.  While it's in progress, however, it's ulcer-inducing to the extreme, and I count myself very lucky that we were able to get the birds back in each case.  While we've been lucky in the past, I'd rather be careful in the future.

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