Bella the Macaw

I should not have been surprised. As a rescuer of cats when they get stuck in a tree, I should have known that it was only a matter of time before someone with a pet bird called me to rescue their escaped bird in a tree. I understand and feel how meaningful the bird is to the owner, I understand the need and urgency of rescuing the bird, and I am eager and willing in principle to help them, but I don't know birds. I love birds, but I don't know how to read their behavior or vocalizations. I don't know how to approach a bird properly, and I don't know how to behave around them to keep them calm. I don't even know how to handle or secure a bird for rescue. I don't feel the least bit qualified to rescue a pet bird in a tree in general, much less understand the differences among the various species of birds. Yet, here I am talking on the phone to a woman who wants me to rescue her pet macaw who escaped the house the day before his appointment with the veterinarian to clip his feathers. I was her only hope, and I could not bear to disappoint her.

That was several years ago. I had just begun to rescue cats, and this would be the first time I would try to rescue a bird. In this case, it was a macaw, and I could not have been more ignorant about them. I naively and ignorantly tried to install my rope in the tree too close to the bird, and the commotion I created there frightened him. We both watched helplessly as he flew farther and farther away toward the horizon until he was out of sight. I felt sick, and, despite her silence, I know the woman must have felt even sicker. Not only had I failed, I made it much worse, and I should have known better.

After that disaster, I began to educate myself about pet birds and how to rescue them. I contacted a bird expert, and his advice was always to motivate the bird to fly down to you. He gave me tips about how to do that, but he never mentioned anything about a stranger climbing the tree to retrieve the bird. Climbing the tree is likely to scare the bird away and should be regarded only as a last resort. From that point, whenever I got a call to rescue a pet bird, I relayed that information I had learned and encouraged them to try that first, but I also made it clear that I would not let them down if they truly needed me. They rarely called me back, so I don't know the outcome of most of those cases, but recently, I got a call that was different.

Katherine called me shortly after dark asking if I would rescue her macaw, Bella, who had been in the tree only a few hours. I tried to give her the usual advice about getting Bella to fly down to her, but she insisted that would not happen. Bella was 28 years old, and her previous owner, now deceased, had her in a cage the entire time. She insisted that Bella did not know how to fly. I understand that a bird who escapes into a tree and is an inexperienced flyer doesn't know how to land and is reluctant to try, but she can fly and the idea is to motivate her enough to overcome her fear of landing and make that as easy as possible. She flew into the tree, so she can at least fly up and level. But Katherine corrected me. Bella did not fly into the tree. She climbed it. Using her feet and beak, Bella climbed the trunk of this large Live Oak tree and walked out on a large branch where she settled about 25 feet high.

I had to admit that this made it sound like Bella would be less likely to fly away, but I was still on the fence that she needed rescuing right now. Katherine reassured me that Bella was friendly and would likely welcome me, and then she told me something that forcefully pushed me off the fence onto her side. Katherine had just climbed a ladder to reach Bella, but she fell and hurt her hip and shoulder very badly. She needed to go to the hospital, but she was not going until Bella was safe inside. Thirty minutes later, I was there.

When I arrived, I met Mike who helped me throughout the rescue while Katherine remained inside nursing her wounds. I was uneasy about this and worried I would watch Bella fly away into the darkness, but she seemed to be pretty calm even while I installed my rope in the tree. When I was ready to climb up to her, I wanted Katherine there to coach me along the way, so I asked Mike if she was well enough to come out. In a few minutes, she came out but moved extremely slowly and clearly in pain with each movement. That was when I first understood how seriously she was injured and needed to get to the hospital. She was in no shape to be moving, but she came out on the screen porch anyway and gave me advice about approaching Bella.

When I climbed up to Bella's branch, she was about eight feet away from me and, thankfully, appeared reasonably calm. I introduced myself and slowly and calmly walked along the branch toward her, and then I leaned almost horizontal and stretched out toward her. She didn't appear alarmed, but I couldn't be sure because I didn't know how to read her. Now that we were close to each other for the first time, we both looked at each other as if encountering an alien life form for the first time. We had no way to communicate except by body language. We looked at each other calmly and respectfully, and somehow we silently connected to each other in a vague, mysterious, and meaningful way. I remained calm, spoke to her softly, and made gentle movements. She, in response, opened her beak slightly and let out a soft, sweet, gentle squawk that told me she trusted me.

My instructions were to place my forearm in front of her feet and say, "up, up" as her cue to step on my arm. My arm was still too far away for that, but I inched closer, placed my arm in front of her and said, "up, up." She lifted one foot, placed it on my arm, and then stepped up with complete trust. I felt so honored, and I smiled as I savored that moment. In the back of my mind, however, I was very worried about gently getting her back to my original position farther out the limb and then down to the ground without using that arm. I didn't think I could do it, but, somehow, I managed it without too much disturbance. As we descended, I held her over my lap so my legs and back could push the foliage away from her. She held onto my arm tightly (no, it didn't hurt) and spread her wings a few times, but she stayed in place all the way to the ground. Mike placed his arm in front of her, she stepped on his arm, and he carried her safely inside.

I was relieved and elated that it worked out so easily. I have now learned to listen more closely and openly when someone calls me to rescue their pet bird. The owners know and understand their bird much better than I do. While my advice to motivate the bird to fly down to them remains the same, I will be more willing to attempt the rescue if they are confident their bird will be receptive.

As for Katherine, she went to the hospital that night and learned she had broken her pelvis and shoulder blade. The last I heard from her, surgery was being considered but was delayed at least for the moment. She suffered a serious injury and is facing a long road to recovery, and I feel great sympathy for her. I don't fault her for wanting to rescue Bella herself or for waiting till Bella was safe before going to the hospital. I probably would have done the same. But her story is a sobering reminder of the danger of ladders. It's also a testament to the powerful love we all have for our pets.

The picture shown is not of Bella. I failed to take any pictures or video of the rescue, so I am substituting this public domain image of a macaw who looks like Bella. At least, this is the way I remember her from that short visit in the darkness.

Image by Ria from Pixabay