What was that?

Something caught my eye one afternoon in late autumn as I gazed out a window at the bird feeders. Yes, there was the usual crowd of resident birds rushing to and fro for a meal before nightfall. But the oddity that had caught my eye was the flash of long yellow wings as a new bird landed on top of a feeder.

This wasn’t a goldfinch or a late warbler; in fact this wasn’t a wild bird at all. It was a budgerigar, or parakeet, a species I associate with cages and pet stores. Somehow this small exotic escaped from its home and was flying around when wild birds busily feeding caught its eye. The parakeet was evidently hungry and had dropped down to see if there was something good to eat.

It was lucky for the little bird that our area was enjoying a spate of unseasonably warm fall days, but with winter approaching, that luck was about to run out. There were other dangers out there as well, and a hawk or free-roaming cat could easily spot those bright yellow feathers.

I didn’t know much about parakeets but had the idea that they’re used to cages and might come in to investigate one placed outdoors.

So, the next day I went to a pet-supply store and purchased a parakeet cage. Although various websites advise putting the cage on the ground, that wouldn’t work around my back yard — it would just be an open invitation to squirrels and chipmunks. Instead, I hung the cage from a hook on the feeder pole, some 7 feet in the air. It looked pretty incongruous but didn’t seem to bother the local chickadees, house finches, cardinals and woodpeckers.

The small yellow bird didn’t seem very interested, however. It would perch on top of the bird cage and watch other birds for a bit before hopping over to the safflower feeder to consume a few seeds. The parakeet showed a decided preference for seed scattered on the ground, which made me grind my teeth (“Get up on the cage, there’s great seed in there!” I’d advise telepathically from inside the house.)

This went on for a few golden fall days. The parakeet was spirited, burbling away on top of the cage and lunging at chipmunks that approached it on the ground. It showed no fear of large woodpeckers and blue jay visitors, either. But it wouldn’t go anywhere near the door to the cage, wired open with a twist tie, an open invitation to enter.

Things started to change when a friend brought over strands of millet, a seed that appeals to many kinds of birds. Now, with millet sprays wired to the top of the cage, the parakeet returned many times a day for seedy meals. It was now Day 6 of the parakeet saga.

Every couple of hours I’d move a small strand of millet closer to the open cage door, then would stand quietly nearby to get the bird used to my presence. The little bird didn’t seem perturbed and pecked at the millet sprays for long periods. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem tempted by the several sprays of millet hanging inside the cage.

Finally, on Day 8, as I watched from indoors, the parakeet stepped to the cage’s doorway, then hopped inside! I raced out the door, and then casually walked past the cage. It was a simple matter to reach over, place my hand over the opening, unravel the twist tie and drop the door shut. The bird looked startled, especially as I carried the cage indoors.

The parakeet’s sojourn in the outdoors was over. Yes, she is less free but she’s so much safer indoors. She now lives with a friend who has several caged birds and the newcomer seems to enjoy the chatter of several tiny exotic finches in a cage nearby.

We’ll never know how she escaped and how far she traveled to reach my back yard (her new owner noted that a brown facial area above her bill identifies the bird as a female). One thing we do know is that such birds are extremely difficult to catch, so we were all lucky it turned out this way.


St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.


Capturing an exotic bird

There are ethical questions around keeping birds confined, but I feel that birds raised in cages belong back in cages — it’s what they know, and they lack the skills to survive in the wild. There are many websites with information on capturing your own escaped bird or an unknown bird that shows up at your feeders.

If the escaped bird isn’t your own, then I’d recommend using the cage-as-attractant method, and millet is definitely a lure for parakeets and small parrots. Keep in mind that the success rate for captures is low; once birds have been outdoors for some days they may have traveled far from home and can be very tough to catch.