Our Life with Mirt – a wild caught Timneh African Grey
In retelling this bitter-sweet story, I trust that the positive aspects will outweigh the sad epilogue and others can learn from my thoughtless mistakes.
Mirt came to us in September 2003. I have a large outdoor aviary so I agreed to take two abandoned African Greys, a Congo and a Timneh African Grey from an overfull sanctuary. The Timneh, I called Mirt and the Congo, Solomon. Mirt could neither fly nor perch and was poorly feathered from plucking. For the previous eight months, she’d been kept in a box in someone’s utility room with no perch and minimal human interaction. If approached, she lunged and bit as hard as she could.
The Congo arrived with terminal Aspergillosus. His previous owner had bought him from a dealer who assured her than the heaving, panting and growling would soon disappear. She kept the terrified bird for six months and then gave him up. I hope that he found some peace in his last days in our aviary where he hid in a sheltered spot covered in fir branches. My pet African Grey Casper used to perch beside him. Maybe the old bird we called Solomon told Casper of life in the forest. Six weeks later, I found him dead.
Mirt however, was making exciting progress. Within a couple of weeks she was flying and perching on the branches and ropes that span the aviary. Feather plucking stopped and she put on weight. Even more heart warming, she began a cheery whistling.
With autumn advancing, I took her and the two pet African Greys into the conservatory for their winter quarters. By November, Mirt would accept a nut from two fingers outstretched but only if she was perched above me. At any closer approach, she’d fly off. For any vet visits she had to be caught and towelled.
When spring arrived, I’d take the Greys outside into the aviary and bring them in at night. Since I couldn’t handle Mirt she was left inside.
One sunny March afternoon with the Greys outside enjoying spring sunshine, I thought Mirt needed some fresh air so I caught her up in a towel and took her to the aviary. An accident waiting to happen? How many accidents are due to human error? Most I reckon. The aviary is 20 metres from the house. As I brought out Mirt wrapped in the towel, it slipped off her head; she seized my thumb and bit – hard. The beak clamped tighter and I dropped the bundle. Within seconds, Mirt had wriggled free of the towel and flown to the oak beside the aviary. I hoped that she might roost within arm distance and that I might be able to catch her that night.
I decided to leave her alone and went indoors. When I came out a few minutes later she’d gone. I fetched Casper, her favorite parrot. Put his harness on, put him on my shoulder and began to walk around the garden whistling. Casper joined in a little too. My whistle was returned. Mirt was in the next field. At the highest point of a poplar tree, I could make out the shape of a parrot in the almost dark. Nothing to be done except wait for morning.
At 6 am the light was gradually returning; it would be chilly. She was neither in the same poplar nor any nearby. Outside the back porch stands the woodshed. Mirt perched in a beech tree, ten metres up. An escaped parrot is a danger to itself and an anxiety to its owners but how right it looks on a branch, blending with the colours of the bark.
I tried creating a booby trap. I put Casper in a small travelling cage on the woodshed roof and put seeds in another cage adjacent to it. Mirt flew out of the beech and onto the woodshed roof. She took a peanut from my outstretched hand and then another. No way would she approach the booby-trapped cage.
During the day Mirt was spotted on the aviary roof. She climbed down the outside and took parrot mix from the dish that I had fixed to the exterior. If I approached however carefully, without any fuss or even flying off, she would waddle back up to the top of the roof again.
That evening I spotted her at the topmost branch of an oak. Magpies and crows fly around our fields. Flocking blackbirds and starlings can attack one lone bird.
I don’t know how Mirt slept on her second night out; I slept disturbed by dreams of a Timneh African Grey destroyed through my clumsiness. Friday night repeated the same scenario as Thursday. I couldn’t find out where Mirt had roosted; it wasn’t within reach of a torch beam.
For many hours each day she crawled over the aviary wire netting; the birds inside ignoring her. She seemed fully aware that I was trying to catch her. She’d take a nut from my hand but scramble up the roof as soon as I started to bring my left hand up.
Later that day, I saw a bird swoop across the garden with strong steady wing beats. I feared a small hawk. It was Mirt herself. Two days of free flying outside had restored the grace of a wild bird she once was. As night number three approached I grew increasingly worried that a predator hawk, crow or magpie would kill her.
That night the barometer fell bringing chill wind and heavy rain. The gloomy weather underscored my hopelessness. On Sunday morning, a wet, bedraggled Timneh African Grey was on the aviary roof, wings hunched the picture of misery.
She crawled down the side of the aviary to drink from a water cup fastened to the outside. She let me approach but as soon as she spotted the blanket tucked behind my back, she fluttered up to the roof again.
We were due to leave at 9 am to visit my daughter in Nottingham. I felt unsure that Mirt would survive the day. It was ten to nine. As I reached the front door to collect my handbag for the trip I glanced behind me. Mirt had returned to the water, taken a drink and was wearily clambering back to the roof. Her back was turned. I had a split second reaction. I reached the wire without her realizing my approach. She was just within arm’s reach. I made a single grab, got her tail feathers in my hand, levered my wrist up and pulled her off the wire. Holding her squirming body against my chest, I rushed indoors. Since she was upside down, she could not exert enough pressure to bite hard enough to cause me to drop her. Besides which I was expecting to be bitten and held on tight.
I released her in the conservatory on the perch where Casper and Artha were feeding. She fluffed up her wet feathers. Artha and Casper went on feeding. Mirt held no hard feelings over her violent recapture. Next day she accepted a peanut from my hand. But there’d be no more repeats of the towelling fiasco. To transfer her from conservatory to the aviary for the summer I put her in a travelling cage.
For the second winter she’d have to stay outdoors. The solution was to buy two wooden sheds and attach them to the opposite ends of the aviary, one for Mirt and Timi, the second rehomed Timneh African Grey and the second for the ex-zoo Amazons who after a summer outside would be acclimatized.
Timi would step up and be put into the shed at night. Mirt wouldn’t be lured by food. Certain that I didn’t want to allow Mirt to roost outside in zero degrees, I used aversive methods; I caught her in a net. Put her inside and closed the door. The shed has a porthole for the birds to come out by themselves in the morning.
Mirt was such a clever little bird. After two night of being netted, she learned to go to roost in the shed by herself. I’d feared that using such a strong method as catching in a net would make Mirt fear me but this didn’t happen. Mirt had grown used to me. Had even developed the habit of perching on my head but I was no nearer to any interaction between her and my hands.
In May 2005 I had the good fortune to be accepted on a workshop for advanced companion parrot skills at Steve Martin’s Natural Encounters ranch in Florida. Steve has trained birds for over thirty years using positive reinforcement methods. This training emphasizes the importance of rewarding parrots for good behaviour rather than punishing them for bad. His birds regularly give outdoor free flying displays and he’s never lost one.
At the 6-day workshop, I learned techniques to improve the human-bird relationship. Some techniques are quite simple like watching the bird’s body language.
Within a couple of days of my return, Mirt and Timi learned to head bob on request. Within a few days more, Timi added a wave and Mirt a wing raise. And more important than these tricks behaviors, Mirt was learning to trust my hands.
The Timnehs showed eagerness to work for their treats, flying onto the training perch without being whistled. The step up for Mirt couldn’t be far behind.
Two months after the new training methods, Mirt flew from the perch onto my outstretched EMPTY palm and received seeds from my other hand. And exactly two years since she came here, she was stepping up onto my hand.
In summer of 2006 I occasionally let Mirt fly outside at liberty. The summer of 2007 was particularly busy and I didn’t take Mirt outside the aviary. Sid, an elderly lame Timneh African Grey, arrived and he and Mirt became companions. Although he could barely fly, they’d sit side by side on the highest aviary perch as sunlight turned their grey feathers silver. It was a touching sight. Did Sid’s arrival trigger breeding behaviour in Mirt? She attacked Forest, an Alexandrine hen, who subsequently died. Mirt was blamed. Although she and Sid were perched calmly in the Timneh African Grey shed, Mirt’s chest feathers were smirched with telltale smears of blood.
My big mistake
Trying to do the best for all the birds, I decided to build the Timnehs a separate flight, adjoining their shed. While we were constructing this, Mirt lived in a cage in the end flight; Sid sat on the top and commiserated with her. Mirt hated being caged and plucked out neck feathers. She did this consistently whenever I left for any holidays.
A couple of weeks later, chatting to John Strutt, a friend who kept free-flying birds at liberty, I told him how unhappy Mirt was. “Let her outside,” he said. “She’s wild caught; she knows the property.” Mirt hadn’t flown outside all that summer. Why did I listen to him? I opened the flight door and Mirt flew to the aviary roof. I went inside the aviary to fill the water bowls. When I returned, she’d gone.
In East Anglia, the east wind can blow for several days. If I’d been less hasty, I’d have realized it was blowing too strongly for her to fly back home cross-wind. She was sighted flying over an orchard two miles away. By the time I got the message, five days had elapsed and she’d moved on. The fierce wind blew for ten days. I made strenuous efforts, putting up flyers, newspaper adverts, radio appeals and tramping the fields. If you’ve ever suffered the dismay of losing a parrot, you’ll have had heart rending experience of well-meaning people as well as malicious ones sending you on wild goose chases.
And now …
I lost Mirt seven years ago; I believe a hawk must have taken her. When I take Artha and Casper wearing their harness for a wood walk and ask them to ‘call Mirt,’ they’ll both give a Timneh cheep. None of us have, nor ever will, forget her.