I recently made my way home from the airport during a late October evening into an absolutely vivid and glorious late autumn dusk. To the west, marching along a classic Mediterranean skyline, were the black silhouettes of tall palm trees reaching exactly as they should into a pink and orange firmament framed by deep turquoise darkening to indigo. Completing the picture, as is only right and proper, were the myriad dark specks of birds streaming southwards before the cold winter weather envelops this land in earnest.
There was, however, a jarring note in this idyllic scene. While the colourful skies were behaving themselves perfectly, with all the hues merging beautifully in all the right places, and the black palms were waving obligingly and elegantly in perfect time, driven by the fresh breeze, I was dismayed to note that the flocks of migrating birds were flying in V-shaped formations as sharp and as clean as warm blancmanges. Never before have I witnessed such a straggly, unkempt and frankly disgraceful display. I can only imagine that, charged with the mission of fetching along the Christmas duty-free to their southern relatives, these aviators, to a bird, had sampled one too many in the Spanish bodegas.
I have just had reason to spend a substantial amount of time watching birds flying overhead in the area local to the caravan, too. A loud and unexpected firework, let off early one morning for no apparent reason whatsoever, put the fear of God into the parrots and caused Jack, the African grey, and a recently-added little cockatiel Joey, to take flight through the open barn door. Both were clipped, and neither were in good flying form since they never really had the opportunity to practise, but the strong thermals in the valley were obviously enough to give them lift and we watched horrified as both soared up and disappeared from view.
The area here is densely covered with tall pine trees, and the terrain is mountainous, folded, and ideal for two birds to lose themselves thoroughly. It was therefore with a heavy heart and next-to-no hope of recovery that I turned out to hunt for them.
We had a rough idea of their outward-bound direction, and I know that domestic parrots will usually stay within a mile radius of home for at least a week, but still the task seemed more daunting than the proverbial needle in a whole county full of haystacks.
John was obliged to fly back to the UK that same day, so when I turned out the following morning I was accompanied by Lisa and Donna, who, troopers that they are, arrived early on my doorstep and spent all morning trudging round the near neighbourhood letting the bemused farmers know of my losses, and handing out phone numbers on the off-chance that any one of them should spot either of the birds. To no avail, of course.
The following day, Donna and I went out even earlier, before dawn, with the idea that we would drive a little way into the suspect area and holler at the tops of our lungs as the sun came up, as recommended by internet sites on lost parrots . On our way, we spotted a patrolling Policía Local car, so I screeched to a halt in front of it, leapt from my car and waved them down. Poor guys; they blanched visibly at the vision of an ungroomed and clearly demented Englishwoman coming at them from the dark flailing like a windmill, but they gamely took details and said they’d pass them on to the forest rangers further up into the mountains. They also gave me permission to put up some “Lost” posters (which is handy, because I was going to do that anyway).
But it turned out to be another fruitless journey.
On the way home, disheartened and thirsty, we made our last port of call with the posters to a local dog kennels, probably less than three hundred metres downstream from me as the crow (or parrot) flies but much further by road. I knew that this was run by an English lady I had never previously met. Mavis, who has subsequently become a good friend, had her daughter Trina and four grandchildren Tom, Becky, Lewis and Chelsea staying with her, and all agreed to keep a keen eye out for my wayward birds.
That same day, Lisa and I had arranged to travel down to La Casa de Coko, a parrot sanctuary in Cartagena, about an hour away, to pick up a new bird I was adopting. This adoption had arisen following a prior visit to the sanctuary in which Lisa had conducted an interview for a magazine article she was writing for her North West Murcia Gazette, and I acted as her photographer. Noodle, a green Indian Ringneck parrot, provided one of the star photos. She is a disturbed little bird who has plucked herself right down to oven-ready chicken with a big green pom-pom head (which part she physically can’t reach to pluck, or she would) and I fell in love with her, even though she would surely take out my jugular if I was incautious with her.
So we drove down to pick her up, with me feeling immensely fraudulent to be taking a new feathered friend into my care when I was clearly an unfit mother hen.
Lisa stopped for a coffee when we arrived back at the caravan, and then disappeared with the promise of extra help the following day in the great hunt.
As her tail light disappeared around the bend of the camino, the phone rang. It was Mavis.
“I think we can see your African grey in a tree just across the river. He’s been whistling and calling, and the kids have been calling back to him to keep him interested”.
I got there within three minutes (the Policía Local were fortunately somewhere else) – and there, indeed, was Jack, perched at the very top of the highest pine I have ever seen.
Quivering with relief, I walked very slowly down towards the river until I was about ten metres away from the pine, looking up at Jack. I spoke to him, using the phrases and whistles we use to each other as “flock calls”; he looked down at me, with his head on one side, and whistled back. We kept up this interchange for about ten minutes, while I held aloft a peanut as an offering to tempt him down to me.
Then a car full of young Spaniards drove past at speed, with all the windows wide open, stereo blaring, making as much noise as only Spaniards can, and Jack took off.
I immediately took chase, along with Lewis and Chelsea, in the direction of his flight. This, for us, involved a frenzied scramble uphill from the river through all manner of undergrowth and brambles, insect nests and dog turds (I hope), in a vain attempt each to follow on two (clumsy) legs a creature soaring free on two wings. But we did manage to spot from afar his next landing place – a tree high up on the edge of a cliff at the bend in the river, beyond a fenced villa. Scrambling noisily across treacherous terrain towards the landward side of the villa, I saw a man with his back to me working in the gardens, and so I ran towards the fence to accost him and to ask him to watch the “gris con cola roja” (grey with red tail) in the tree on the other side of his place.
But as I hurtled towards him, and yelled, “¡Perdoneme, Señor!” (excuse me, Sir!) I fell into a ditch immediately before his fence and disappeared entirely from view. The poor man spun, startled, to see absolutely nothing at all. The only evidence that he had been so rudely interrupted was the sound of gentle moaning from a point just below ground level beyond the fence.
I hoisted myself from the cleverly-concealed man trap and arose, now clad in an assortment of grasses and copious amounts of dust, with ripped trousers and beset by a severe limp where I had also torn something vital in my knee during the descent. I made my request about vigilance with regard to the bird in the tree… that was no longer there. Bugger.
We limped back forlornly to Mavis, who announced that Jack had flown back full circle and was somewhere nearby. So we agreed that I would bring his cage to the kennels courtyard and leave it there with food and water in the hope that he was running short of both.
For four more days we continued our look-out. The kids were marvellous – they’d heard my whistles and the expressions I used with Jack, and they used them repeatedly to keep him focussed on the courtyard and his cage. Each morning, I would arrive just before dawn, with Cookie Cockatoo– who was not best pleased about the early mornings and was getting increasingly bad-tempered about the whole thing, but who would, therefore, let forth a tirade of abuse as we arrived which aroused Jack’s interest immensely. We would talk to Jack for up to an hour each day, before he took off into the wild blue yonder just to underline the point that he was free so to do.
On the morning of day five, Jack sat at the top of the Washingtonia palm tree in the courtyard and talked to us for ages before soaring off. And looking, I have to say, so beautiful and natural in flight that I felt (still feel) pangs at the thought of him caged.
But the day turned nasty, as low cloud came in and thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. That evening, the thunder and lightning were much closer, and the rain heavy, so that when I made my way to the kennels, there was no sign of him at all, and I returned to the caravan after a couple of hours’ vigil without any sightings and completely dispirited. I spoke to John that evening, and told him that I though we’d lost him for good, in that the weather had probably forced him to take cover in the denser forest higher up. I was also ever-fearful of the large birds of prey overhead.
I said that I would give it one more day.
The following morning, I got there early as usual; the kids were already all up and about in their pyjamas, and were telling me that they were returning to the UK that evening but that they really didn’t want to go until we got Jack back. I told them that I was in agreement and not to worry, because I would be keeping them hostage until his return, as they were doing such a fine job of communication with him.
Mavis made me a coffee, and I stood outside in the drizzle, while the kids hovered about under the porch, buzzing.
We spent about twenty minutes making all the usual noises and calls to Jack, with no response. I was now convinced that I had been correct the previous evening – he’d gone. I drank my coffee morosely, wandered over to his empty cage and took out a handful of sad-looking wet peanuts without enthusiasm.
“Jack wanna peanut?” I called out over the persistent patter of the rain, holding aloft a soggy and unappetising sample. “Wanna peanut?”
“Oh”, replied Jack, from a low palm branch about two metres up and some five metres away from me.
I froze. The kids froze. The rain continued.
“Hello, Jack. Love you.”
“Love you”, replied Jack.
“Wanna peanut?” I repeated, turning slowly and holding one out directly to him, as I started to inch carefully, cautiously closer, talking softly to him all the while. The kids, bless them, remained utterly still and as silent as church mice. After what felt like an eternity, I stood below him, almost near enough to touch him. He dipped his head and I gently reached the peanut up to him, just far enough away from his beak to make him strain down a little way for it, which, after only brief hesitation, he did.
And I grabbed him. He bit me, but not too hard, as if to say, “Okay, I’m ready to come home, get dry, eat and sleep in safety – but don’t take it for granted”.
The kids screamed loud and long, and danced around in their PJs in the rain like some demented heathen tribe giving thanks, with Trina watching aghast, knowing that she had to dry all their clothes before leaving. I, to my everlasting mortification, howled like a baby. It was a fantastic end to the kids’ holiday, and Trina took them home happy.
I never saw Joey again, though.