Letitia L. Moffitt

Bird People: A Memoir

In her recently published memoir Bird People, novelist and ultramarathoner Letitia Moffitt tells how she met veterinarian Ken Welle and the two of them built an unconventional household in which the dog Cayenne and the birds Boston and Phoenix figure as full voting members. Anyone who has wondered how to train macaws to escort joggers on runs through the suburbs will appreciate learning that the secret is understanding the birds’ personalities, as explained in the following.

Chapter 5: Flight Club

The first thing most people ask when they see you have parrots is, “Do they talk?” Ken always answered this question honestly and patiently, though to him this was like asking a dog owner if Fido could walk on his hind legs. It’s possible, sure, but you don’t get a dog so that they’ll walk like a human. Likewise, to him macaws were not about talking—the breeds he’d chosen tend not to be great talkers anyway—but about flying. People can talk, and in his mind I suspect this was not one of their more endearing qualities. People can’t fly, and flying was what he wanted to experience, if vicariously through these birds.

It’s probably good that Ken didn’t care about their talking, since their first words had been the extremely boring “hi” and “hello” and they didn’t go all that much further in building a repertoire. (Boston from time to time would say something that sounded like “algorithm,” though I have no idea what it really might have been. “Algorithm” is not something Ken or I say, like, ever. Perhaps the bird breeder was into S&M and that was her safe word.) What the macaws lacked in vocabulary, they made up for in volume. We were lucky our dog was deaf. Many times when Boston and Phoenix screeched at us, the dog would look at us ponderously, appearing to wonder why we were gritting our teeth and covering our ears.

Ken did not waste time trying to teach them clever things to say. As soon as they reached the age to fledge, he wanted to teach them to fly. Difficult, given that he can’t fly, and a little curious that he should be so enamored of bird flight. He did not feel that way about flight in general. Like many people, he hated having to travel by commercial jet, squashed in those cramped seats with no legroom, elbow of a stranger in your ribs. He also—thank goodness—had no interest in things like skydiving or hang-gliding. If one of those had been his obsession, it might have been a deal-breaker for me, but luckily we established fairly early in our relationship that he felt the same way I did about jumping out of planes or off cliffs: an emphatic oh hell no. Although he did not necessarily want to fly himself, he wanted, perhaps, to get as close to a pure flight experience as possible. People can’t fly; birds can. Because an imitation of flight did not interest him, and because he couldn’t be a bird, he sought the closest approximation he could get.

He had a grand plan, too: to take the macaws to the places we went running and let them fly while we ran. This was ambitious, to say the least. The places where we run are full of tall trees, rolling hills, and valleys, all of which can make things difficult for a runner and really difficult for a runner who is trying to keep sight of two parrots. It was stressful enough when the dog got out and went gallivanting around the neighborhood; with birds there’s a whole other dimension into which they can disappear. There were also hawks and hunters and who knew what else. But “free flight” is a thing among parrot enthusiasts, it seems, and Ken was determined to make it our thing.

He signed up for a reputable online class in free-flying birds, which to me seemed like signing up for a reputable online class in water skiing. Can that really be sufficient preparation? Regardless, the class was well organized and clear, with all sorts of useful information that made the enterprise seem as straightforward as I knew it could not possibly be. For example, there were five different classifications for areas to fly: Level 1 is an area where sight lines are good for quite some distance and there is little to nothing that a bird could get stuck in (like tall trees) or could land on and not be retrievable (like a lake), while Level 5 is basically the Grand Canyon, or its equivalent. By that point you totally trust your birds to fly free, knowing they have the skills to deal with obstacles and challenges—and knowing they will be able to come back to you.

But before we even got to Level 1, we needed to get them outside. This alone was more than most pet parrots, eternally encaged, would ever experience. It was also probably more stress than any pet parrot owner should ever put themselves through. After quite a bit of research, Ken got some falcon jesses—leashes that attached to a bird’s legs with long cords—making sure to find ones that were lightweight and springy but also durable, because, well, everything they could get their beaks on had to be durable. Predictably, they hated the jesses, tried to chew them off immediately. The jesses weren’t likely painful or even uncomfortable, but they were a strange new thing, and Phoenix in particular had one standard reaction to new things: destroy them.

The jesses were impractical for other reasons. They tangled easily and were so short that the boys could do barely more than a hop to a perch in the yard. They could fly farther than that in their cage, so what was the point? At least in their cage, I reminded Ken testily, they couldn’t keep flying, the way they could if they were outside and untethered. He made a firm decision: the jesses would come off.

The moment we removed the jesses was terrifying. If one of the boys took off, he could be out of sight in less than a minute. After just a few minutes, he could be a mile away. It was unlikely either of them had the ability to fly continuously for a mile at the moment, but that hardly mattered. We lived in a subdivision named Savannah Green. If the area had been true to its name, we’d have less to worry about since sight lines in a savannah would be good, but like most subdivisions, ours seemed to have been named randomly. All around our house there were many other houses in close proximity. Two birds could get lost in suburbia very, very quickly.

To minimize the risk, Ken dealt with each bird separately. If Phoenix went off-leash, Boston stayed on. Boston, despite having been runty and slower to develop as a hatchling, had proven to be a better climber and faster to master short indoor flights. He went off-leash first. In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened if Ken had picked Phoenix, physically stronger since the beginning, to go first. But he hadn’t. He picked Boston.

At first everything went all right. Boston took short training flights from a makeshift outdoor perch (branches stuck in a Christmas tree stand steadied with rocks) to Ken’s arm and back. Then something spooked Boston and he took off. We never figured out what it was—we never knew what might freak them out on any given day, whether it was because Ken had a new hat on or because some terrifying little butterfly landed on a flower a few feet away. Big things like noisy trucks might go by without so much as a twitch, but heaven forbid I should remove my glasses to clean some shmutz off them. Sheer pandemonium.

So it had happened, what I’d feared the most: Boston was gone. Of course, given his limited flight ability, he couldn’t have gone far, and given the volume of his screeching, he would at least be traceable. Ken leapt over our fence and took off after him, yelling at me to stay there in case Boston circled back. That would have been great, but it didn’t happen. Eventually Ken found him in a tall tree out in front of the house. The good news was he’d been found close by. There was also, of course, bad news.

There’s an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell about the difference between choking and panicking. When someone chokes—usually an athlete—they become too conscious and deliberate of their actions rather than relying on muscle memory. Panic is the opposite. A creature that panics reverts to instinct instead of thinking out the logical next move. Deer freeze in car headlights because their instinct when faced with potential danger is to stay very still, even though this is the worst thing they could do in this particular situation. Ditto, apparently, a fledgling macaw. The thing Boston needed to do when he sensed potential danger was to come back to Ken. His instincts, however, told him that getting up in a tall tree and staying there was the answer. And that’s what he did.

Ken called. He made the “come here” gesture, sort of like a one-handed “jazz hands” but with fingers together. He held up treats. He went away and came back. He brought Phoenix over and fed Phoenix treats. Look what big brother gets! You could get that too! Boston stayed put.

It was early evening in summer, and there were a lot of kids out playing on the sidewalks, which meant that pretty soon there were a lot of kids gathered around us pointing and gasping and waving to the blue-and-gold bird in the tree. We didn’t want to be mean to the kids—this was probably the most exciting thing to happen in this neighborhood all year—but they were making things worse. There was no way an already freaked-out Boston would fly down to Ken when he was surrounded by small, exuberant strangers.

Eventually the kids got called in to dinner, which made things a little easier—but also more urgent. The sun would be setting soon. Once it started getting darker, Boston would not move an inch until sunrise the next morning. The night was supposed to be a mild one weather-wise, so he wouldn’t freeze, but he’d be thirsty and hungry and potentially vulnerable to anything that did fly at night, like an owl. Granted, there weren’t likely to be many owls lurking in Savannah Green, but he was still defenseless and exposed, and there would be nothing we could do about it.

Ken got out a stepladder, stood on the highest rung and called again. The distance between Boston and Ken’s arm couldn’t have been much greater than the distance the boys would fly inside the house from the atrium, but that was a known situation and this was not. There were branches in the way, and strange noises and movements, and Boston had no idea what might happen next. Neither did we.

What did happen when Boston finally took flight was exactly what we did not want to happen: instead of coming down to Ken’s arm, he flew up and away, squawking fearfully, and in no time at all he’d gone out of sight again.

Ken took off running, yelling at me to get my car and drive further out in case Boston had really taken off. He’d seen the general direction the bird had gone, but in that general direction there were any number of places he could be. Up and down the blocks I drove, creeping along with all the windows open, listening and looking, hoping nobody called the cops thinking I was some kind of stalker. I hoped even more that I’d come across Ken with Boston back on his arm and this nightmare would be over.

It wasn’t over. Not even close.

We didn’t find Boston before nightfall. He had stopped vocalizing long ago, so we couldn’t follow his cries, and even if we tracked him down, we wouldn’t be able to retrieve him. Ken had a general idea where he might be—clear out of our own subdivision, which was a newer one, into the next, which was older with much more mature trees. Boston liked being high up—if Phoenix was on one perch in the bird room, Boston always wanted to find a higher one—and that meant that even on the fully extended ladder, Ken would likely be unable to get anywhere near him. But none of that mattered until we found him. Boston was out there alone and likely terrified, and we still didn’t know where.

We went home in silence. I checked when sunrise would be and we set our phone alarms for a half hour before that time. Neither of us got any sleep.

The next morning, we rose before our alarms and gathered anything we might need: flashlights, bird treats, water bottles, ropes, binoculars. The dog seemed excited—are we going on an adventure?—then dismayed when we did not appear to be bringing her along. “Sorry, Cayenne,” I said as we were leaving, and added mentally, At least you always come back. Cayenne looked up at me, uncomprehending, still hopeful. So, we’re going on an adventure now, right?

We returned to the area where Ken suspected Boston might be—and there he was. Good news! Yes, there he was, way up high, surrounded by branches and leaves, impossible for us to reach. Bad news. As the sun rose, flocks of little birds began to appear. They were not happy with this strange-looking intruder in their tree, and made it very clear they wanted him gone.

Worse news. Boston took off again, heading even further away from home.

>We tracked him again—Ken running, me driving, again listening, searching, again feeling helpless dread. This was not going to end well, I was sure of it. How could it be otherwise? How the hell were we going to get him back?

When we found him again, he’d gotten himself into yet another tall tree, though this one afforded us a better view of him from across the street, and there was a clear path for him to fly down to us. All he had to do was take that path.

Boston didn’t move.

Ken had to get to work at the university. I worked from home and didn’t have any deadlines that day. Boston was almost certainly not going to fly down to me—he had only trained for flying with Ken—but there was one way I could help. “I’ll watch him,” I told Ken.

A flicker of relief crossed his face. “Call me if he leaves the tree. Well, follow him first, then call me.” With one last anxious look at his bird buddy, Ken left for work.

You’ve probably heard the simile “like watching paint dry” to describe something boring. This was infinitely duller—yet insanely stressful at the same time. I couldn’t do anything but stare at the tree, for what ended up being hours, because I was afraid that if I looked away for even a few seconds, Boston would take off and I’d miss seeing where he went. So I sat in my car and stared at the blue-and-gold spot amidst the leaves and wondered over and over how the hell it had come to this.

When Ken finally got a break from work he took over tree-watching duties and sent me home to take care of the dog and myself. An hour or so later, he returned as well. “I got him,” he announced as soon as he came through the door. “He finally flew down to me.”

It seemed almost anticlimactic after all that drama, but that was fine with me. My elation was short lived. I had barely managed to express my joy and ask about Boston’s health before Ken added, “I guess I need to find a Level 1 spot.”

In the back of my mind I had somehow imagined this would be the end of free flying. Of course it wasn’t.

Even though we lived in the middle of rural Illinois, it was surprisingly difficult to find an appropriate Level 1 site. Most farmland, after all, is privately owned; you can’t just wander into someone’s soybean field and let loose the parrots. Ken settled on a bit of land in town owned by the university where he works. We figured if anyone asked, he is a university employee, he does work at the vet clinic, and therefore his flying of macaws on university property constitutes valuable research on behalf of this magnificent institute of higher education. Sure. Anyway, it worked pretty well for a Level 1 site, at least for Phoenix, who made some successful first flights. As for Boston, he seemed reluctant to fly at all other than short hops from Ken to a standing perch. This was understandable, and perfectly fine with me. It was less fine with Ken, but he figured there was no point in pushing it. Boston would fly again when he was ready.

So that Boston could be with Ken while Phoenix flew, Ken fashioned a “backpack perch” made from an old hydration pack he used to run with during ultras. He took out the water container and substituted a T-shaped PVC pipe wrapped with sisal rope. Boston could stand on the pipe, jesses on and clipped to the pack, while Ken walked around. Ken also had a “treat pouch”—a waist pack that was actually a rock climber’s chalk pack, in this case filled with nuts and pellets as well as a target stick and clicker. All this plus his safari hat and he was fully outfitted—“the biggest bird nerd in the world,” as he put it.

Phoenix made impressive progress, but more importantly, he seemed to be enjoying himself. His flights not only became longer and stronger, they were more playful. He went zooming away with the wind behind him, made a sharp turn, and then descended slowly against the wind back to Ken, floating down like a hummingbird. When he took off again, he went “jinking,” tilting and veering rapidly left and right like a fighter pilot. Sometimes he flew low to the ground and looked at stuff below him. When he flew by me, he gave me a glance as if to say, “Oh, hello, fancy meeting you here!” before zooming away. He soared in the sunlight, feathers iridescent. He was having fun, and so was Ken. “I will never get tired of this,” Ken beamed as Phoenix landed perfectly on his arm again.

There were a few minor mishaps. At one point, flying too long and running out of energy, Phoenix landed in the middle of the cornfield and Ken had to wade in after him. It’s no wonder there are a fair number of horror movies with scenes in cornfields; they are ominous, and they can swallow a man whole. I stared at the spot where Ken had disappeared. This town is surrounded by cornfields. Inevitably, part of each day is spent looking at them, so my fixed, anxious gaze was bound to look strange. I waited, desperately trying to think of what I might say to any ag types who came around wondering why I was staring into the field (oh, nothing, I just really love corn?). Suddenly a man’s fist popped up from the tassels, holding aloft a bright red bird. Soon thereafter the rest of the man emerged, his goofy safari hat askew. Beneath its brim he was grinning.

“Seen any baseball players in there?” I asked.

He shook his head: Nope, just one parrot, slightly lost but fine, and one parrot’s person, hugely relieved.

I was relieved as well, but the relief, I knew, would be short-lived. The parrot’s person would let go of the bird, the bird would fly away, and we would both be left standing there, waiting.

During another flight, Phoenix got chased relentlessly by a very persistent crow who clearly resented our intrusion in what he must have considered his cornfield. Crows are smaller than macaws, but if you’ve ever seen one picking at roadkill as you drove toward it, wondering when it was going to inevitably lose the game of chicken, wondering if it was even going to lose, then finally, just before you were sure you’d have to swerve, the crow sauntered nonchalantly away—well, you know how ballsy they are. When Phoenix finally made it safely back to Ken, he was clearly shaken. He was used to being Top Bird, Lord Master over cowering Boston. He had not expected his supremacy to be challenged so brazenly, and he did not like it. The crow circled back and landed on a post nearby, a shiny black wraith. Phoenix shrank back in the cage.

Research on crows suggests they have incredible memories, particularly for human faces as well as for other birds. If there was any reason to doubt that research, we could easily supply additional supporting evidence. The next time we went back to the field, a week or so later, as soon as we took the boys out, the wraith reappeared. My own memory for birds is extremely suspect so there was no guarantee that this was the same crow—but it almost certainly was. This was his field. He’d chased that big red interloper off before, and now he was ready to do it again. Perhaps macaws also have good memories, or at least have a normal response to a traumatic event, because as soon as Phoenix caught sight of the crow, he cowered again, refusing to leave Ken’s arm. At that point we decided to graduate them to Level 2, earned or otherwise.

For Level 2, we took our bird buddies out to one of the far corners of our town, where some developers had been in the beginning stages of starting a new subdivision with yet another of those randomly generated names (some combination of glen / lake / hill / creek / green / vista / view / park) but never got beyond a road and a walking path before running out of money. A few tall trees grew here, and the interstate was disturbingly close, but not much else was potentially hazardous. What little there was, though, was enough. We spent hours searching the trees for one bird or the other that had gotten spooked mid-flight, anxious moments of hearing them calling but not knowing where they were, then not hearing them anymore, then finally spotting them and coaxing them down. It’s surprisingly hard to get a macaw to fly downward, as down is where the nasty predators prowl, critters looking to leap upon a tasty avian meal. Up—up is where you want to be. Down, not so much—unless, wait! There’s almond milk down there! (They really like almond milk, nut milks in general. The one time hazelnut milk was on sale and we got some for the boys, Phoenix looked like he was going to swoon. I swear he had the same rapturous response that certain people do when they eat Nutella.)

The time Boston flew off at Level 2, I was certain this would be the end. We were going to lose him forever. For hours we had no idea even where he was, as he’d stopped squawking completely. When I saw a car pull over to the shoulder of the interstate, I knew it had to be because the driver was wondering what that particularly colorful bit of roadkill might be. When we had to go back home once it got dark, I steeled myself and tried all night to think of how to console Ken.

But it wasn’t the end. The next morning we located him—clear on the other side of the interstate, in a tree in an office park, blessedly vacant for the weekend—and got him back. When Boston was good and ready (or hungry and thirsty) he would come down. And so far he had always come down, but in his own good time. This was not ideal. Macaws have not been domesticated, so while it’s reasonable to expect a trained dog to come when called, since that’s what they’ve been bred to do, a macaw pretty much has to want to come to you. There are ways to make this happen, and Phoenix fairly reliably came when Ken called (and often when Ken didn’t call). Boston did not, and there often seemed little we could do about this.

Ken was not deterred. Boston would get there, he believed, and meanwhile Phoenix was a rock star. When Phoenix sprang into flight, it was exciting. It was also terrifying. “Your heart sinks and soars at the same time,” as Ken put it. A bird in flight is doing what it was meant to do, what it loves to do, and it is beautiful and powerful doing it. But—that flight is also completely out of your control, as are other elements that might affect it. You can only watch, wait, and hope.

And, in my case, worry—a lot.

I worried about everything. I worried they’d get hit by a car. I worried about dogs and cats lunging from below, hawks pouncing from above, model airplane and drone enthusiasts deliberately crashing into them just for mean-spirited fun. I worried that the teenage boys next door who asked Ken how much birds like that cost would try to steal them so they could score some more pot, which they liked to smoke in their garage. In general I worried that we would lose them. I wasn’t afraid that they’d deliberately leave us. Despite what people sometimes thought, they really did not have any desire to be “free” any more than the dog did. They’d been brought into the world by people and spent all their short lives being cared for by people, so I doubted that they’d believe there was any other choice. The problem wasn’t that they were trying to get away from us; the problem, as I recognized with Boston that first time and every time after, was that they wanted to be with us, but they were birds. And the thing that birds do—fly—makes it difficult sometimes to be with people, especially when their flight skills are still developing. Think about the parent whose child gets out of sight for just a moment—the panic of it. In the time it takes a child to get out of sight, a bird could be a good half mile away from you, in a tree, on a rooftop, in a stranger’s yard. That—that was what worried me. All of this stuff worried Ken as well, but lacking my deeply pessimistic nature, he shrugged his worries off and kept going.

Admirable. And stressful as hell.

I know it’s impossible to avoid pain, but at that point in my life it still seemed feasible and desirable to sidestep unnecessary pain. And wouldn’t you know it, into my world came a pair of sharp beaks and two pairs of sharp claws. They made it difficult to avoid pain and impossible to avoid drama. Would they fly, or would they be big stubborn duds who refused to leave the perch? Would they be quiet and gentle or squawky and nippy? Would they get lost, attacked, stuck in a tree? Would they enjoy their flight, or would this be the last time they ever flew again? It all seemed like such needless drama, and that was one thing I had decided I did not want.

Letitia L. Moffitt was born and raised in Hawaii. She received a doctoral degree in English/Creative Writing from Binghamton University, and she taught creative writing at Eastern Illinois University for five years. Her novel-in-stories, Sidewalk Dancing, was published by Atticus Books in November 2013; her novels Trace and Vibe/Sync (Books 1 and 2 of the TraceWorld trilogy) were published by Cantraip Press in 2015 and 2016; and her memoir Bird People was published by Cantraip Press in 2019. In her spare time, she runs marathons and ultramarathons and takes care of a lot of animals. You can purchase Bird People here.