Poncho, a 6-year-old African grey parrot, was used to spending his summer days lounging at North Avenue Beach. At least until a recent day in June.
That was when his owner, red and raw with sunburn, opted to put him in his carrying cage instead of giving him a shoulder ride back to their Near North Side apartment building.
The second Poncho saw the cage, he started to shake and squawk. Then he took off and, carried by the wind, flew hundreds of yards out over Lake Michigan. He circled back with his owner, 20-year-old Alexander Siarris, running up the beach, waving his arms in the air and shouting: “Poncho! Right here!”
Poncho flew past the concrete chess pavilion and into a patch of trees. As Siarris ran after him, beachgoers who had seen the bird shouted directions: “He flew into that big tall one!”
A group of policemen nearby told Siarris to call animal control.
An animal control worker told Siarris the case was labeled “high priority,” but if nobody showed up by 10 p.m., it would have to wait until morning.
Hours later, Siarris finally went home and tried to fall asleep.
Last year in Chicago, Animal Care and Control reported that more than 7,000 pets went missing. Fewer than 20 percent of those were reunited with their owners. Some were adopted, but many were transferred to other facilities or euthanized or died on the streets.
As a rule, the nicer the weather, the more pets tend to go missing, said Susan Russell, executive director of animal control.
“We’re in our busiest season right now,” she said.
While most of the stray pets that animal control takes in are cats and dogs (during the summer, it can take in more than 50 dogs, and close to 100 cats, each week), some of the animals it shelters are, to some degree, uncommon.
In the past year, animal control has seen several species of pigs, a bald eagle, a large wading bird of some sort — which was like an egret but not — ferrets, guinea pigs, various lizards and an alligator.
Russell said Chicago is a patchwork quilt when it comes to lost pets, and there are many shelters around the city that cater to specific animals.
The Greater Chicago Cage Bird Club operates a rescue and adoption center in Villa Park. Jennifer Merle, a shelter manager there, said the organization takes in around five parrots each week.
“It’s a small percentage of owners, maybe less than 10, that ever find their birds again,” Merle said. “It’s rare.”
The next day, Siarris took matters into his own hands, got up early, printed 75 flyers and headed back to the spot where Poncho was last seen.
All morning he wandered the beach and a dishearteningly tree-filled Lincoln Park. Up to Fullerton Avenue, across the bridge that divides Diversey Harbor and the South Lagoon and back down the Lakefront Trail to Castaways, the big boat-shaped bar and grill.
Tired and hot, he was about to give up and head home when he heard something call his name.
“That sounded just like Poncho,” he told a friend.
Then he heard another sound: a beeping, alarmlike warble.
“I looked up, and sure enough, there is Poncho,” Siarris said. “Looking right at me from this tree off of the LaSalle bridge.”
Siarris shook a bag of peanuts, one of Poncho’s favorite snacks, trying to coax him out of the tree. Poncho inched toward the tip of the branch and jumped. He barreled past Siarris, flew above the traffic on Lake Shore Drive and landed in the trees near the Abraham Lincoln statue south of LaSalle Drive.
He was gone. Again.
It’s not unusual for parrots to mimic language, and African greys are the best in the world at it. Siarris said Poncho can mimic words in English and Serbian, which his family regularly speaks at home. Some researchers have argued that parrots have the intellect of a 5-year-old child.
“Those things are hard to quantify, and yet, at the same time, there is no doubt that these birds are capable of some level of cognition,” said John Bates, an ornithologist and curator of birds at the Field Museum.
And like a 5-year-old, Bates said, parrots raised in captivity are dependent. Images of a tired and hungry Poncho moved through Siarris’ mind as he walked back home after hours of searching the treetops.
Later that evening, Siarris felt his phone vibrate.
“We see your bird,” a voice said. “He’s near the corner of Dearborn and North. We want to know what the prize money is.”
“Oh,” Siarris said. “I don’t know. $100, I guess?”
“No. We want the cost of the bird.”
“Yeah, come to the park now or we’re going to scare him off.”
Siarris hung up and ran to the park. When he got there, no one was waiting for him, and there was no sign of Poncho. He decided to take a lap around the park anyway, and in the dark, he heard it again: Poncho’s trademark beeping noise.
While he stood beneath a massive oak, craning his neck to get a better look, a group of teenage boys walked up and asked what he was doing.
“I explained to them that I was trying to get my bird out of a tree, and they were devastated,” Siarris said. “I was shocked. These kids were just as disappointed as I was.”
The boys called animal control, which didn’t answer. They called the Fire Department, which said it couldn’t help. Finally they got the idea to call a tree removal company.
The next day company, which was too busy to help, gave Siarris numbers for two professional tree climbers they thought might be available. Professional tree climbers are most often arborists, entomologists or ecologists who make a living climbing or helping others climb trees.
“When they got there, they introduced themselves like, ‘Hi, we’re going to climb this tree and get your bird,'” Siarris said. “I told them good luck. But that’s what they did.”
Thirty minutes later, in an anticlimactic finale, the climbers threw a bag over Poncho, scooped him up and carried him back down the tree.
As the parrot flies, Poncho had traveled less than a quarter-mile, but the three-day excursion left him grounded. The day after he returned home, Siarris’s grandmother took Poncho to the vet and had his wings clipped.