Sensible Perspectives

Volunteering (is) for the birds!

Posted by on September 26, 2019

This month I’ve decided to take a break from my typical financial musings to tell you about my experience as a volunteer on the fundraising committee at the Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary.

It was 2015. I had recently moved to San Diego and was spending a lot of time at their world-famous zoo. I’d never had any particular connection with birds, but after multiple trips to the zoo I found that I’d formed close bonds with two of them, Mr. Cockatoo, a very friendly red-tailed black cockatoo, and Ricco, a rambunctious magpie. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was slowly becoming a “bird nerd.”

I came upon Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary hoping to find out more about these animals. Originally I thought it would be a fun way to spend an afternoon, handling some birds and maybe taking some colorful pictures. But the birds, and several mammalian employees I met there, captured my heart and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Figure 1: “Red,” the aptly named scarlet macaw, asking me in bird to pick him up.

Free Flight, located just north of San Diego in Del Mar, CA, is a small nonprofit dedicated to re-socializing and rehoming companion parrots. They take in parrots whose owners no longer want or are able to care for them. Free Flight either finds them new homes or offers them a permanent place to live, which is quite an undertaking considering parrots can live 75 years or more!

Besides housing and feeding the birds, much of Free Flight’s work consists of reacclimating parrots to society. Parrots are very intelligent and socially complex animals. Most of them are monogamous and bond for life. When a human owner dies or gives up a bird it’s a traumatic experience. It can take months or even years for a bird to build up enough trust just to step up onto another human.

I learned this firsthand during my first few months as a regular Free Flight visitor. Birds, like people, are very particular about who they like. Some birds are attracted to a certain type of person. Toby, an Amazon parrot, is well-known at Free Flight for liking only mature women with short hair. Other birds may not have a specific type, but for some unknown reason hate particular individuals. I’ve experienced this myself with Lappis, a grumpy old blue and gold macaw who tries to kill me at every opportunity. I’m not sure what I’ve done to offend him or who from his past I might remind him of, I simply know to keep out of biting range.

Figure 2: Lappis, who thankfully doesn’t know how to read, picks my name out of a bowl at our annual birdie brunch, inadvertently winning me a prize.

I chose two birds to befriend (birdfriend?). Midori and Luna were my pet projects. Each visit I would dedicate most of my time to them, slowly trying to gain their trust. I’d speak to them for a few minutes, perhaps feed them a nut or two, attempt to scratch them on their heads and, hopefully, pick them up for a few minutes. But birds are complex. Luna, a beautiful female Eclectus parrot, had a very strong bonding instinct and became too attached to me. After one particularly painful lover’s bite I had to stop picking her up. She has since been adopted by a family and is getting the attention she needs. Midori is another story.

Midori presented a challenge. Like Toby she favors women, but thankfully unlike Lappis she never wanted to eat me. I spent several months gaining her confidence. Singing back to her songs, playing peek-a-boo and giving her scratches when she’d let me. Today we have a very strong bond which, happily, has never led to any bites.

Figure 3: Midori and me.

When I was asked if I’d like to join Free Flight’s fundraising committee after several years of regular visiting I eagerly did so. While I could have volunteered as a docent, I decided against it for two reasons. One, I enjoyed my time with the birds and didn’t want to feel like I had to work when I socialized with my animal friends. Two, I always felt my skills might be better used in some other way.

The fundraising experience has given me an insider’s view into how (very) small nonprofit organizations operate. It’s also given me an opportunity to use the skills I’ve developed in almost 10 years in finance and apply them in different ways. Despite the challenges, it’s satisfying to help a nonprofit where literally everybody knows your name. I also find it exceedingly fulfilling to be able to donate my time toward a cause I believe in strongly. Finally, I should note that I am grateful that Sensible Financial supports its staff with company-paid volunteer days so we can pursue our passions outside of the office. Midori is grateful too.