Maybe you’ve seen or heard of the free flying macaws at Dolores Park. I came across them when a crowd gathered under a massive magnolia tree on the corner of 20th and Church, next to the Muni “J” tracks. Sun bathers, tourists, picnickers – everyone was looking up, astounded by a vibrant baby scarlet macaw perched on the lowest branch of the tree.
I assumed that the bird was someone’s pet that got loose and flew away when its clipped wings grew out. So I pulled my house keys out of my pocket and shook them to get the bird’s attention. Us spectators could catch the bird, then Google, Facebook, and tweet our find, and voilà – bird reunited with it’s human.
Then I noticed a man walking towards me with an even larger macaw perched on his shoulder. I stared at that big macaw; neon red, striped feathered cheeks, and as my eyes traveled down its gleaming crimson feathered body, I saw that its wings were not clipped. The flight feathers were intact.
“That’s my bird. She’ll fly down soon,” the man told me.
“I thought it was a wing grow out,” I explained, and stopped rattling my key chain.
“You must know about birds,” he said. And I do know a lot about birds. From a childhood parakeet to a lovebird companion in my adulthood, I am a bird lover in the same way that others are cat people or dog people. When my darling lovebird Jamilla died of old age, I decided to not get another bird because birds should fly free. Down with cages of any kind! I became a fan of Mark Bittner and “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.” And now here, in the park two blocks from my home, were gorgeous and free macaws!
Suddenly the scarlet macaw glided from the tree branch and made a grand circle over the Dolores Park Playground. A swarm of children ran up the hill, wanting to get close to the parrots. Is it real? Will it bite me? Is it a kite? The man was very kind to all the children and answered their endless questions.
“You’re great with kids,” I told him.
“I teach sixth grade math.”
And so my conversation began with the very interesting Chan the Birdman. The macaws don’t fly away because Chan trained them in free flight. Basically, the birds are rewarded with food. Training is repetitive and highly Pavlovian. It’s the art of falconry with macaws instead of falcons. And nicely vegan with walnuts instead of raw liver.
It got a little freaky when the dominoes of coincidences began to fall. Chan’s family is third-generation Chinese herbalists, and I do Chinese medicine. He is Chinese Vietnamese, and my business partner Dave Hajdu (at OnlineChineseAstrology.com) is in Saigon where Chan was born. We both know Chinese astrology, we both cook, and we both adore parrots. Chan is gay, I’m an old-school fag hag. And my mother is a retired school teacher who taught sixth grade math. I asked Chan if I could be his “assistant” with the birds. It sounds better than “hag.”
So you might run into us at Dolores Park, or at Chrissy Field riding bikes while the macaws fly after us, or out at Fort Funston where the birds make a giant loop over the ocean — so far that for a few precious seconds they disappear from sight! The big mellow fellow, Rudy, is a green wing macaw (ara chloropterus). Rudy was named Ruby but a DNA blood test proved that she was a he. Bella is the smaller female scarlet macaw (ara macao). She is delicate and harder to train because of her species. Rudy is three years old, Bella is still a baby at age two, and macaws can live for over fifty years. Macaws are indigenous to South America but both were born in captivity here in California.
Yes they talk, and no the hawks cannot get them. Rudy’s beak can easily crack a hawk’s skull like a walnut, and I’ve seen hawks fly away in terror if they are anywhere near Rudy and Bella. If you see us say hi. Bring an almond.