Bird lovers flock to Free Flight’s feathered cause

Rumor and romance are lifeblood in the lore of Obi the cockatoo.

Some say he was caught in the wilds of an exotic Indonesian isle. Others trace his fondness for the spotlight to a stint in Hollywood. The most hushed whispers place Obi alongside one of OJ Simpson’s closest associates at the height of his infamy.

No matter how far-fetched, every manner of speculation seemed plausible upon seeing Obi strut and preen for the dozens of awed admirers celebrating his 68th birthday on Sept. 9 at Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary, the shaded enclave in Del Mar where Obi has lived the past two years.

More than a dozen of Free Flight’s most captivating birds were also on display at the event, but the enthralled devotees fussed most dotingly around Obi, reaching out delighted hands that he welcomed with a heartfelt nuzzle.

Obi paused at one point amid the revelry and fixed a long stare on two approaching figures. He had scarcely seen his most recent owners since the day in 2015 they brought him to Free Flight. Former owners are barred from visiting while the bird works through its heartbreak.

Recognition brought a flurry of head bobbing and excited scurrying. With wide smiles, Justin and Rynell Nunez marveled to see Obi in such flourish. Bare spots riddled his downy white plumage — the legacy of self-destructive behavior — but his tail feathers had grown plush and his demeanor betrayed none of that former duress.

“He doesn’t seem tense or stressed out,” Justin said. “He just seems relaxed and engaged and happy.”

As if on cue, Free Flight’s Lauren Cooper introduced Bella, a female cockatoo she announced as one of Obi’s girlfriends.

One of his girlfriends?” asked an astonished Justin.

Cooper, Free Flight’s outreach and education coordinator, couldn’t help but grin as she relayed the reputation Obi has won since his arrival.

“Every cockatoo that comes in here, he’ll wander over to her, show off and try to climb up her perch,” Cooper said. “He’s such a flirt. Most of the cockatoos, after late 30s or early 40s, their hormones settle down. This guy, he’d father all the bird babies in the world if we let him.”

But while that irrepressible vigor made Obi the well-deserved darling of Saturday’s celebration, it’s also at the root of why so many exotic birds suffer. Parrots and their kin are more than merely clever, Cooper said, they are endowed with the emotional intelligence—and needs—of a toddler. Slight changes in circumstance can throw the birds into disarray. A lifetime with one owner is all but unheard of.

“For a lot of people it’s not their fault,” Cooper said. “Pet stores don’t educate, so really well-meaning, kind-hearted individuals are like, ‘I can’t do this, I’ve done 10 years and I’m looking at another 60 years with an animal that knows how to open my medicine cabinet and screams and chases my guests around the house.’”

So it was with Obi. For four happy years, he enjoyed an idyllic life at Justin and Rynell’s home in the hills east of Irvine. Then Rynell’s mother fell ill. In an instant, attention was in short supply. Obi lapsed into destructive behaviors that compelled his agonized owners to give him up.

“Not just anybody can care for these animals,” Cooper said. “They’re manipulative. They’re needy. They are expensive and they are chaotic. There’s so many good moments that outweigh the bad, but the bad is tough to get through. It’s like a child’s Terrible Twos — except that it might last 10 years.”

That’s what drove Free Flight to transition into a nonprofit sanctuary in 2009 after two decades as a boarding and breeding facility. When its founder, renowned avian expert Robert Stonebreaker died soon after, Free Flight’s staff and volunteers redoubled themselves to his vision — and have built on it with each passing year.

Free Flight is now home to 52 birds, a variety that ranges from species small enough to cuddle into the palm of a hand to vibrant blue macaws with fist-sized beaks that can crack macadamias and snap off an unwitting finger.

Each member of that flock costs nearly $600 per year to care for, costs Free Flight covers with donations, admission fees, the occasional grant and by recruiting donors to sponsor individual birds.

Saturday’s celebration furthered that cause thanks to Traci’s Paws, a nonprofit that organizes adoption events and fundraisers for animal rescue groups across the county. While its founder, Traci Wilkerson Steckel, has become well-versed in the smaller of Mother Nature’s critters — cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs and the like — Obi’s birthday was her first fundraiser for friends of the feathered sort. She knew to brace herself for the birds’ cunning mimicry, but nothing could have prepared her for the lengths to which they went to trick her during her visits to set up Obi’s party. She stood bewildered on Saturday as she recalled the tirade of imitated voices, cell phone ringtones, and the one bird that learned that the backing-up beep of a delivery truck would bring her outside.

“I see them in a whole new way now,” she said. “I don’t see these birds as just an animal anymore. I see them as definitely being a companion.”

New companionship comes for about a dozen of Free Flight’s birds each year, after a painstaking adoption process to ensure a proper match. For most of the birds, Free Flight is the final home they’ll ever know. But that doesn’t solely mean days whiled away playing mind games with their caretakers. Free Flight’s doors are open to the public six days a week, and the nonprofit is determined to expand its capacity to host the growing number of field trips and tourists that are discovering what might be Del Mar’s best-hidden attraction. And through an increasing emphasis on outreach, the sanctuary’s most gregarious denizens venture out to schools, senior centers and community events to spread the word on proper bird ownership.

Awareness is far improved in recent years, Cooper said, as people come to better understand that these complex creatures thrive only when treated as a full-fledged member of their family.

“We’re definitely in a better season for it,” she said. “More people are becoming educated, not just about parrots but about all animals, and being in tune with their emotions and knowing their needs outside of being items in their homes. They’re so much more than that.”

For more information, visit freeflightbirds.org. Free Flight is located at 2132 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar, 92014.

To see photos and video from Obi's birthday celebration, check out our Facebook page at facebook.com/mydelmartimes/

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