“Get your kicks on Route 66”
Was the plan. A cross country adventure with one less than our entire menagerie. All but Opal, our wonderful little lovebird, were to head out across the US from Tucson, Arizona destined to arrive in New York a week later, cooking all meals and sleeping in the van.
This article is intended to be a helpful guide to traveling with parrots, on both short and long trips, with an emphasis on car camping, but advice on car travel and motels has been included as well. It is intended to be more informal than my previous article on air travel
This was not the first trip with these three birds – Siva, an Umbrella Cockatoo, Cado, an imported Blue Fronted Amazon and Dorian, a Congo African Grey. Together they had traveled to California, both Southern and Northern.
I am not a proponent of tent camping with parrots for some obvious reasons. Parrots in their cages with food are an open invitation for wildlife to break into the tent. There is no control of temperatures, and inclement conditions could cause your bird to suffer extreme temperature fluctuation. Storms can and do occur, tents have been known to spring a leak or two, winds, drafts… I therefore will leave the decision of whether or not to proceed in this vein to the reader.
We have been camping in a VW van since the mid seventies. Before the parrots entered our lives we converted a van for travel and crossed country many times. Prior to planning our trip with the birds and dogs, Luke and Maya, our shih tzus, we purchased a used VW Vanagon which better suited our needs. We like to camp in fairly remote places, rarely in campgrounds, and often, in desperation, at rest areas along the side of the freeway. The van allowed us the luxury of being able to cook and eat while on the move without worrying about the weather. It is complete with two double beds, a pop top and screens, and extra outlets for electronic equipment.
Luke and Maya are easy and have been traveling for years. Their needs are simple – only leashes, food, water and toys. The birds, however, presented us with a whole series of new things to think about and required much planning. Initially our intention was to be gone from 3-4 weeks. On a trip of several thousand miles, anything can happen, so it was important to bring more than we needed for the birds as there was no guarantee that we would find the foods they were used to on the road.
For short trips it is imperative to have food on hand in case of a delay or car trouble. I bring the same items for a short trip as a long one, only less in the case of food, water and treats. If the trip is in town I use airline carriers. For all other trips I use the travel cage as the birds need to perch, eat and play.
Packing for the parrots was a major undertaking. The mixture of pellets, seeds, nuts, nutriberries etc. were sorted and packed into daily portions for a fourteen day period. Bags were then grouped into units of three and packed into larger plastic bags. Five weeks of each part of the mixture was individually packed into larger bags, and these all were loaded into a large black canvas bag which was placed at the bottom of the clothes closet. The backpack was loaded with the fourteen day assortment, and vitamins. The first aid kit* was loaded into the pack as well and is carried with us for any trip out of the house with the parrots. *(see article Winged Wisdom, August ’96 ,“The Avian First Aid Kit”).
Another bag was packed with toys for rotation within the cages, which included wood blocks, cuttlebone, Siva’s favorite blanket and extra towels. Travel cages were located, newspaper for cage bottoms, counted out and stacked along with a spray bottle for showers, portable T-stands, food, water and vegetable dishes, extra snack dishes, cage covers and carriers. Six gallons of bottled water was purchased and loaded into the car under the rear seat.
There has been some question as to how to protect the birds from insects while camping. We left at a time of year when this was not a great problem. I would avoid the use of insecticides on or near the birds and imagine that they would cause more problems than they could solve.
We had planned the cage positions, with Siva’s, the largest, on the floor behind the passenger seat and attached with bungee to it, all cage doors faced away from the door, so that in the event of an emergency any bird could be removed quickly. The cages were bungeed together for safety and Siva’s was attached to the passenger seat. Dorian’s was attached with bungee on top of Siva’s and Cado’s on the floor next to Siva’s cage. Siva would ride on the arm rest, and Dorian and Cado would spend the afternoons on top of Dorian’s cage where more toys were attached. Siva had toys attached to the passenger seat and all had a view out of the front window. The dogs would ride, one on the back seat or in the well and the other on top of the stove top behind the driver.
I have been asked about the safety of having the birds loose in the car with the dogs. I would not recommend this to anyone, and would warn against it. In my case I know these animals well. The two dogs are non-violent older dogs and have no interest in the birds except to avoid them as the birds have bitten them in the past. There would be no way to protect the birds from untrained dogs.
I use the Papagallo cages and have found that though they have needed some minor repairs, they have weathered well. Dorian and Cado have cages that measure 19.5″ x 11.5″ x 14.5″ high and Siva’s cage measures 25″ x 17.25″ x 20″ high. I do allow toys in the cages, though only a few, including soft hanging toys, several hand toys and perhaps a wood block. Toys are placed away from the perch against a wall to avoid hitting the bird while driving. The grey must have his bell, one inside and one attached to the outside. He does not want or need anything more. I have, but do not use, cage top perches as they interfere with the cage covers and the stacking of cages for the evening. Being that the birds have been perching a good part of the day, the cage top provides a much needed relief for their feet and a change. Each cage has a single perch, two food dishes, and a water dish. I use dishes that I can easily detach with my safety in mind. There is less for the birds to do while traveling, generating the invention of new games, one of which is to attack the hand that feeds. If the game gets too serious, I have a stick handy to remove the birds while cleaning and t-stands to perch them on when working on the cages.
In the well in the back was our bedding, extra blankets for cold nights, three carriers for emergency, and the two canvas bags mentioned before, my banjo and one milk carton each for our clothing. We also took along a small oscillating fan for those close, still, hot nights when the air refuses to move. Another use for the spray bottle was that when crossing the Mohave in the summer to or from California, the birds could be sprayed, which they very much enjoy, allowing them to benefit from evaporative cooling. We would often spray them and each other when we had to turn the air off while going up a steep grade. Once when traveling across the desert with Siva, he became hot and found that he could stand in his drinking water to cool off. We always try to cross the desert at night during the summer, finally stopping after we have climbed out of the desert and up into the hills.
A current practice is afoot in many states to generate revenue by harassing out-of-state travelers. Be aware that you, as a motorist, can be picked up for any real or imaginary charge, hit with heavy fines and/or be incarcerated if you do not have the cash for bail. Pets can be confiscated, or locked in your vehicle during an incident with no regard to their welfare. In some states, the legality of your birds can be challenged, so I suggest you bring along health certificates and papers proving ownership of your birds. My birds are registered with the AFA Bird Registry for this reason. This may seem unusual, until you have lived through such an experience.
In preparation for the trip we began to take day trips with the birds in their travel cages. Each of them had taken small rides in the car, but it was essential to perform a trial run. Cado is a real trooper, loves the car, engine and traffic noises. He had traveled to Flagstaff with us before and loved it. We repeated the Flagstaff trip with the other two, camping out for three nights. Siva, Dorian and I traveled to San Diego along with a friend and her grey for a long weekend. The trip was not uneventful. Sharon’s car broke down on the way home. We had an additional bird with us, one of the Fred’s from Barretta, Yaegar. We rented a Mercury Sable for the trip home. Dorian hated the travel cage, and ended up on my shoulder, Siva on my leg, Yaegar in the middle back of the seat, and Sequoia on her travel seat for the six hour ride home.
Our next trip was back to San Diego with the Vanagon. We arrived in late afternoon and set up the tarp to create shade. We were awakened by high winds and pouring rain. There was a rip and crash and knowing it was the awning, we went back to sleep. Getting out of the car was nearly impossible as we were knee deep in water and had to maneuver over the mess that had been the awning. This was a valuable lesson – put the awning away before bed was added to our list of dos and don’ts. With the help of Yaegar’s mom’s tools we repaired the awning once the wind stopped and added a portable drill to the tool box for future trips. Had we been in a tent, this could have been catastrophic.
A carrier for each parrot was packed behind the rear seat for use in the event of an emergency either on the road or at our destination. Vegetables and fruit were packed in the fridge, and three portable T-stands were broken down and placed behind the driver’s seat. Directly behind the passenger seat two folding tray tables were fastened and to them and the seat, Siva’s cage. We had a paper towel rack, however when the wind blew, so did the towels and a flag of paper unraveled into the car providing the birds with hours of entertainment. The three t-stands would come in handy at the rest areas allowing the birds to join us for meals.
The night before we left, the birds were put to bed in their travel cages and covered. Their cages were cleaned in preparation for their return home. An extra food bowl and snacks were placed in the glove compartment along with drinking water and a spray bottle filled with water. New toys were hidden away as special treats for the journey.
“On the Road Again”
After cleaning the travel cages the last minute items were loaded into the van. The dogs, birds, banjo, computer and cameras were the last to be loaded in and we were off. At the beginning it took two hours to feed all of the animals and clean cages, so by 10 am we would hit the road. Siva immediately fell into his routine, spending much of the day up front, returning to his cage to eat and rest. Dorian and Cado played on the cage top all afternoon. As the sun would set, the birds would get anxious, and would be returned to their cages, covered and set on the floor in a row until we stopped for the night. At that time they were piled, Siva on the bottom and the other two cages on top of the first one in a perfect fit. As time went on, I began to cook hot bird meals as we drove and found I could get morning feeding and cleaning condensed to an hour.
As the birds accepted their new situation, Dorian began to feel at home. Our quiet talkative grey became a motor mouth complete with cockatoo tantrums and blue-front territorial proclamations. Cado and Siva were fascinated by the display. A non-stop performance of commands, comments, and assorted noises, the most annoying being the telephone and microwave, were non stop. My husband stopped at the first Walmart for earplugs and aspirin, which improved his spirits.
The endless interstates 10,20,30,40 all looked conveniently identical once we left Texas. Every town had the same stores making us wonder why anyone leaves home at all.
Shopping was done in shifts. One of us would stay with the animals while the other picked up supplies. If one forgot something the other would make the second trip to the store.
Occasionally we would come upon something irresistible, where the two of us might want to go in together. In that case and weather permitting, we would place all of the cages on the floor, and cover them, creating darkness which keeps the birds quiet, open the windows that are screened and the sunroof on top (also screened) and go inside once we were sure all was secure and quiet. Mostly though, we stayed with the animals, enjoying their company and the trip.
We slept in rest areas and truck stops, entertained folks at both with our traveling zoo, and managed to pull into NY on time, after stopping in to visit places from our past.
The birds were thrilled to park themselves in my sister’s Victorian farmhouse, where Dorian managed to add a new family of voices and conversation to his routine, complete with the Eastern wild birds and the budgies inside.
Leaving Dorian and Cado at the farm, Siva managed to take in the NY commuter trains, subways, taxis, buses, went to watch my sister have her hair done in Greenwich Village, accompanied us to a variety of restaurants and had a lovely stroll down Bleeker Street. He enjoyed the parks and even saw the Empire State Building. Birds are welcome on the commuter trains, out of their cages, and greeted with smiles as are dogs and cats. In most of the other places he was in his carrier inside of a cloth bag and covered with his favorite blanket. For restaurants, he was covered with a baby blanket, and it was assumed that a baby was asleep inside.
Car Travel and Motel Stays
Being that not everyone travels in a van or camper there is a need to mention car travel with parrots. It is far more cramped to travel with parrots in a car. Twice I have had to squeeze three parrots and two dogs into a rental car to drive to and from Northern California. The only bird willing to stay in the cage for the duration of the trip was Cado. Siva refused to spend daylight hours in the cage except for meals and Dorian started to pull feathers when in the travel cage too long, but was willing to stand on his door or roof of his cage while out. All surfaces were completely covered during the trip to avoid damage to the car. Of course a travel cage is necessary, which should be secured firmly to the seat. I would advise against using the seat belts, unless you want to have them shredded. I would secure the seat belts in the closed position and then using bungee, attach the cage bottom (both sides) to the belt. Unless you are willing to ride with the windows shut and your seats and all other areas covered with sheets and thick towels, the parrot would be better off in the cage. On short trips a well trained parrot could ride with you as long as you are aware that you could be jeopardizing the safety of the bird in the event of an accident.
One year ago during the Thanksgiving holiday while we were visiting family in Northern California, we had the misfortune to be in a traffic accident. We had just left my daughter’s home, and being afternoon I released the birds from the travel cages as we set out. Siva was on the arm of the front seat with my son. We were broadsided by a speeding car, which careened into the rear left side of the van. The impact pivoted the car 180 degrees causing the front to have little movement. I was in the rear with the other two birds. It was sudden, and once the car and I stopped spinning I set out to find the birds. Siva was on the gas pedal, Cado was on the oldest dog’s head in what looked like a nest, behind the driver, and Dorian was on the floor. My concern was for the sensitive grey, who looked up at me and said, “up!!!”, completely undaunted by the accident. In this case, though I do not recommend loose birds in the car, the ability of short flight, saved the birds from impact. The travel cages did fall over and one was dented. All of the animals were fine. One large metal t-stand in the well was destroyed. As I hadn’t a seat belt I was tossed across the car, managing to hit my head on every available surface, and to cut my leg on the travel cage. We were indeed very lucky.
While traveling in the car with parrots, you would need to arrange ahead for lodging. Not all motels will allow pets. There are books on traveling with your pets, and it would be in your best interest to get one of them for your trip and to make reservations ahead of time. The one I use is, “Eileen’s Directory of Pet-Friendly Lodging US & Canada” by Eileen Barish. In the case of an extremely well behaved parrot, you could sneak it into the room unseen, but you are gambling since if the bird goes off like a siren, you could be tossed out into the night. Cooking for the birds becomes a problem when traveling in a car. I would probably order things that they could enjoy for dinner, such as pasta, eggs etc. or better yet, bring along a camping stove and cook at rest areas.
To sum up, plan ahead, stay within speed limits and prepare your birds ahead of time with short trips. By all means take your time, stop to smell the roses and drive carefully. As I said in my previous article, evaluate your parrot for travel so that your unforgettable vacation does not become your unmentionable nightmare.