A Fascinating Flying Fiasco

Doves can fly, but ostriches can’t. Chickens can fly but spend the majority of their time with both feet on the ground and often run away rather than take to the sky. Penguins, well, they don’t fly but are excellent swimmers.

Some say evolution changed these creatures to cope with their environment. If so, then I wonder what will happen to our pet birds? How will they change by spending most of their time in a cage?

Strangely enough, I think I may be witnessing an evolutionary trend.

Mr. Toichi brought in his cockatiel, Beau, for his annual exam. I hadn’t seen Beau since Mr. Toichi first brought in the little tyke after purchasing him at a local pet store.

“So, Mr. Toichi, how has Beau been?” I inquired.

“Beau is doing just fine, Doc. He eats well, and I think he’s starting to talk a bit. It sounds like gibberish at this time, but he’s definitely talking,” beamed Mr. Toichi.

As Mr. Toichi gathered Beau from his perch, I noticed that Beau seemed a bit ruffled and all of his tail feathers were broken off. Cockatiels normally have beautiful, long tail feathers.

I slowly reached over and held out my index finger, offering a place for Beau to perch. Mr. Toichi cupped his little buddy in his hands, one hand below and the other one above. He seemed reluctant to hand over Beau to me. Seeing my quizzical expression prompted Mr. Toichi to offer an explanation.

“Nothing personal, Doc, but I can’t just hand Beau over to you. You see, I know this may sound weird, but Beau doesn’t know how to fly.”

There it was. That may explain why Beau’s feathers were disheveled and broken.

Mr. Toichi continued, “Actually, he can fly, but he does a weird sort of … ummm … I can’t really explain it. Anyway, I’m always worried that he will hurt himself.”

Being educated in a science-based curriculum, I was interested to see what Mr. Toichi described. Through a little encouragement, he agreed to a small, safe experiment. My assistants held a large, soft blanket below Beau, and Mr. Toichi slowly removed the hand that prevented flight. What happened next was, well, not normal. Beau flapped his wings then did a backward flip, plopping down onto the safety blanket. After making sure he was OK, we tried it again, and this time he flew in reverse.

We had seen enough. “Mr. Toichi, now I’ve seen it all,” I said. “Beau just cannot fly.”

With an “I told you so” grin, Mr. Toichi gently held Beau to his chest.

The rest of the exam went well, and except for a serious need for flying lessons, Beau was healthy as can be.

Since seeing Beau, I’ve met and examined two other cockatiels with similar difficulties in the area of flying. On physical exam, I noticed no obvious peculiarities in anatomy, and they were both healthy.

Is this an evolutionary trend? Like Beau, were ostriches poor fliers that eventually gave up flying altogether?

Who knows? Maybe in a hundred years, there will be a subset of cockatiels that will talk and walk instead of chirp and fly. Only time will tell.

Dr. John Kaya is the director of the Windward Community College veterinary technician program and associate veterinarian for VCA University Animal Hospital.