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Lost Pet Bird Found Alive After Riding Out Hurricane Irene in Central Park

By Leslie Albrecht | September 14, 2011 8:42am
 Josie, a 14-year-old cockatiel, survived five days on city streets until he was reunited with his owners.
Josie, a 14-year-old cockatiel, survived five days on city streets until he was reunited with his owners.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — If this bird could talk, he'd have a harrowing tale to tell.

Unfortunately, all Josie the cockatiel can say is "pretty bird," so the mystery of how he survived the perils of city streets while Hurricane Irene raged around him will remain unsolved.

"Where Josie was during the hurricane, only Josie knows," said the bird's owner, Jim DiGiovanni.

DiGiovanni beamed Wednesday as he recounted the story of how the bird he calls "the love of his life" was lost, presumed dead, then found barely alive several days later under a Central Park bench.

After four days of emergency vet care, Josie was recuperating on Tuesday in DiGiovanni's 11th floor apartment on West 81st Street and Columbus Avenue.

"Now I believe in miracles," said 62-year-old DiGiovanni, a talent manager in the music business.

Josie's ordeal began on Friday, Aug. 26, when DiGiovanni and his partner John Casserly were taking Josie and their other pet cockatiel, Cliffy, to the vet in a handheld pet carrier. As they made their way across Columbus Avenue, Casserly bent down to check that the carrier's door was securely fastened.

Instead, the door fell open, and the panicked birds soared into the sky. For a few moments, DiGiovanni could make out his colorful pets among the trees in Theodore Roosevelt Park next to the American Museum of Natural History. But within seconds, the two birds — who had spent their entire lives indoors — were lost to the city.

"What a nightmare," DiGiovanni said. "It was the worst moment of my life."

DiGiovanni and Casserly sprang into action, determined to rescue their beloved feathered companions, whom they considered family members. Cliffy, a 3-year-old white female, liked to sip rosé at night with Casserly. Josie, a gray male with orange spots on his cheeks, liked to perch on DiGiovanni's finger and "dance" while he sang "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

Native to Australia, cockatiels can live up to 35 years and are very "household friendly," said Lisa Bono, owner of The Platinum Parrot, a parrot supply store in Barnegat, N.J.

The birds, a type of parrot, can sometimes learn to talk, and even if they don't, they communicate in other ways, Bono said. The crest of feathers on a cockatiel's head snaps into a vertical position when the bird is alarmed, and falls to half-mast when it's relaxed.

"People become extremely attached to them," Bono said. "(Owners) believe a bird loves a person so much they’ll never fly away, but instinct kicks in. If a bird gets startled, it’ll fly away."

Minutes after Josie and Cliffy made their escape, a desperate DiGiovanni contacted his building's resident manager, Stephen Murphy, for help. Murphy's computer savvy 14-year-old son Aidan whipped up a full-color "missing" poster and DiGiovanni immediately made 50 copies.

With Murphy's help, the distraught pet owners plastered the Upper West Side with the signs, posting them between West 81st and 77th streets, along Central Park West, and — in what turned out to be an important decision — near the Central Park Conservancy's headquarters near 79th Street.

Later that night, the two suffered a blow. A woman who had seen one of the posters found Cliffy about 10 p.m., bleeding and injured, on West 81st Street and Central Park West. Casserly rushed her to a 24-hour emergency vet on the Upper East Side, but it was too late. Cliffy died about 1 a.m., possibly from wounds sustained in a fight with another bird, DiGiovanni said.

"That bird trusted us and we blew it," said a crestfallen DiGiovanni.

But the two pressed on, hopeful that they could still find their beloved Josie, who had lived with them for 14 years. Casserly scoured the Internet for advice. An online cockatiel forum, Tiel Talk, suggested it was best to search for lost birds just before sunrise, when the pre-dawn quiet makes it easier for pets to hear their owners' calls.

DiGiovanni and Casserly also followed another tip and put Josie's food-stocked cage on the sidewalk, with the door open, in front of their apartment building. The doorman kept an eye out to make sure no one stole the empty birdhouse.

DiGiovanni and Casserly, who wasn't available for comment, got up at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday and headed out to hunt for their remaining feathered friend. As the rest of the city battened down the hatches for Hurricane Irene, the two walked for hours, calling Josie's name and playing a musical toy with a chirping tone that Josie liked to imitate.

On Sunday, they set out again. But as the rain and winds from the hurricane picked up, they had to stop the search.

The storm dumped several inches of rain on Central Park, leaving felled trees and branches in its wake. DiGiovanni figured that even if the hurricane hadn't claimed Josie, the little bird would have fallen victim to a predator like a red-tailed hawk or feral cat.

"We couldn't imagine at that point that Josie was alive," DiGiovanni said. "I was completely beside myself with grief."

Two days later, on Tuesday Aug. 30, the phone rang. A woman said she had found Josie. Casserly told DiGiovanni to hang up — it was probably a scam, he thought, someone after the monetary reward they had offered.

But the woman, an employee of the Central Park Conservancy, convinced DiGiovanni she was telling the truth.

A family walking in the park had spotted Josie hunkered down underneath a bench near the statue of William Shakespeare on the south end of Literary Walk at East 66th Street. Tiny Josie had wandered more than a mile from her West 81st Street home.

The family flagged down two nearby Conservancy maintenance workers, who called in to headquarters to report the discovery. Josie seemed "traumatized," and didn't respond when the employees spoke to the bird, said Conservancy spokeswoman Dena Libner.

He let the workers pick him up from beneath the bench, then the employees nestled Josie inside a jacket in the back of a Conservancy golf cart to keep him warm and dry, Libner said.

A supervisor arrived, put Josie onto his lap, and rode back to the Conservancy's headquarters near 79th Street. An employee there recognized Josie from the poster DiGiovanni and Casserly had put up near the Conservancy. Someone had moved the poster to a bulletin board in the Conservancy's yard, where employees could see it.

When DiGiovanni and Casserly arrived minutes later, Josie perked up immediately, Libner said. "The second their voices were audible to the bird, it sarted chirping," Libner said. "It was immediately responsive to the owners."

Libner noted that Josie was discovered in an area of the park seriously damaged by the storm, where high winds had sent tree branches crashing to the ground.

"No one has any idea how (Josie) survived the storm," Libner said. "Parts of the park were sealed off with caution tape because everything was so damaged, and this little cockatiel made it through."

Rina Maguire, the avian vet who treated Josie, said the hurricane may have actually worked in Josie's favor, because at least the lost bird had a steady supply of water. Domesticated birds usually don't fare well on city streets, Maguire said. Raised with humans providing a steady supply of food, they never develop foraging skills, so they're not equipped to find food for themselves.

An X-ray taken at the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine on Columbus Avenue, where DiGiovanni and Casserly rushed Josie for emergency care, revealed the Josie had tried to feed himself with bits of gravel and pieces of metal he found on the ground.

By the time Josie arrived at the animal hospital, he was barely clinging to life, Maguire said. Weak, emaciated and severely dehydrated, the tiny creature couldn't keep his eyes open. Cockatiels normally weigh between 90 and 100 grams, but Josie's four-day ordeal had whittled him to just 62 grams, Maguire said.

DiGiovanni was so anxious he had to wait outside while Maguire examined Josie. The prognosis wasn't good. DiGiovanni said his stomach sank when Maguire told him Josie's chances of survival were "not better than 50-50."

"He was pretty much dying," Maguire told DNAinfo. "If they had waited another two hours to find him, it would have been too late."

Vets ran tests to make sure Josie's internal organs were functioning normally, then administered antibiotics, fluids, and medicines to remove the metal toxins from Josie's body. DiGiovanni expected a call from the vet the next morning informing him Josie had died during the night.

But the next day, when he and Casserly went to visit Josie, their adored pet was clearly improving. As soon as Josie spotted DiGiovanni, he flew up and "kissed" DiGiovanni on the ear.

After four days of treatment, Josie returned home. DiGiovanni said he tried to give the Conservancy employee who recognized Josie $300 in cash, but she refused. Instead, he signed up for Conservancy membership.

"I"m a member for life, with automatic renewals every year, thanks to this," he laughed.

Josie's weight was back up to a healthier 72 grams on Tuesday, Maguire said. "He's a very lucky bird," Maguire said. "Most birds when they're out for that long, and they're that sick, they don’t make it."