NEW YORK — One gray Tuesday morning, as my husband was taking our pet parrot home from a visit to the vet, Frankie escaped and disappeared above a chaotic street corner.
They were on their way down Second Avenue, and at 60th Street, Frankie chewed through a zipper on her carrying case and squirted out, heading for my husband’s shoulder, her favorite place to perch. Chris’ first instinct was to try to grab her, and the sudden move must have spooked her.
She took flight. Her tail came out in his hand. With the help of unfamiliar air currents, she went up, up, up. She was gone.
This was not the first time she had been a wild bird in the city.
A few years earlier she appeared on the roof of our East Village building one summer evening, a brilliantly colored bird happily chewing on a pizza crust given to her by our neighbors. We’d assumed that she was someone’s pet and tried to reunite her with whoever had lost her, but no one claimed her. So we kept her.
Her presence transformed our lives, restructuring our schedules, shredding our clothes and dividing our friends according to who was willing to get pooped on and who wasn’t.
And she sparked in us a new curiosity for who might be wandering New York’s skies. A few months after we found her, Chris heard a strange call and looked up just as a cockatiel, skinny and exhausted, floated down next to him on the East River bike path. Suddenly Frankie had a companion named Friday.
At any time, I have learned, there may be an exotic bird zipping around the city. It doesn’t take much: a door left open, a poorly fastened carrier, and a startled bird — almost always some kind of parrot — is suddenly loose, confused by the expanse of the sky and the strange sensation of moving air.
Chris was waiting for me in the rain on the northwest corner of 59th Street and Second Avenue. The cables for the Roosevelt Island Tram were shuddering over his head. Cars honked. Trucks rattled. Motorcycles roared. Birds raised by humans have no experience outside. They don’t know how to feed themselves or stay safe from predators. Frankie must have been terrified.
The last he saw her, she was headed south past a neon sign that said BAR. We decided to split up and look for her.
Her flying skills had been dampened by life in an apartment: She was used to short flights with clear, level destinations. Anything too long, like hovering in front of a closed door, would wear her out quickly. For some reason I was certain she headed to the Queensboro Bridge. I imagined her sinking down among the traffic and getting crushed. But I needed to confirm it. I needed a bird’s-eye view.
I headed for a high-rise apartment building just south of the bridge. Its roof was closed for construction, but the sympathetic super unlocked one of its penthouses. He led me through a stranger’s living room with a grand piano in it and collection of porcelain figurines on glass shelves, out onto a big balcony.
Using the binoculars I carry with me (I’m a birder), I studied the corners of wet rooftops, the thin branches of the trees, various portions of the bridge, looking for anything parrot-colored. She was not there.
Back on the street, I shouted her name.
I leaned into the bar beneath the BAR sign.
“Did a bird come in here?” I asked.
“No,” the bartender said.
“Orange? Loud? Probably asking for food?”
I wrote my number on a napkin in case Frankie showed up later.
Chris and I reunited and started walking east, side by side. I called out: “Frankie! Frankie Bird!”
We passed a mother with her son, who asked what was going on. “Their cat probably ran away,” the mother said.
After a block and a half, I heard Frankie screeching. She was perched about 30 feet up in a tree in a backyard between two tenement-style buildings. A bicycle shop occupied the space leading to the backyard, which was piled 6 feet high with rusty bike parts. The back fence was topped with razor wire, and there were coils of it in some of the branches of the tree. The bike shop employees didn’t want us climbing on anything, so we couldn’t just go up and get her.
When Frankie saw us, she started screeching and leaning forward, shaking her shoulders in a motion I knew well. It meant: “I want to fly there, but I can’t. Please come and get me.”
We called 911 hoping firefighters would come with a ladder, but they said to call 311. The 311 operator did not understand what was wrong.
“A bird in a tree?” she asked cautiously. “That sounds OK.”
“You know when someone has a cat stuck in a tree and the firemen have to come and rescue it?” I asked her.
“Oh, it’s a cat in the tree?”
I gave up.
After an hour of hesitation, Frankie tried to fly. She took off and headed in our general direction, but she aborted the mission. She flew in a little loop that took her higher, then she vanished in the gray sky.
There are at least two websites devoted to lost and found birds: parrotalert.com and 911parrotalert.com. I came upon them when Frankie and Friday first showed up, regularly checking in to see if anyone was looking for them. It’s a little heartbreaking. The disappearances listed are many, but you rarely read about a parrot reunited with its desperate owner.
Frankie had already had her day out in Manhattan. She had already been taken to safety from the cruel outdoors once. It was hard to imagine she would be so lucky a second time.
Chris and I began walking up a small byway near the bridge. I asked some workers at a construction site if they had noticed an orange bird fly by. They shook their heads. I asked a man in rags sitting against a wall. He pointed toward a large flock of pigeons. “There’s lots of birds down that way,” he said.
Two blocks farther along we heard her again: a screech somewhere high above me. She was perched on a green fence on a rooftop, looking down.
“Don’t move!” I yelled.
I ran to the front of the building. Its door was propped open, unattended. I ran up six flights of stairs and leapt onto the roof.
Frankie was waiting for me. I lifted her off the fence and stuffed her into my shirt. She snuggled up against my neck.
“Let’s go home,” I said to her, and we started down the stairs.