Rocky flies across the world against the odds

The story of a remarkable cockatiel travelling 20,000 km as cargo
Rocky the cockatiel

The house is empty, our life packed into a shipping container quick as a flash by a removal squad. We had booked a local motel, three of us and Rocky, in the hope of a comfortable night before the long drive north to Auckland airport. But with Rocky worryingly ill over the weekend, I’m staying here with him in familiar surroundings while my husband and daughter crash out in the motel.

I put the oil heater on in the bedroom and sleep on an air bed covered with old linen I will throw away tomorrow. This last night is special. I know it might be the last peaceful moments I have with Rocky before the long flight to England and the possibility he won’t survive.

When we first talked seriously about moving back home, Rocky was uppermost in my mind. Dave was understanding and there was never any question we wouldn’t take Rocky. We have no family in New Zealand and, having managed a café 24/7 for several years, no close friends either, let alone one who could take on a bird used to lots of affection.

Smitten with a baby bird 

When we first met Rocky, a gift to Alex on her birthday twelve years ago, little did we know how attached we would become to this baby bird who looked peculiarly old with his grey feathers. But like the ugly duckling, he transformed into a beautiful bird, his yellow head and orange cheeks the perfect complement to the grey and white feathers on his body and wings.

If you’ve seen one cockatiel, you’ve seen them all you might think, but birds have endearing ways like all animals.

Rocky likes to eat his Harrisons when we eat. We move his cage closer to the table and if we’re having one of his favourites—he loves sweet potato and wholegrain rice—we pop a little on the floor of his cage and he tucks in with a chirrup.

Perched under Alex’s chin, he cocks his head for a stroke, and in the shower, cupped in my hand, he spreads his wings and tilts his body in the warm spray. He mimics telephones and zips, finds caves on the sofa, and flips socks from the clothes horse to watch them fall.

Cockatiel cave

A cave!

During difficult years—and there have been many—he has lifted my spirits with his impromptu jazz songs.

We’ve talked about staying in New Zealand, but the thought floors me. We haven’t seen our son for two years and my mum’s health isn’t good. We’ve never felt settled here and the pull of family and home gets stronger as each year passes.

The pet transport company warned us birds are more difficult to export than dogs or cats, but we weren’t prepared for the stressful process to take Rocky with us.

Home quarantine to prevent disease

His first period of home quarantine began a year ago. We had hoped to sell our cafe and our agent advised us to prepare for a quick sale, but in the end, we had to liquidate. It has been a devastating time, made worse by Rocky’s situation where we’ve taken one step forward and two back.

When Rocky started his home quarantine again over a month ago, the feelings of anxiety I felt when we first talked of moving surged again. We couldn’t leave him behind with a stranger—birds can pluck their feathers when they’re separated from people they’re fond of. We had seen the sulphur-crested cockatoo in the Victorian park nearby. He had been taken to the aviary when his elderly owner died and had plucked his chest bare.

Rocky stayed inside during his 30-day quarantine period. Windows were closed at dusk to prevent mosquito bites, visitors had to remove their shoes and anyone who had been near a farm wasn’t allowed in.

With avian flu and avian malaria posing a risk to wild and farmed bird health, we are starting to realise why birds are harder to move than cats and dogs.

Flight cage made-to-measure 

There are a few companies in Auckland handling trade bird transportation, but I only found one handling pet birds so I was quickly in touch again to order Rocky’s flight cage. The IATA has very strict regulations about animal travel, so Rocky’s wooden cage was made-to-measure with one low perch, a wire mesh window covered by a mosquito net and plenty of ventilation holes.

Dangers of micro-chipping 

Next on the list was the UK pet bird import licence. It’s a new requirement that all birds entering the EU from non-EU listed countries are identified with a leg band or microchip. Micro-chips are more secure because they can’t be easily removed. I searched online and learned that veterinarians don’t generally recommend micro-chipping on birds weighing less than 100 g. Usually 100 g to 105 g, Rocky is borderline.

An electronic chip the size of a grain of rice is inserted into the pectoral or chest muscle, which for a bird of Rocky’s size would be intrusive. There’s also a reliability problem with microchips as they can move and lodge elsewhere, sometimes resulting in death.

No-one could tell me it would be risk-free, however much I wished they could.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) veterinarian who will carry out Rocky’s final health check just before the flight advised against micro-chipping. He had inserted chips in two large parrots travelling to Australia and on the day of travel, one bird’s chip couldn’t be read and seemed to have disappeared. Another chip was inserted, but on arriving in Australia that too was undetectable.

No consensus on export/import for pet birds

A leg band would be less risky, but it proved difficult to find someone who knew what band should be used—aluminium or stainless steel, and whether the ID needed to comply with the export country’s numbering system for pet birds as it does for trade birds. I bought a few open leg bands from different breeders and contacted the various organisations involved in Rocky’s move.

I was dealing with the pet transport agent in Auckland who would arrange his cage, his Air New Zealand flight and take him to airport cargo on the day; the UK import licence division of the Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA); our local veterinarian at Massey University Veterinary Hospital; the Quality Asure veterinarian overseeing the home quarantine; the MPI veterinarian in Auckland; the pet transport agent that will process Rocky’s paperwork and clear him through UK customs; and Heathrow Animal Reception Centre (HARC), where all being well, we will be reunited with Rocky.

After so many calls and emails and sheer frustration, I was told the aluminium band marked number ‘1’ would be fine for a pet bird. Rocky will have his paperwork attached to his transportation box and he is likely to be the only cockatiel on the flight.

Our local avian vet applied the leg band, making sure it was a comfortable fit. I had to make sure Rocky’s appointment didn’t coincide with any other birds in the waiting room, which would have breached his quarantine. You can apply a band yourself if you’re comfortable handling your bird, but we didn’t want to risk injury close to the flight.

Crazy bird lady?
Pohangina Valley with Rocky

Family picnic in the Pohangina Valley

No-one has said as much, but I sense people here think we’re crazy. Export costs have gone up in the last year, so maybe we are crazy spending so much of the little we have left. But there’s an emotional cost in leaving Rocky behind. Pet cockatiels can live for over twenty years.

Our responsibility for him is no different in my mind to our responsibility in caring for our children, or dog or cat if we had one.

If our bird was a rare African grey, people might be less surprised, but our common grey cockatiel is just as special to us. His ‘Hello Rocky’, his goodnight chirp, and his pitter-patter across the floor to find us can’t be valued in dollars.

The only people who seem to understand are the vets involved in Rocky’s transportation. The vet who supervised Rocky’s quarantine has a soft spot for our little bird and has faith that he’ll survive the long journey. ‘He’s a tough bird,’ he said.

Even if he survives the journey, I find myself worrying Rocky might be refused entry to the UK. The Heathrow Animal Reception Centre series on TV shows distraught owners with inadequate paperwork. With a run of things going badly for us, I’m half expecting the worst.

Pet bird pioneer on a 35-hour journey

There is very little information online about birds travelling a long distance and no-one seems sure of the process for taking pet birds from New Zealand to the UK.

It seems that no bird, let alone a small bird like a cockatiel, has travelled on a journey that will last close to 35 hours if everything goes smoothly.

The pet transport company has only ever moved trade birds on long haul and the furthest destinations were Australia, the U.S., and Japan. The MPI veterinarian has only seen birds travelling as far as South Africa and Brazil. Rocky will be a pioneer.

Air New Zealand operates flights to Heathrow with animals in cargo on Mondays and Thursdays via Los Angeles.  The cargo area has low lighting and is kept at a constant 17°C, which seems a little cold for a cockatiel. Los Angeles is not the friendliest of airports. If only it was San Francisco.

I’ve worked out the landing time in L.A—3 pm in the afternoon will be hot on the tarmac at the end of June. Animals stay on the plane for the two-hour stopover and a baggage handler will top up Rocky’s water if needed. I wonder if baggage handlers are experienced in animal care. I’ve seen how some people handle suitcases.

It’s dark and pouring with rain when we arrive at the pet agent’s portacabin in the middle of a field and find it locked up. The makeshift building isn’t what I expected. A text from the agent says they’ll be with us in ten minutes. In that laid-back Kiwi way, they’re having dinner. We are already cutting it fine for the flight.

Earlier in the day, we took Rocky to the MPI vet for his final health check. To our relief, he was declared fit to travel, but instead of leaving him with the transport agent until the flight, we took him back to the motel. We wanted to keep him with us as long as possible to reduce his stress, and mine, especially as he had come so close to being unable to travel.

Taking Rocky has felt impossible at times

Six days earlier, he had suddenly lost the use of his left leg and was dazed for several minutes.

How could he be so sick so close to the flight? 

We had tried to make the move low key by doing our own packing, but Rocky’s familiar environment was changing. Busy with the move, we hadn’t kept a close eye on him like we usually do, and instead of sitting happily on his cage top, he was climbing the curtains to the rail and chewing the coving, which is toxic to birds.

We were worried he might have zinc poisoning, but faecal and blood tests showed nothing abnormal. His droppings had been watery for a couple of days before the seizure and he hadn’t been eating normally, but he wasn’t lethargic as you would expect with poisoning. The vet could find no nerve impingement that might cause temporary paralysis.

Over the weekend, Rocky had another seizure. He had chewed the coving again, this time after I had filled and painted the holes ready for the final house inspection.

I couldn’t stop crying. It was my fault. What if he was too ill to travel? The possibility and the guilt I felt played over and over in my mind. There was nothing we could do until Monday.

Back at the vet hospital, Rocky had an X-ray without anaesthetic because it was too close to us travelling. He was surprisingly calm; clear images showed no sign of a blockage that might suggest lead or zinc poisoning. A blood test could check for toxicity but the results wouldn’t be back in time. Giving treatment without a diagnosis would be unethical, and in any case, it would stress his kidneys before the flight.

The veterinary director said epilepsy is common in cockatiels and can be caused by stress, which could explain the seizures. We were told travel is high risk for birds and the stress could induce further seizures.

The thought of Rocky having a seizure alone in cargo while we are in the passenger cabin unable to help is unbearable.

What if he slipped into the deep water pot and drowned?

No going back

As we walk back to the car to get Rocky out of the rain, the pet agents arrive at the portacabin.

They ask about the water funnel missing from the outside of Rocky’s cage. It seems the funnel may have come off when the cage was sent to us on a domestic flight a couple of weeks earlier. We hadn’t been told what attachments to expect—I can’t believe they left it to chance.

We asked for the cage to be sent us ahead of travelling to give Rocky time to get used to the box. So he wasn’t frightened of it, we let him explore and sleep inside with the door open during the daytime. Dave replaced the food pots with Rocky’s familiar pots and secured them with cable ties. Over the perch I have draped a small owl-pattern fleece with Alex’s ‘smell’ on it to comfort him during the flight—she’s his favourite person.

Rocky in his flight cage

Chilling in the flight cage

Then everything happens so quickly. A new funnel is found, Rocky’s paperwork is taken, and the moment I have been dreading has finally come.

There is no going back.

I say goodbye to Rocky as I usually do when I go out. He mustn’t know how afraid I am this time.

‘See you later Rocky. Won’t be long. You be good.’

He looks so small in his box on the counter. We leave quickly and step out into the rainy darkness.

The longest journey

As we wait in the airport departure lounge, a photo comes through on my phone of Rocky’s cage on a trolley on the tarmac. A rain cover is keeping him dry. Rocky is the only bird on the flight, the only animal even – a consignment of pigeons was withdrawn at the last minute. I struggle to imagine what he must be feeling in an alien environment, but I’m relieved he made it to the airport. It was thoughtful of the agent to send the photo. I feel bad about losing faith earlier.

The flight is the longest of my life. I have taken several long-haul flights with Air New Zealand and have never been delayed, but today we have been waiting over an hour on the plane because the in-flight entertainment isn’t working and an engineer is trying to fix it.

Sod the entertainment. Our bird has a long enough journey as it is.

The engine roar at take-off and landing and the constant drone in flight seems much louder knowing Rocky is alone in cargo. Every burst of turbulence that wouldn’t have worried me in the past grips my stomach.

I flick through photos and videos on my phone.



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I see Rocky singing to Alex’s feet as she wiggles her toes, I see him lobbing socks, I see him nodding his head as Dave whistles the Roadrunner. I try to imagine our happy reunion, but my thoughts are hijacked by an officer telling me he didn’t make it.

I’ve been waiting an hour at Heathrow Animal Reception Centre, watching cats and dogs reunited with joyful human families. The doors open again and an officer carrying a box walks through.

As I hurry towards the smiling young man, I can hear Rocky squawking loudly, sweeter than any song. The anxiety, the guilt, the grief that has been gathering strength like a formidable wave, recedes as I take hold of Rocky’s cage.

‘Hello Rocky. Hello Sweetie.’

It’s now six months since we left Rocky in a portacabin on a cold, rainy night, not knowing if we would see him alive again. He seems settled in his new home and he’s singing again.

As I write, I watch him grinding his beak, eyes half-open, as he settles for a nap on my knee and I’m in awe he survived his migration across the world. I wonder if it’s harder for a wild bird migrating with his flock, or for a pet bird in cargo with no instinct to help him.

The vet was right. Rocky is one tough bird.

Thank you to everyone involved in helping us to bring Rocky home—we couldn’t have done it without you!

Update June 2019: It’s three years since Rocky’s amazing journey – he will be 15 this year!