Peanut, a snowy white cockatoo, giddily bops around on a tree limb. She doesn’t have many feathers, but the pillowy patches she does have bounce along with her playful body.
“Some people look at her and say, ‘Aww, that’s so sad,’ but she’s one of the happiest birds here,” said Jorge Reyes, an employee at Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary. Reyes’ passion for birds, and interest in gaining experience with these exotic animals, led him to Free Flight in 2014.
“My favorite part [of working at Free Flight] would be giving the birds a good home,” said Reyes. “Birds that have lived a long time, they’ve had more than one home. We are a sanctuary, so the birds come here and have a stable home scene.”
This sanctuary, located in Del Mar, functions as a day-care for birds and a non-profit rescue, open to the public seven days a week. A visit to Free Flight is like entering a mini-jungle. Lush green trees and plants shade the entire outdoor area. Birds of all sizes and colors are perched on branches and spread throughout, each speaking their own language of squawks and chirps.
Taking in the vibrant colors and squealing cacophony of exotic birds at Free Flight, one can both see and hear the happiness of Peanut and her feathery companions. People of all ages pass through, taking pictures and videos of, and with, the birds. An older couple nearby feeds Red, a large macaw, as they discuss the parrot’s beauty and behavior.
“We are very unique in the sense that you can interact with the birds, and they will interact with you as well,” said Reyes. “It’s a hands-on experience.”
While at Free Flight, I held different exotic birds for the first time and encountered their deep, inquisitive eyes and amusing intelligence which, according to Reyes, parallels that of a three-year-old human.
I also made a new friend, a 64-year-old cockatoo named Lapis who had rich turquoise and yellow fluff. We exchanged hellos for a while as he showed off his handsome plumage.
“Every bird has a relationship with each one of us,” said Reyes. “One of the reasons we are open to the public is to educate people and to keep the birds social towards people.”
Free Flight houses 50 to 60 birds at any given time. The shelter originated in 1981 as a boarding and breeding facility and since then has grown into an open sanctuary for all kinds of exotic birds. It became a nonprofit organization in 2009 and has generated a lot of growth through donations as well as public and volunteer support. The volunteers, both kids and adults, contribute to the happy atmosphere of the sanctuary.
“It’s rewarding to see they are birds with intelligence,” said Reyes. “They recognize people.”
Free Flight provides an intimate learning experience, for both adults and children, about these fabulous creatures with personalities as colorful as their feathers. Leaving the sanctuary, Peanut and her fluffs continue to bounce happily in anticipation for new visitors to enter and old ones to return.
SIDE NOTE: Free Flight is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Wednesday (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and admission is $3-$7.