Kathleen Johnson’s best friend and housemate has been key to helping her survive pandemic isolation, she said. Billy is friendly and colorful, full of energy and personality. He’s always been good for a song and dance, a chat and whistle, a ride around the house atop Johnson’s hair bun.
A reliable sense of direction, not so much. When Billy flew off and disappeared for more than a month, Johnson thought he was gone forever. But the community came through and returned the bird to his doting owner.
Billy the cockatiel was a Mother’s Day 2019 gift from Johnson’s son. At 5 years old and fully grown, he was Johnson’s constant companion for more than a year. They dined together, sang and danced together, watched TV together, midnight snacked and bid one another good night, Johnson said.
“It’s just been Billy and me, all the time,” said Johnson.
Since she has heart and lung issues, she’s put herself under near-complete quarantine since the coronavirus pandemic began. Only family members and Johnson’s caretaker, Simone Bishop, ever come inside her small home in Vancouver’s Carter Park neighborhood near downtown.
Bishop became a fan of Billy, too. The bird “needed to be part of every conversation,” she said. “He was like a little person. Like a little sergeant. He had free rein inside the house.”
On May 29, Johnson made the big mistake of taking a few steps outside to water some plants.
Her neighbor across the street, Tracy Godick, heard screaming. Bishop arrived to discover the front door to the house and the front door to Billy’s cage wide open, and no sign of Johnson.
Billy was gone and Johnson was beside herself. Barefoot and legally blind, she’d gone tearing around the neighborhood to find him. Godick spotted him on an eave of her roof, but couldn’t quite grab him, she said.
Johnson’s support network sprang into action. Family members and friends combed the area and posted notices on neighborhood message boards. Johnson got unsolicited calls from pet store The Parrot Perch, offering expertise and treats to lure back the escapee, and from the nearby organizer of the Portland-Vancouver Parrot Association, a new local club, who thought she might have spotted Billy in her own yard.
There were some sightings, but nobody could corral the cockatiel. When more than a month passed and Fourth of July fireworks started exploding all over Clark County — including Johnson’s neighborhood — she and her allies gave up hope. For all they knew, Billy might well have been blown into the next county or hunted down by hawks, Johnson said.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “You don’t think you’ll be that affected by that one little life, but he was with me 24/7.”
His own person
A few blocks away, bird lover Patrick O’Day noticed an odd visitor to his backyard and figured it had to be someone’s lost pet.
“With a considerable amount of stealth and patience … and an offering of some tasty birdseed, a very frightened, hungry and thirsty little bird decided to trust me and flew into my hands,” he wrote on Facebook.
Billy was too busy chowing down to care about the fishing net O’Day placed over him. Next, O’Day logged into Nextdoor, the popular online neighborhood message board, and simply typed in the word “bird.”
“Up came a message about a missing cockatiel named Billy,” O’Day said. “With a photo attached, it was clear the bird we had just found was Billy.”
O’Day got in touch and, 10 minutes later, Johnson was tearfully and joyfully reunited with her bird after six weeks of heartache and loneliness.
“The whole community helped me out,” she said. “I am very grateful.”
When The Columbian stopped by Johnson’s house in late July, Billy was in recuperation and re-education mode. He’s still slightly freaked out by people and by freedom, and seems to prefer staying in his cage. Billy got a bit frantic when encouraged to flutter about the living room, and never settled into the comfy nest atop Johnson’s head. He whistled a little when prompted, but didn’t favor us with a song.
“Poor little thing,” Johnson said. She’s patiently coaxing Billy to be his own person again, she said. But she’s also planning to get his wings clipped.