DEL MAR — Whoever said: ‘Birds of a feather flock together,’ must have paid a visit to Del Mar’s Free Flight, a unique exotic bird sanctuary.
This is a colorful place in more ways than one that aims to “maintain a sanctuary that shelters, nurtures and re-socializes parrots, while educating the public to inspire a lasting concern for the wellbeing of exotic birds,” according to Free Flight’s mission statement on its website.
Founded in 1981 as a boarding and breeding facility, Free Flight has evolved into a one-of-a-kind exotic bird sanctuary where parrots and people connect.
It was benefactor Dr. Robert F. Stonebreaker’s vision to create a sanctuary for exotic companion birds that would provide a special and unique environment to raise community awareness and to encourage positive interaction with these birds, according to Programs and Development Director Lauren Cooper.
Contributing to its tropical surroundings, there is a large pond with friendly and beautiful koi which was originally home to rescued flamingos who have since been successfully re-homed.
Cooper said Free Flight became a 501(c)3 nonprofit in March 2009. Less than a year later, it suffered a tremendous loss when Stonebreaker passed away suddenly.
This tragedy inspired clients, colleagues, employees and family to be more determined than ever to continue to pursue his passion for all species of exotic birds, the website adds.
As a result, numerous parrots in need have come to Free Flight where staff has been instrumental in finding them great new homes.
So where do the birds come from and how often? Cooper said the birds come from homes which can no longer care for them due to substantial life transitions, illness, changing family dynamics or other difficult hardships.
“Incoming numbers are always reflective of our adoption successes. As we are a small facility generally always operating at capacity, we coordinate new relinquishments as adopted residents’ spaces become available,” she said.
To date the resident flock is made up of 35 birds (34 parrots and 1 East African crowned crane).
“We adopt between 10 and 15 parrots out annually. Adoptions are unhurried, as our primary focus is ensuring prospective adopters visit and develop a strong and lasting bond with the bird(s) in question. During these visits, we offer specialized training on general health, nutrition, enrichment, behavior and more.
“Recently, we have had many successful adoptions, so this number is currently increasing as we open our doors to new feathered friends in need of a home. Our total capacity is 50 parrots, not including boarding birds who come to ‘vacation’ at Free Flight,” Cooper said.
The Free Flight team is made up of a variety of passionate and hardworking individuals. There are six part-time and one full-time staff members.
“However, we consider ourselves even more fortunate for the efforts of 31 volunteers, six senior docents, and 11 junior docents who regularly dedicate their time to helping us fulfill our mission,” she said.
When asked how the sanctuary has moved forward since Stonebreaker passed, Cooper said his legacy lives on in with the Stonebreaker family’s continued presence in the community, clients who fondly remember his devotion to their own birds and the tireless efforts of Executive Director Mary Struble.
“For three decades, Mary has been integral in actualizing Dr. Bob’s (as he is more affectionately known to us) aspirations for companion parrots in need of extra TLC,” Cooper said. “Since his passing, Mary’s guidance has ensured that our focus and daily operations honor the dream Dr. Bob realized here at Free Flight.”
If you want to pay a visit to Free Flight you are in luck, as the sanctuary offers a distinct experience where individuals can interact with and feed exotic birds (and koi fish, too!).
“We encourage the public to handle our birds, as this helps to socialize them with people of all ages and backgrounds, thus preparing them for future adoption. While it is always up to each parrot to decide if they would like to be pet or ‘step up’ on someone’s arm, almost everyone who visits is able to hold at least one bird,” Cooper said.
Regular highlights a visitor experiences at the sanctuary include: hearing witty expressions and cleverly timed sound effects from the birds, getting to snuggle with the sanctuary’s oldest resident “Obi” (a 70-year-old Umbrella Cockatoo), playing “Peekaboo!” and dancing with effervescent macaws, and so on.
“In addition, our team of staff, docents and volunteers cherish every opportunity to educate the public about avian welfare and parrots’ incredible intelligence,” she said.
And if you thought you had to be a bird lover to visit, no way, Cooper said.
“Not by any means. Although, you’re sure to become a bird lover by the time you leave,” she said.
Many parrots will spend anywhere from two to 10 years to a lifetime here, depending on their individual needs. Free Flight becomes a new form of home for them: each has a private indoor cage with personal toys and food/water.
During the day, they come out into the open-air yard to visit with guests, soak up the sunshine, and scream to their heart’s content (a favorite parrot pastime).
Cooper said as technically wild animals, companion parrots face a unique dilemma as countless numbers are still being bred and purchased by individuals who are not properly educated about their care.
“While we love all birds, we keep our mission focused on parrots because of their longevity (anywhere between 20- to 80-year lifespans) and their exceptionally challenging requirements, Cooper said. “Most will require more than one home in their lifetime, and it is our hope that every caretaker who comes into their life has the skill-set necessary to offer the happiest and healthiest life possible.”
Free Flight also strives to act as an educational resource for existing parrot owners and features behavioral consultations to help birds stay in their existing homes whenever possible and other specialized trainings and workshops as the need arises, she said.
In terms of acceptance, not all parrots brought in are adoptable, she said.
“There is a tremendous and seemingly unquenchable need for specialized parrot care and rehoming in the United States,” Cooper said. “We make a small impact, but it is always our guarantee to our accepted parrots that we will never compromise their care due to unmanageable numbers of birds or financial hardship.”
Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary
2132 Jimmy Durante Blvd. Del Mar, CA 92014
Open daily 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
(11 a.m.-2 p.m.)
Closed on major holidays.
Extended hours available for boarding clients.