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A pet cockatiel escaped. A Billy Joel song helped return him to his owner.

When the cockatiel began bobbing his head to a song by the Piano Man, they knew who the bird belonged to

One of the fliers that Christine Iturrino posted around her Myrtle Beach neighborhood about Joel, her missing pet cockatiel. The Washington Post has redacted the QR codes and cropped this image to protect personal information. (Christine Iturrino)
7 min

Christine Iturrino got home from the supermarket in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and was about to bring her groceries into her house when she suddenly and unexpectedly saw Joel, her pet cockatiel. He flew out of her open front door and landed on her shoulder as she stood outside.

She gasped.

“In a panic, I tried to grab him, which you’re not supposed to do with birds,” said Iturrino, 58. “That freaked him out and he flew away toward the ocean, screaming all the way. I was heartsick.”

Iturrino had adopted Joel from a bird rescue group 18 months earlier and loved having him as her sidekick around the house. The two got along quite well and were happy in their routine of sharing breakfast and listening to ’80s pop music, she said.

Iturrino spun into action, quickly printing colorful LOST BIRD notices emblazoned with “Parrot alert” and REWARD REWARD REWARD. She tacked them up all over her beachside neighborhood that weekend, Feb. 25.

She took two days off from her job as a regional transit bus driver to dedicate her time to finding Joel. She posted photos of the bird on social media, handed out additional fliers and looked tirelessly around the neighborhood for him.

Joel was a rescue cockatiel, and she didn’t know how old he was, but she figured he had many more years to live as her bird companion. Cockatiels in captivity typically live up to 20 or 25 years.

Joel has the run of the house, she said, and usually only spends time in his cage at night.

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“He loves music, especially [Billy Joel’s] ‘Uptown Girl,’ and whistling,” Iturrino posted on Facebook, explaining how she believes the rescue bird acquired the name Joel.

“Most important, please, please keep him safe,” Iturrino added in her post. “I had promised him that and I’ve let him down.”

She was kicking herself for not being more careful as she brought in her groceries.

“He’s very people friendly, so I had a lot of hope,” Iturrino said. “But I was still pretty upset, especially as more time passed. I began to worry I’d never see him again.”

Then on March 6, nine days after Joel flew away, Iturrino was driving a bus when she took a quick break at a stop and glanced at her phone.

She had a text from an employee at SkyWheel Myrtle Beach, a 200-foot Ferris wheel with 42 enclosed gondolas. The SkyWheel is a popular tourist attraction on Myrtle Beach’s boardwalk and is located about two miles from Iturrino’s house.

The text said: “I work at the beach — I think we found your bird.”

The employee, Theresa Glazer, added a photo of Joel perched on her shoulder inside the SkyWheel ticket booth.

Iturrino could hardly believe it.

“I started shouting out to the passengers, ‘They found my bird!’” she said.

Glazer said she’d keep Joel with her for the day, then bring him to Iturrino’s house that evening. When Iturrino came home from work, Glazer came over with Joel wrapped in a towel. It was an emotional reunion for Iturrino, and perhaps for Joel as well, but a bird’s emotions are harder to assess.

“He squawked at me, then flew over to my shoulder,” Iturrino said. “I kept telling him how much I’d missed him, and what a brave boy he was. It really was a series of miracles that brought him home.”

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Glazer told Iturrino the story of how her cockatiel was found.

Glazer’s co-worker, Gavin Scire, was about 100 feet up a ladder attached to the Ferris wheel for a morning safety check on March 6 when he heard some loud chirping and noticed Joel hopping around on the bars in the middle of the wheel.

“Everyone at SkyWheel calls [Gavin] their Spider-Man because of all the climbing he does,” Iturrino said. “When he held out his arm, Joel flew right to him.”

It was unclear how much time he’d been there.

“There’s no telling how long Joel was up on the SkyWheel, but he definitely wanted to come down,” she said, explaining that the cockatiel was likely frightened to fly down from such a high perch.

Because cockatiels can survive only 24 to 48 hours without food, Iturrino said Joel probably found some nuts, seeds and greens to eat during his flyaway adventure.

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Scire and Glazer declined to be interviewed for this story. But Sean Bailey, marketing manager at SkyWheel Attractions, said Scire told him that the bird seemed happy to see him and walked up his arm to nestle inside the hood of his sweatshirt.

“Joel was clearly happy to see Gavin and wanted to be rescued,” Bailey said, noting that it took about five minutes for Scire to climb down the ladder with the bird inside his hoodie.

“He took Joel inside the SkyWheel booth and he and Teresa gave him some water,” Bailey added, noting that Joel refused to go inside a small pet carrier they had. “Instead, he perched on Theresa’s shoulder all day while she tried to find out who he belonged to.”

Glazer texted her mother and told her she had a cockatiel on her shoulder for the day at work. Her mother mentioned it to a neighbor.

“The neighbor had seen the ‘missing bird’ notices about Joel and remembered the fact that he liked Billy Joel music,” Bailey said. “Theresa was then able to get Christine’s phone number from the notice and text her.”

Upon seeing the flier, they called up some Billy Joel music inside the SkyWheel booth and played it for him.

“When he started bobbing his head up and down, that’s when everyone knew this was definitely Christine’s bird,” Bailey said.

Iturrino was thrilled the fliers worked.

Once she had her feathered buddy home, she had planned to make him a fried egg — his favorite treat — but he seemed more interested in sleeping than eating.

The next morning, Joel was back to his usual routine, she said, noting that he always perches on her shoulder at breakfast and sometimes eats small bits of oatmeal in addition to eggs.

“I took him to the vet and they said he looks fine, other than being a little underweight,” Iturrino said. “I’m so happy to have him back — Joel is such a big part of my life. I realized that every day while he was gone.”

Bailey said he’s proud of Scire and Glazer for getting the cockatiel to safety and tracking down Iturrino.

“They literally took our customer service to new heights,” he joked. “Joel isn’t just a pet to Christine — he’s a friend. We’re very happy we could reunite them.”

At some point, Iturrino said she hopes to get a harness for Joel and take him back to the SkyWheel to personally thank Scire and the others for rescuing him.

“I’ve joked that I should come by and pay for all of Joel’s free rides,” she said.

Bailey said no payment is necessary.

“We’ll give them both a ride,” he said. “And we’ll be sure to play ‘Uptown Girl’ for Joel, so he can rock out to it.”