Great Escape: Birds Flee the Bronx Coop

A rare inca tern limped across the parking lot of Access Self-Storage in northern New Jersey last week, and an Andean gull coasted above a Dumpster in the Bronx. Two more exotic Andeans settled on the reservoir of the Bronx's Lehman College, and another Inca tern -- a dark blue beauty with a red bill and comic white mustache -- has been aerially touring Manhattan's Upper West Side.

It was the fallout from the great fall-in of '95. The 10-inch snowstorm of the weekend before had made the 80-foot steel-mesh aviary at the Bronx Zoo (recently renamed The International Wildlife Conservation Park in a full-employment act for sign painters) collapse. Of the 100 resident South American sea birds, 33 saw their moment and flew the coop. Caught in 50-mile-an-hour winds, most were quickly blown far from the zoo. Workers, hearing the crash, reached the aviary within minutes of the cave-in. Mike Gormaley, 25, got there in time to see a family of Peruvian Grey gulls and a lone Andean fly to freedom. A flock of Inca terns had retreated from the chaos into their burrow, and the flightless penguins were cowering three to a den. The lone Band-Tail gull -- the only one of its kind in North America -- was missing in action.

All seven varieties in the aviary are rare but not endangered. Zoo officials were more embarrassed than distraught, especially the crew that had haggled for three years with Peru to get the six Grey gulls last seen headed for Hoboken. All the birds are used to New York winters. The problem is finding food. The Inca tern nabbed in the parking lot is suffering from frostbite, but six other zoo birds sighted around the city seemed hardy. Hardy enough, anyway, to avoid the six bird "rehabilitators" recruited by the zoo to net them.