Feathered Kids

[I started writing this article over two years ago. I’ve finally taken the time to go back and clean it up, removing some content that didn’t make sense anymore and adding a bit of new information. If you notice it doesn’t hang together perfectly, that’s why. –Scott]

I am probably never going to have genetic offspring. I’m not bitter about that because it’s no one’s fault but my own. I married too young, and that marriage failed. Then, after 10 years of running scared, I married again, this time to someone for whom marital fidelity meant not getting caught, and wasted 10 years rationalizing before pulling the ejection handle a second time.  I’m too old for fatherhood now. It’s something I no longer allow to bother me. The mental gymnastics that have allowed me to accept it without feeling blue are complex, but they work and I’m fine.  I am married now to someone I respect, and instead of children, I have birds.

My life’s been filled with the happy sounds of birds lately, and the sounds often annoy my sensitive ears. I let it upset me sometimes, but I really should not, because I have known the silence of their absence. At those times when I become morose, I remind myself of how lucky and blessed I really am.  My lovely and wonderful wife, Allison, has (to my great surprise and utter enchantment) completely accepted and even come to share my love of birds. When we first met, the only bird in my life was a cockatiel named Big Bird, who had belonged to my mother before her passing. I had never cared for a cockatiel before and probably would not have adopted one on my own, but my mother loved this bird and asked me before her death to make sure that her feathered child was well cared for.

I have always loved parrots and birds in general, and I have learned a great deal about taking care of them.  From the late 1990s, there were three birds in my life.  I lost two of them in close succession in late 2005. Phoenix, my very first parrot and the most talkative nanday conure I have ever known, passed away quite suddenly on the morning of October 12, an event that left me completely inconsolable. Only a few months later, a heartless judge awarded custody of my beloved blue and gold macaw, Sammy, to my ex-wife as part of the divorce settlement, and I have no idea what became of him.

2006 left me with only Big Bird, and with the changes in my living situation, I soon found that she and I were a large enough family unit for the time being. When I elected to move in with Allison, one of my first and biggest concerns was whether or not Big Bird would be accepted. I remember arriving with her little cage and finding a cozy place waiting for her, with a nice, warm bird blanket to cover her cage at night and a sign that said, “WELCOME BIG BIRD,” and I remember shedding tears of relief and joy.

Allison and her son Ray took to Big Bird immediately, and she to them. Ray and Big Bird would talk as he worked and played at his computer. Allison bought her treats and laughed at the way she would mimic laughter and short phrases. Big Bird was part of the family and very much loved, and I have the comfort of knowing that her days with us were happy and stress-free.

One night, Ray noticed that Big Bird seemed just a little off. She wasn’t climbing around much, but she didn’t seem terribly sick and she seemed to be eating and drinking. I worried, but there was little chance of finding an emergency vet who would see a cockatiel at midnight, so we covered her cage warmly and planned to get her to the vet’s office first thing the next morning.

I couldn’t sleep. I was up every hour or two checking on her, and there was little change. I finally fell asleep for a few hours just before dawn, and when I checked on her, she was lifeless.

Allison’s parents have a house on a lake in a mountain community nearby. Allison’s father understands as few do the way I feel about animals, because he feels great affection for the animals in his life, too. He graciously offered me a resting place for Big Bird, and there she lies today, still much loved and never to be forgotten. I have discovered myriad reasons to admire and respect Allison’s father; this is but one of them.

My life has been much more complete and has had far more purpose and meaning since I met Allison, but I must admit that Big Bird’s passing left a bird-shaped emptiness in me that nothing else could seem to fill. I missed the sounds, I think, but mostly I just missed Big Bird and the odd sort of passive, avian companionship she gave me. Allison seemed to know this. One Sunday, she suggested going to a bird fair that was being held at the Farmer’s Market, and we drove down. We didn’t really go with the intention of getting a bird, but the thought probably was not far from either of our minds.

As we arrived, just inside the door, we came across a breeder who had two freshly-weaned, hand-fed green-cheeked conures. (Pyrrhura molinae) Allison asked if we could see them, and we could immediately tell that these were very well socialized birds who had been brought up unusually well. The one I ended up handling was very sweet, soaking up affection and cuddling like a teddy bear, and in the end I think she sort of chose us. Allison and I had a brief discussion and both knew the bird was coming home with us.

Some hours later, a little green bird named Kelly was happily nibbling away at some healthy bird food and enjoying her spacious new cage. I was both excited and a little intimidated by the fact that she was only eight or nine weeks old, and that her socialization and training were entirely up to us. She learned to play “peek-a-bird,” hiding behind her cage cover and popping her head out suddenly. Though we’d named her Kelly, all of us had trouble remembering to call her anything other than “Baby Bird,” and those turned out to be her first words.

We needn’t have worried; Baby Bird has grown up to be a lively, talkative bird with a very strong, captivating personality.  She loves company and talks to us constantly, learning new words almost daily.

We became regulars at the quarterly bird shows in Forest Park, mainly because that was the best place to find really good prices on the specially formulated foods that parrot-like birds need.  While shopping one weekend, we passed the table of a breeder displaying a big, red female eclectus parrot (Eclectus roratus roratus).  The bird was in a cage far too small for it, but she seemed to be dealing well with the situation.  She even said a few faint words to us as we peeked in on her.  When we asked the breeder about her, we were told a surprising story.

“That bird is mean and will bite anyone who comes near her,” we were told.  She’d been raised from a hatchling and kept in the home at first, but eventually other birds and other priorities had relegated her to life in a barn.   The cage she was in was filthy, and her severe malnutrition was evidenced by the bowl full of seeds in her cage and the appallingly orange color of the root of her beak.  When we asked to see her, the breeder reached into the cage with a towel and pinned her to the wall until she submitted out of sheer terror, a stressful event I only just managed to witness without physical intervention of my own.

Allison and I, after visiting with the bird for a few minutes, stepped outside to talk.  I know what I’m about when it comes to handling parrots, and the few minutes of interaction with this bird had told me that the breeder had no idea how wrong he was.  This was not a mean, aggressive bird.  This was a bird who had been fed crap, abused, and neglected until she was half-insane with stress.  I could not stand to see a bird treated that way, and Allison soon revealed that she felt the same way.  Neither of us was comfortable not doing something, and the only thing we could imagine doing was taking her home and making her well. We hadn’t come looking for a bird, but we concluded that we did have room for one, and that this bird needed us.  We decided to give her a home.

It was now time for Allison to do her thing.  Allison knows how to bargain with people, and when she goes after something, she generally gets it.  She quickly and expertly reached a deal with the breeder that made sense to all of us.  To him it was a minor loss, and to us it was the cost of a rescue.  In any event, Jojo came home with us.

At first, she lived up to the reputation her breeder had given her.  My first few attempts to take her out of the carrier cage were met with rather fierce aggression.  An eclectus has a sizeable beak with the power of a pair of Vise-Grip™ pliers, and she made hamburger of my right hand in short order.  Slow progress was made and trust was built, and within a couple of hours, Jojo took her first cautious step onto my hand.  The joy of knowing that my instincts were right, that this was not a mean and aggressive bird, was overpowering.

Jojo quickly became a part of the family, even though she’s most assuredly the oddball of the bunch.  She still reacts with nervous aggression when handled or approached by women.  Her favorite call is the raucous “caw” of a crow, obviously learned during her life in the barn.   She eats a healthy diet now, but still won’t take food offered by hand.  Her beak is now a deep, healthy black all over, and she’s in a nice, big cage with room to spare.

Mila, our big blue and gold macaw (Ara ararauna), entered our lives when we decided to visit a parrot rescue organization located in middle Georgia. They were having an open house, and we were looking forward to seeing what a well-run rescue organization looked like.

We’re still waiting. I won’t name the place or its proprietors, but it was a horrific place. At the time, I think I likened it to Auschwitz for birds, and I apologize if the Holocaust reference offends; this is the image it conjured up. Dozens, hundreds of birds were crowded into haphazardly constructed aviaries and cages. Many looked ill or seemed to have mental issues. Piles of abandoned cages and junk lined the property. It was upsetting and heart-wrenching to see, and neither of us could manage to look on this horror for very long. As we were about to leave, we noticed a blue and gold macaw who had apparently just arrived. We thought he looked happy and healthy and bright-eyed, and we both knew he wouldn’t be that way very long once he was out in that prison yard.

After some interaction, both we and the shelter owner agreed that the bird, named “Miles,” seemed to welcome our attention. We adopted him on the spot. Miles spent his first couple of nights in a somewhat cramped cage while we made necessary arrangements for a larger one, but he took it in stride and was quickly feeling right at home once he was in roomier quarters. A visit to the avian vet was in order, and a clean bill of health was given to … what’s this? … our female macaw? Oh dear. Seeking a name that wouldn’t be too confusing, we quickly replaced “Miles” with “Mila.” She still calls herself “Miles” now and then, and we smile and say her proper name.

Radar, a Nanday conure (Nandayus nenday), adopted me at a bird show in Norcross, Georgia. Allison and I were admiring a whole clutch of very young Nandays, not even really old enough to fly. One of them kept fluttering to me, though, every time I stepped close enough to the cage. We were doing photographs at that show, so over the course of those two days, I came back a few times, and each time I stepped anywhere near the Nanday cage, that same Nanday would fly a foot or two to grab onto my shirt. It was heartwarming, and despite the irrationality of it, I could not help feeling that the spirit of Phoenix, who had also been a Nanday, was reaching out to me. Allison talked about adopting him even before I did. He was named Radar after Radar O’Reilly, a character on M*A*S*H who almost always wears an army jeep cap. (Nandays have a solid black head that looks a lot like a stocking cap.)

Two Timneh African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus timneh) live with us. They belong to Allison’s daughter, Chelsea, whose living situation currently won’t accommodate them. Their names, Phantom and Christine, reflect both Chelsea’s love of The Phantom of the Opera and (in Phantom’s case) their scarred appearance when we rescued them. A naive person who thought they might breed put them in the same cage, not giving them much attention. Christine had plucked Phantom completely bald, and Christine wasn’t in much better condition for the retaliation she endured. We separated them, gave them the right food, lots of attention, and more space, and they are both presently thriving. Phantom’s feather follicles were sufficiently damaged that some may never recover, but he’s grown most of his feathers back and he’s happy and comfortable. They’re a hoot to have around, especially since Chelsea has taught Christine to make a really loud farting sound whenever her beak is pulled.

The seventh and latest member of our flock is Boo-Boo, a severe macaw. Boo-Boo was purchased by a man for his children, and his children didn’t like him. (This happens often — people have no idea that an animal is NOT a gift, and that parrots have long lifespans, and that parrots require a lot of attention. That’s why there are so many rescue birds.)

Not only did the children not like Boo-Boo, but they taunted him, and he went a little crazy. He babbles (“whatever, bird, whatever,” probably imitating the kids), he overpreens, he only grudgingly accepts grooming, and he screams. Our initial hope was to rescue him and immediately find him a good home with someone who could care for him properly, but his current problems make him a very poor candidate for re-homing. Allison’s son Raymond has sort of stepped in and is working with him every day, and his behavior is improving, but he’s got a long way to go. I’m pretty good with birds, but at times even I am at a loss as to how to make progress with him. If it were easy anyone could do it, I guess.

So I imagine it must be with parenting.

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