Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Bird Keeper

When I took the body of my pet lovebird, Zoey, to the veterinary clinic for an autopsy, I was nearly speechless.  At the earliest opportunity, I left the building and drove home, my throat twisted and my eyes raw.  That was the hardest time.

The thing is, it happened months ago, back in April.  I didn't write about it here at the time.  Zoey was a beautiful bird that I knew and loved from the moment she hatched from the egg, some fifteen years ago.  But after memorializing her on Facebook and Tumblr, I didn't know what else I could add on this blog.

Zoey only lived in my apartment for the last month of her life, but I had never seen her as an old bird.  It's true she had some apparent medical problems, but she remained lively, curious, and friendly as always.  I had honestly forgotten how old she was, assuming I still had a few years left to take care of her and enjoy her company.  Finding her gone was a shock, because I was so determined to do my best for her.

My family has had birds since I was a kid.  And like many kids with pets, responsibility was a lesson I was sorely in need of learning.  I truly loved that succession of small parrots, of which Zoey was the last.  Taking care of them was a chore, though, and what kid doesn't try to avoid those?  

So I took on the responsibility of caring for Zoey with some apprehension.  There was my own mental health to consider.  Though I'd seen myself on an upswing since landing my new job, depression has been a constant in my life for a very long time.  I knew its effects well, especially the way it sapped my energy for necessary tasks.  The last thing I wanted was to fall into a cycle of neglect.  

That did not happen, however.  In the time Zoey lived with me, I cleaned her cage once a week, and dutifully kept her well-stocked with healthy food and fresh water.  She saw a veterinarian for an infection in her nostril, which I applied medicine for, as well as for the bare patches on her shoulders.  I played with her nearly every evening, and allowed her the freedom to explore the apartment with careful supervision.  Zoey was a happy bird, and I felt like a responsible bird keeper.

Inevitably, finding an animal in your care to be deceased leads to feelings of guilt, in addition to loss and confusion.  Those feelings diminished somewhat, when I consulted with my sister and made a better estimate of Zoey's age; she had in fact lived a long life.  But I still remembered all the times I'd been less involved in her care, and the many years I'd spent living far away from her.  Zoey and I were friends in a way I hadn't been with any other bird, and I deeply regretted the time I'd lost with her.

Far from taxing my mental health, taking on Zoey was a clear benefit.  She was a link to happy childhood memories, as well as a perpetually cheerful presence.  Tending to her needs gave me a routine that helped me structure my day, an important part of my self-therapy.  Sharing pictures and videos of her with my students made me feel proud.  And I would not put this lightly: it can be absolutely wonderful to have a pet of any kind in the home when you live by yourself.  They may not talk back, but they are incredibly sympathetic.

A beautiful young bird called Zoey.
 By the time summer came around, my next move was obvious.  I liked being a bird keeper, and I wanted to be one again.  And since there were no more family birds to take on, it was time to look out to the world for a new one.  Or, as things ultimately turned out, two.

A little searching brought me to the website of Exotic Bird Rescue of Oregon, where I found an unexpected opportunity to adopt a pair of peach face lovebirds.  Going by the unusual names of Bondog and Sherbert, they are a bonded couple of presumed females.  Both are somewhat timid, and Sherbert has a common disability: widely splayed legs that make walking and climbing an awkward affair.  But both seemed like the perfect fit for my life, though their origins as "rescue birds" remain somewhat mysterious.

Bondog (yellow) and Sherbert (green) on the day I first met them.
Clearly, there's no replacing Zoey, who would playfully chase my fingers whenever I held an interesting object and fly to my shoulder unbidden.  With Bonnie (what kind of name is Bondog anyway?) in particular, I'm lucky if I can put my finger near her without receiving a hiss and a pinch.  They love to be together, but they need separate cages whenever they fall to squabbling.  They both seem perfectly content to spend all their time in one corner of the room, preening and eyeing me with suspicion.

Bonnie does not care for a camera in the cage.
I knew as soon as I met them, however, that adopting them was not a mistake.  A bird does not need to love being handled to be a source of joy.  Watching the pair of them enjoy each other's company is a satisfying experience all its own.  When they splash their little faces with water, or even when they dive heartily into their food dishes, I feel a calm satisfaction in knowing their needs are met.  When they fly across the room after a tasty snack of millet, it's gratifying to see they are healthy and strong.  


Even such little birds can have out-sized personalities.  Bonnie is a brash character,  eager to be in the lead of things and sometimes treating her friend without consideration.  Sherbert is more shy, but she is very gentle.  She uses her splayed legs to great effect, even if her landings are always a little clumsy.  I've never seen a bird more determined to keep up.  It's true they can get to fighting sometimes, but when they start cuddling, you'll never find a sweeter pair.

Still not a big fan of that camera.
I was very clear in my intentions to have lovebirds in my home, as opposed to any other parrot species.  Over the years I came to appreciate their cleverness, their enthusiastic voices, and their sheer capacity for affection.  Bonnie and Sherbert are gorgeous animals who I look forward to caring for, years into the future.  And it will be years; one of the things they stress upon adopting a parrot is their potential longevity.  Lovebirds typically live about fifteen years, but twenty is not unheard of.  As far as can be known, Bonnie and Sherbert are both about three, so with proper care I can expect them to be in my home for at least another decade.  It's a big responsibility to take on, but I feel big enough for the task.

Yes, sometimes they are good enough to sit on my shoulder.
Already, I feel myself falling in love with these birds.  It's a wonderful thing to love an animal as a pet, to bond with a creature so different from oneself.  I believe it testifies to the remarkable reaches of the human capacity for empathy, to see and respond to something almost human in a non-human creature.

Netflix and chirp.  They're just like us!
Zoey and I had a bond of friendship, one I will always miss.  Bonnie and Sherbert are bonded with each other, but I am pleased to be a vital part of their little world.  Or, at least the part that provides millet.
Millet for days.

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