The Birds in My Life

photo1 I can clearly see the turning point.  Sometime towards the end of elementary school, we watched my neighbor’s cockatiel while they were away.  I had already been harboring a growing fascination with her, observed in the copious amount of time I spent at their house.  They were right across the street and had several small children.  I had always liked babies, and I was approaching the age where I could be deemed responsible enough to babysit.  Nothing was more appealing to Preteen-Me than the idea of getting paid to play with kids.   Thus, many of my after-school hours were spent outside and inside that neighbor’s home.  And while I certainly had fun with the kids, I also watched Keiko a lot.  I have a vague memory of an earlier neighbor’s parrot–something green and noisy that talked if you gave him a peanut.  But Keiko was on of the first I could observe up close.  And when we took her in her cage onto our dining room table for a few days, I was captivated.  Now, Keiko was not very nice–at least when I knew her.  She was getting on in years and, at that point, had five small children in her house.  She liked her space and would make certain that you knew that, too.  But even for all of her warning hisses, that bird-watching gig was definitely the turning point.  By the time Keiko went home, I had decided that I wanted a bird.

Birds were new and intriguing.  At that point in my childhood we had had dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, fish, hermit crabs, mice…possibly even the gecko and the hamster were in our possession at that time, or else quickly approaching.  Most of those animals were still around.  But, I was of an age where buying a “pet of my own” was looking more achievable.  Just as I had in the years before when I decided that we could absolutely support a miniature horse in our backyard, I dove into research to justify my wish for a new animal.  Unlike the mini-horse, I refrained from making a binder, and I was fairly successful in my quest for a bird.  Cockatiels, like Keiko, were pricey and, for once, I listened to my parents as they guided me towards an easier, “first-time bird owner” option.  In other words, something cheap, that did not have a lifespan longer than most dogs.  I finally decided on society finches.  They were slightly less common than Zebra finches in the pet store, which made them more alluring.  I wanted a boy and a girl, one fawn and one dark, which were the only colors I had seen in the pet stores.  After saving enough money for two birds and the full cage set-up, and after a long time with a very patient employee who helped capture and ascertain gender of the boy and the girl that I wanted, I was now a bird owner.  We could add yet another animal to our list of pets.  Reno and Lexi stayed in my room and I doted on the tiny finches.  I soon got them a nest, since it seemed cozy and the allure of eggs was too much to resist.  To their credit, after the broods of guinea pig babies, my parents hardly batted an eye at the idea of eggs and baby birds.  Reno and Lexi had at least two, if not three clutches of babies, several of whom I investigated and prodded petted often enough that the babies became reasonably tame, sitting on your finger outside the cage and flitting around your head.

Feather fever had struck hard with my darling finches.  I was soon saving up and researching once again.  Now that I proved that I did truly like birds and that I could care for them, I knew I could set my sights higher.  I wanted a cockatiel.  I was lucky enough to find an amazing breeder about a half hour away from us.  She had amazing credentials, beautiful birds, and was very open to talking to me.  I found there was a whole slew of colorations and details to cockatiels that I hadn’t never realized.  After a lot of back and forth, I narrowed down my options for what I wanted: a pearl female (males will lose the pearl coloring as they grow) or a normal gray male.  Since my favorite colorations were fairly common, I could have a baby in just a few months.  My family and I visited the breeder’s home and were extremely impressed.  It wasn’t long before we were back.  The round of eggs had hatched and the babies were growing.  I had moved my first choice up to a normal gray male and the breeder suggested a few babies that I could come to meet.  For those of you who don’t know, until their feather grow in after a few weeks, cockatiel babies look like tiny balding dinosaurs.  They are the most adorable things ever.  So I played with the babies a little–or mostly, I tried to pet them while they tried to get fed from my fingertips (these were hand raised and being fed by syringe every few hours).  After another visit one week later, I definitely knew which baby was coming home with me: a sweet, snuggly little boy.  While I racked my brains for names for a baby coming home in, my mom and whomever else was visiting the babies with me played with the other quickly-growing baby birds.

One in particular, seemed to show partiality to my mother.  Caught up as we were in the excitement of a new pet, my siblings and I starting to plan how to surprise my mother by purchasing the bird for her.  Luckily, the breeder told us that we would have to tell our mother–she wouldn’t sell us a second bird if she did not know that my parents wanted another cockatiel.  She also told us that the baby who seemed to like my mother was under reservation.  Another couple had reserved a cinnamon-colored male and this baby fit that reservation.   We did tell our mother our plans, and, somehow or another, she was not adverse to another cockatiel coming home with us.  But, of course,  the baby she liked was going to another family.  Now, regularly-colored cockatiels show early markings that determine gender (the distinct yellow faces of the males only develop in maturity).  But as more and more color mutations get added to the mix, those visual clues are less reliable.  Male cockatiel babies start to sing fairly early–early enough for it to be used as a deciding factor in gendering when a client requested a specific gender.  The other customers and the breeder waited for the cinnamon to sing, to be sure…..and kept waiting.  The bird did not sing.  Finally, we came to visit my baby, Cacique (Portuguese for “chief” and, culturally, the person in the tribe who could wear a crest of feathers on his head), for one of the last times before I could take him home.  The breeder was laughing when we arrived.  She explained that the couple who had reserved the cinnamon baby had chosen a different bird, since that cinnamon baby was female and not singing.  She had been excited to tell us that we could take the cinnamon girl home, now that there was no claim on her, and then, the day after the other couple took another bird, the cinnamon baby started singing.  He was male.  And through the odd twist of fate, or perhaps bird-brained planning, he was ours.

We said Apollo chose our mother.  That he pretended to be a girl long enough to enable him to come home with us instead.  As was typical in our home, where we already boasted a guinea pig called Crybaby and a dog called Bunny (neither of which were the animals’ real names), the birds soon garnered nicknames of their own.  Cacique refused to give up on his baby-bird crying–a strange sound that most cockatiel babies use to demand food and he soon began to use as a cry for attention.  With his noise and his snuggly, shamelessly-attention-seeking personality, he soon was dubbed “Ca-squeaky”, which would further diminish into Squeaky, Squeak, Keekick, and finally “Keek” which is most used today.  My sister, E, had also started the process to reserve a cockatiel and brought home Luna, a white female, a year after we brought home the boys.  Luna was the baby and a bit of a brat.  Particular and quick-to-strike, but with a laughably-soft mouth that did no harm–her nails put more pressure on your skin.  Paired with her penchant to shy and fly at the slightest provocation; plus the fact that she inherited her flying ability (or lack-there-of) from her grandsire (a bird appropriately named Flip Flop); Luna was soon cementing her own nickname of Luna-tic.  Apollo, though, was always dignified.  He was all-the-more dignified considering he shared a cage with a mussed, silly boy and an unpredictable girl called Squeak and Lunatic.  He was magnificent and knew it.  Truly, though, it took Apollo years to admit that, yes, head-scratches were awesome, and even then, if the clumsy human’s fingers messed up his crest feathers, he let his displeasure be known.  He was a fantastic specimen of ‘Tiel-kind: large and heavily built, with the longest crest I have ever seen on a cockatiel.  The feathers were long enough to start to curl back  over themselves to tip towards his beak.  Even the avian vet we visited for the birds’ check-up, after revealing that she showed cockatiels, asked if he was available for breeding.

Our trio settled into life in our wild home.  Through my middle school years and high school years, and even when I went off to college, they remained quite content in their cage, singing when you talked at them and generally trying to rule the roost.  My freshman year, I came home with a mission to save a cockatiel from the winter weather after the brother of one of my floor mates picked the “big box” at a White Elephant exchange and found himself with a cockatiel.  Nativité (Tivi) joined the flock.  Her gray feathers and lack of cheek spots proved her to be a female White-faced gray mutation, and her baby crying led us to believe she was fairly young.  She was not hand-raised as effectively as our trio, eluding any hands that might come her way in the cage, but allowed us to pick her up when she was out of the cage.

After my four years on campus and the span of time until I was out on my own, post-graduation, I had settled on the fact that I could not take Cacique with me when I moved.  Cockatiels are sociable creatures, and after over a decade with Apollo and Luna (and several years with Tivi), it would not have been fair to try to separate him from the flock.  The quartet were quite happy in their cage at my mother’s, just a few amongst the zoo that remained.

Tivi died a few months back.  We still don’t know what caused it–something sudden.  A glitch in one internal system or another.  Certainly no outward signs or disease was the culprit, since the other birds did not seemed affected.  It was sad, but, truth be told, with her reserved nature, we didn’t have much of a bond.  Life continued as normal.  This week, we found Apollo on the bottom of the cage, distressed and wheezy.  A trip to the vet wasn’t very conclusive, but they suspected what we had guessed: he had aspirated a seed.  There was an option or two, each carrying several risks and “if”s and stretches of hope leaning on the spindly legs of luck.  He needed supplementary oxygen.  He was stressed and in pain and having trouble breathing.  All of those “if”s and “maybe”s didn’t add up to enough to outweigh all of that.  We had to put him down.  Apollo was twelve years old.

The weight of this loss is surprising.  It shouldn’t be.  His life was as long as many dogs.  We often said that our ‘tiels were like puppies.  Cacique snuggles up in tight spaces.  All of them beg for head scratches.  They can convey their moods, their likes, and dislikes as much as a dog or a cat.  Of course, with Cacique being the same age and Luna just a year behind, I know they are in the latter half of their lives.  But this fluke, this accident, is harder to swallow than the slow decline of old age.  It isn’t fair.  This isn’t how things were supposed to happen.

The house is quieter, now.  Apollo was the singer of the group, talking throughout the day, especially if you spoke back.  When I saw them the day before yesterday, Squeak and Tic seemed to be alternating between quiet befuddlement and facing off for the newly-open position of ruler of the roost.  This proud little bird has left a pretty big hole.  His life and our love for him is a collection of small moments.  I have no big stories to prove his worth, nor handfuls of funny tales to make those of you unfamiliar with cockatiels able to recognize his intelligence. I can simply say that he radiated pride, even arrogance.  He deemed to let you pet him.  Somehow, in a ‘tiel, these traits are more amusing than annoying, were tolerated, not discouraged.  He was a character, through and through, and we loved him for it.  Though it is far too soon, all that is left to say is: Goodbye.

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