Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Life is for the birds

Over the years, I have had several cherished pets, but none that I have enjoyed as much as our current flock of birds, which consists of three cockatiels and a budgie. We started out with Oochie, who was given to our son Colin by one of his aunts as a Christmas gift in 1998, and then sort of passed on to the rest of the family when Colin left home three years ago. In May, 2004, Ceci was given to us by a family in our ward who were moving out of state. I quickly became quite attached to her, and Ceci’s sudden death about 16 months ago hit me very hard. Within a day or two after Ceci died, I purchased another cockatiel at PetSmart; but this one, which never had a name, did not adjust well to his new surroundings, so I returned him to the store about ten days later. The unnamed bird was in turn replaced by Yo-yo, and three weeks after we acquired Yo-yo, I visited a local bird store and instantly fell in love with yet another cockatiel, who (naturally) ended up in our home and now answers to the name of Spoots. (After I purchased Spoots, my wife dubbed me the Birdman of Chandler, and the title is very apt.) Meanwhile, our former bishop’s wife found the budgie in her backyard and called to ask if we would take that one in, too. The budgie remained unnamed for about three months, until I came up with a name that stuck: Elbie Jaye. And as I am always quick to point out, she is indeed named after the 36th President of the United States.

The past few years have been very difficult for me, and the last 12 months have been especially so. But I have discovered that the birds, along with my photography and the dance lessons I mention here from time to time, have been very therapeutic for me, and I have a hard time trying to imagine my life without them. I never cease to find their antics amusing, and the dynamic among the three cockatiels is especially fun to watch. Spoots, at about 18 months of age, is the youngest of the three, and the others seem to regard him much as we would an obnoxious and annoying kid next door. If Spoots may be likened to Dennis the Menace, Yo-yo is probably the counterpart to Mr. Wilson. Whenever I open Spoots’s cage to let him out, he always goes to Oochie’s (presumably because that's where the action is); but has to cross Yo-yo’s cage to get there, and that often generates some sparks as the two birds hiss and snap at each other through the bars on the cage. (During his continuing efforts to establish a prescriptive easement across that cage, Spoots has been known to help himself to part of Yo-yo's honey-bar treat, which hangs inside the cage but within range of Spoots's beak.) All of the birds seem to acknowledge Oochie as the leader of their merry little band, and Yo-yo has become attached to Oochie to such a degree that he will scream in panic if Oochie is moved more than a few feet away, or if he flutters down to the floor and thus drops out of Yo-yo’s line of sight. (For that reason, I always take Oochie and Yo-yo together when it’s time to get their wings clipped, although Spoots is fine about making the trip unaccompanied by either of the other ‘tiels.)

Elbie is extremely timid, but otherwise is a very happy little bird, and she spends the entire day singing and chattering and playing with her cage toy. Yo-yo was evidently not hand-fed when he was young, and while he seems to like all of us just fine on his terms, I have never been able to get him to perch on my finger, and I don’t think my wife and daughter have even tried to do so. I have also learned through unfortunate experience that Yo-yo can really bite. I keep trying to train him, but it is very difficult. Lately I have taken to opening up his cage and letting him climb out, but he usually emerges only after prolonged hesitation because I am always in the room while the cage is open. And once he does get out, putting him back in is a bit problematic.

All of the foregoing leads up to this observation, which occurred to me last night. Spoots and I have developed a sort of evening ritual, in which he keeps me company while I lie on the sofa watching television. The bird will nibble on my watch, the TV remote, the buttons on my shirt, or whatever else is available at the moment, and sometimes I'll pet him or offer some kind of snack, as I did last night. (This time the snack consisted of Cheerios.) Usually we'll be together for an hour, sometimes two, before I return Spoots to his cage. It occurred to me last night, as I played with Spoots while watching a Christiane Amanpour special on CNN, that my little friend was a calming influence on me, and that my life somehow seemed better, or at least more manageable, with him and his three companions in it than it might have been otherwise. Spoots cares not a whit that virtually every single thing I have ever tried to do has been difficult for me, or that we struggle so hard financially, or that I've never had the kind of career I had hoped to have, or even about the fact that I have had many more failures than successes in my life. He accepts me just as I am, warts and all; and all that really matters to Spoots is that I am there for him, that I keep his food and water trays filled (while throwing in extra treats from time to time), and that I play with him regularly. And somehow he manages to reward me quite handsomely for all of those things.

The birds are probably ideal pets for me, but that obviously is not true for everyone. Cockatiels, in particular, are a bit on the noisy side, and can be rather messy as well. (Cockatiel owners tend to have a close relationship with their vacuum cleaners as well as with the birds.) Then there are the constant chores: cages to clean, fresh vegetables and fruits to chop up, toys to rotate around (and frequently replace), and the need for constant vigilance against hazards that would probably not even occur to people who do not themselves own birds. But to me, all of this has been well worth it, and our birds have brought me a generous portion of joy during a time when I have been badly in need of it. They have convinced me of the therapeutic value of pets in general, which I now invite my readers to consider, especially if life has dealt them a less-than-ideal hand of cards.

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