I can’t remember was drove me into begging my parents when I was 14-15 to let me get a bird. I suppose it was because I was reaching a low point in my young life, suffering with a not-yet-fully-controlled anxiety disorder, not-fully-understood thyroid disease and severe clinical depression. My mom and I sat down and researched birds, bought books and BirdTalk magazines. We did this for a year. During this time I would frequent a tiny, local pet shop (though I wouldn’t really call it a “pet shop” since it was family-owned and local to the area with only one teensy shop in existence) called Tropical Encounters. They had snakes and iguanas and dragons and exotic fish and ferrets and the occasional litter of kittens and always, always birds. Finches, canaries and parrots. I befriended many of the larger birds because they weren’t as wary of me as the smaller birds.
One day in the summer of my 16th year they had a brood of new baby cockatiels and I would visit the shop as often as I could to see the brood and talk to them. When my parents decided to let me have one, we went to the shop and I went to the brooder and put my hand inside. The babies cried to be fed, bobbing their heads and a few crowded my hand, but lost interest when they realized I had nothing to feed them with. Only one baby stuck around, nudging and nuzzling my fingers. He chose me and I said “I like him.” We put down a deposit on him and I have no idea how they kept track of all the different babies because they all looked the same at that point and they didn’t band their ankles. At one point during his weaning, he took his first flight and careened into a glue trap for ants. He damaged several of his flight feathers and lost many of his contours on his left side. All I had to do was look for the victim of the glue trap to know which of the babies was mine. When he was weaned the following September after my birthday in August and I could finally take him home, it was two or three weeks after I had had my wisdom teeth excavated from my face. I was dopey from painkillers and generally in a bad mood because of a dry socket infection. He made me feel better just by looking at me.
He was still all raggedy looking from the incident with the glue trap and he was just adorable. I had his cage all spiffied up with toys and perches and food and water waiting for him. I spent the first few weeks with him every waking hour, handling him as often as he wanted to be and feeding him from my hand to gain his trust. During those weeks of getting to know him, he showed his quirky personality, like his fascination with my toes (he still sings to them) and waddling around everywhere and climbing all over me like I was a tree to be explored. I named him Matisse, after Henri Matisse, the eccentric French artist. I frequently visited Tropical Encounters, to visit with Carline (the owner) and the birds there.
On one visit I met a female blue-headed Pionus named Jewel. She was a very mellow hen and let me hold her and stroke her breast and head and cheeks and touch her beak and feet. I went to my mom and dad raving about this bird called a blue-headed Pionus. I spent the following year learning everything I could about Pionus and when I was 17, I found a local breeder of Pionus, African greys, red-bellies and Senegals through an ad in the back of a BirdTalk magazine. We visited her and were introduced to her two or three breeding pairs of Pionus, one of which was brooding a clutch of eggs. We put a deposit down for a baby. When the clutch hatched and was given to a hand-feeder, we were allowed to see the babies during feedings. When the babies were old enough to be handled, I was allowed to choose one. The babies were put in a towel-lined bin after a feeding and I sat at the hand-feeder’s kitchen table with them. They all climbed out and wandered around. One came straight to me. He chose me and I said “I like this one.” These babies were banded, so my information was taken down with the baby’s band number. A blood sample was taken and sent to be DNA sexed. The results came back that my baby was a male. I would visit him as often as I was allowed and get to know him after feedings. He was a very mouthy baby and liked to chew and pull and generally play very raucously. I named him Ares, after the Roman/Greek god of war/mischief because he was noisy (not loud) and liked to play rough. When he was weaned, I took him home and got him settled. He liked to be handled more than Matisse and we did everything together. And he sure lived up to his name; he was far, far noisier than the ‘typical breed standard’ that was described.
During the first year I had him (my 18th year), I reached a very low point in my life. I attempted suicide one night driving home from a friend’s house after dark. I was sobbing, feeling terrible and just not wanting to deal with my life anymore. I started to gradually turn the wheel, edging the car toward the on-coming lane of traffic. As I was drifting slowly into the middle lane, thoughts of my younger brother came to me first. What would he do without me? Then I thought of my parents. What would they do without me? I thought of my friend who’s house I’d just left. What would she do without me? I thought of the other car I was going to hit. What would the driver’s family do without them? Then I thought of my birds. What would THEY do without me? I swung the car back into my lane and drove the rest of the way home a hysterical sobbing mess, feeling horribly guilty that I EVER entertained the notion of leaving my precious boys behind by committing suicide.
But soon after Ares’ first birthday (my 19th year) and his first-year molt, when he’d grown into his adult plumage and all his flight feathers, my world was shattered when he escaped me outside. Thursday, June 1, exactly 12 noon. I went to get the mail. I had him close to me with his feet held firmly between my finger and thumb. But a bird passing overhead spooked him and he got away from me. He had all his flight feathers and his flight muscles were well-developed from flying around my bedroom (door closed) for exercise. I stood in the driveway dumbstruck and hoped he’d just land in the backyard and scream for me to rescue him. But he kept flying and made a right. I raced after him, through my backyard and the neighbor’s. He made another right and disappeared down the neighbor’s side yard. I chased him through the side yard and caught a glimpse of his red-tipped tail disappearing over the neighbor’s roof across the street. I literally collapsed in the street, now fully understanding the meaning of “I was numb.” I honestly could not feel my body or comprehend anything going on around me, much less form anything remotely close to coherent thought. I was completely and utterly detached from reality. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t think, other than the phrase “I lost him” repeating over and over in my head. I cried day and night for two weeks, putting out flyers and searching all over the city of Ogden and the tiny town of North Ogden for him. My mom asked me one night if I wanted to get another bird and I practically screamed “No!” because the thought of “replacing” him was appalling.
On a Friday night of the second week, I got a phone call from a lady named Becky. She said “I saw your flyer. Have you found your bird yet?” I said “No, have you?” She said “No, but I have a proposition for you.” The following Saturday, I went to her house and met her 4-year-old Jenday conure, Tipsy. She named him that because when he was a baby he would tip over when he walked. Normally, she said, he’s a mildly anti-social, territorial one-person bird (and a fantastic flier, I might add). I offered my hand to him and he came to me immediately. Becky was amazed. My mom and dad just smiled because, I don’t know…I’m not afraid of being bitten and I guess whatever animal I encounter can sense my fearlessness and in turn aren’t afraid of me, and my parents call it something like an ‘uncanny ability’ or ‘sixth sense’. I spent a week, maybe two, going over to Becky’s house almost every day to see Tipsy. She couldn’t care for him properly anymore because her daughter’s husband was abusive to him and they were living with Becky and her husband at the time. She offered to let me take him for free. I felt a connection to Tipsy and assured my mom that I wanted to take him. Needed to. On a Friday afternoon, I prepared Ares’ cage for Tipsy and moved it into the (finished) basement for a standard 30-day quarantine. That evening, I brought him home with me and introduced him to his new home. Caring for him and gradually introducing Matisse to him kept my mind from dwelling on Ares, even though I’ve kept a lookout for him every day since 2006. Tipsy is 8 years old now and Matisse is 4. Ares would be 3. The hardest part is not knowing what happened to him. I still blame myself for it…if I had only clipped his wings, if I hadn’t taken him outside with me. But then, I think to myself, if he hadn’t gotten away from me, Tipsy wouldn’t be in my life. Tipsy has healed the wound Ares left, but the wound will never completely heal. It still bleeds every now and then as I continue to cope with the guilt. But Matisse and Tipsy keep me going.
I’m 23 now, soon to be 24. Every day, I get out of bed for my birds. Every day, I keep living for my birds. If not for them, I’m not sure I would be alive today. Right now, as I type this, Tipsy and Matisse are napping contentedly. I look at them and tears come to my eyes. Pain and longing for Ares, but overwhelming love and gratitude for Tipsy and Matisse. They give me purpose in life. It’s because of them that I am going to be pursuing a career in veterinary technology, ornithology and wildlife rehabilitation, specializing in birds (of all kinds). I live, quite literally, for birds. For my boys. I will never stop living for them. For them.