Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Feathered Friends

When I was seven years old I talked my Mom into getting me a bird. I picked a bright blue budgie and called him Cherry. He was a sweet little fellow that rode around on my shoulder and loved molasses cookies. He gave kisses and yelled when anyone tried to use the telephone. Those were the days before cordless phones, so we were stuck in one place and he knew it. I would watch him for hours and laugh at his antics. Every summer when I went to visit my Aunt in the countryside along the Susquehanna River, Cherry's cage and my dog would share the back seat with me. Cherry died when I was seventeen.

In sixth grade I traded my ant farm to a boy for a pigeon with an injured wing. I felt he was mistreating it. I brought it home from school and he or she stayed in the yard all day and in the basement at night. About a week later my Uncle came home with another pigeon that had been injured. The two birds spent their days together and once their injuries healed, they left together.

When I moved back to New York from Myrtle Beach I stayed with my Aunt, Uncle and cousins for awhile. I was enjoying my unemployment and hanging around in the country. About that time my Uncle received a permit from the State to raise Mallard ducks and sell their eggs. He came home with six little Mallard ducklings. Of course, we named them and hand fed them and made pets of them. I donated
Libby's old dog house to put alongside the pond for them to sleep in. Unfortunately, none of us liked eating duck eggs, so that never really worked out.

We had one pair of ducks that was monogamous. The female laid a clutch, tended her eggs, hatched them out and led her ducklings to the pond to swim. The other ducks would find a nest, lay eggs, then lose interest and wander off leaving the eggs. They would sometimes lay an egg in the driveway and try to roll it to the nest, leaving it cracked and broken. They just weren't cut out for motherhood.

We borrowed an incubator from the school, a book on raising ducks from the library and decided to take over the hatching job. Because I was home all day, I volunteered to be in charge. I gathered eggs in the morning and stored them in the cellar till there were enough to fill the incubator. Once they were in the incubator they had to be cooled once a day for a certain period of time and twice a day they had to be turned and sprayed with water. We candled them to find which ones were fertile.

We kept the incubator in the library and one day to amuse myself while cooling the eggs, I started playing the piano. I noticed that on certain notes the eggs wiggled. That evening I showed off my new trick to my cousins. After that I would occasionally make the eggs dance while waiting.

My family went on vacation leaving me at home w
ith the three dogs, Libby; my cousin's beagle, Boogle; and my uncle's St. Bernard, Brandy; and all the eggs . On the fourth morning I noticed a couple of the eggs were pipped. Later that day I could glimpse a tiny duckbill poking out. That night the first three ducklings struggled out of their shells, wet and exhausted. They remained in the incubator until they were dry, then I put them in the brooder under a heat lamp. The next morning they were fluffy and brown and hungry. While checking on the rest of the eggs, I watched one that was cracked fly apart and a very large duckling stepped out. I named him Killer and he went on to become the leader of our flock.

Ducklings hatched from an incubator don't have the benefit of the water proofing oils secreted by their mother. They can only swim for a few minutes before they start to sink. We would set up a kiddie wading pool in the yard with a ramp for the ducklings to walk up into the water. Then we'd have to watch them closely and lift them out when they started taking on too much water. We also had to teach t
hem to fly. We would get about twenty people together and stand in two lines facing each other about six feet apart. We would hand a grown duck to the people in one line and they would toss the duck to the person in the other line. The idea was to get the ducks to flap their wings and fly. The ducks had other ideas. Some would float to the ground and take off running. We would have to round them up and start again. This made for a lot of exercise for the humans and a lot of laughter. All but one duck learned to fly.

We incubated and hatched out three sets of ducklings in all. We were up to our necks in ducks by then, so we stopped. Each year we would lose a few when the wild ducks migrated. Some of ours would join them. We did sell a few and the rest lived out the lives at the pond, and in the swimm
ing pool if anyone left the gate open.

I told Rob about Cherry and for my birthday he surprised me with a little blue budgie. It was about two weeks after Lucy came to live with us and as she had been named for the Peanuts cartoon character, we decided to call him Schroeder. He was easy to finger train, but I soon noticed that he was a little too attached to me. He would try to mate with my hand. To solve the problem Rob brought home a blue female budgie.

For the first few days I kept the new bird in my office to make sure she was healthy before exposing her to Schroeder. The first day I checked on her in the afternoon and she had made a mess of my desk. She had thrown seeds all over, grabbed a corner of a piece of paper and ripped it up and pooped on my desk. I called her a little vandal and the name stuck. Rob hadn't noticed that she had a deformed leg, but it didn't seem to bother her. She was also a little wheezy at times, but she lived up to her name. I gave her a strawberry one day, then had to go out. When I returned I checked on her. She was all red, so was the perch and several areas on the wall. We repainted the wall, but it always had a reddish tint.

One day while living in Maryland there was an ice storm. I looked out the window and saw a mockingbird puffed up in the tree exposed to the wind and rain. I put some raisins on the doorstep and she flew down and ate them. I started putting raisins out every day and put a few in the wreath on the door. She would eat the raisins, then sit in the wreath the rest of the day. Soon I started putting raisins on the back deck and as soon as she saw me, she'd fly over and get them. She eventually started taking them from my hand.

I called her Squawk because of the sound they make in the winter. Their lovely voice
doesn't come in until mating season. In the yard she would do a little dance, stomping her feet and flapping her wings to startle the bugs, then eat them. One day she did her bug dance for me on the deck to get a raisin.

Squawk honored me by bringing her chicks to our deck each summer. She would leave them there while she did her various errands and she would teach them how to pick up and eat raisins.

We also had a ruby throated hummingbird take up residence in a stunted maple tree in our back yard. He was a guard bird chasing other bigger birds away from the deck. He yelled at us whenever we got too close to his feeder and he followed Bentley all over the yard hovering just above his head. Boo never knew he was there but they made a comical pair. We called the little guy Squeak.

One day as we were leaving the house we noticed some neighborhood boys looking at something in the grass. They left it there and I was curious. It was a baby robin, newly hatched. I had no idea where the nest was so I took it home. We hung a basket in the trumpet vine on the deck and started feeding the little guy raw hamburg. We held a tiny spoon of water for him to sip from. I didn't expect him to make it through the night, but he did and we kept feeding him every fifteen minutes all day, switching from hamburg to puppy food soaked in water with cuttle bone scraped on it. He thrived. Soon he was getting feathers and hopping around the yard. Rob named him Cheep Cheep and he would come when we called. We bought mealy worms and grubs for him and he grew to adulthood in the basket on the deck.

One day Cheep Cheep learned to fly and we said goodbye and tossed him into the air. He flew out of the yard, circled around and flew right back to the deck. This might be a problem. For a week we tried to get him to leave home, but he wouldn't leave. Finally, I called a bird rehabilitator who agreed to take him and help him learn to live in the wild. A couple weeks later she called and it had been a success. Cheep Cheep was gone.

We were visiting our vet's office one day and there was a cute grey cockatiel in the waiting area. He was very friendly and jumped on Rob's shoulder. We asked about him and it seems he had belonged to an old man with several cats. The bird had learned to call the cats and the old man wanted to get rid of him. He was going to turn him loose. The doctor traded him shots for his cats for the bird. She asked if we wanted him and we took him home. His name was Buddy and he was about eight years old. He spoke in a funny little voice and was a real character. At Christmas Rob brought home a female cockatiel to be Buddy's friend. We called her Holly.

Holly laid eggs, lots of eggs and Buddy loved them. He sat on those eggs for eighteen hours a day. They never hatched because Buddy had lived alone so long he didn't know what to do with a lady bird. Holly didn't care, she just laid more eggs.

Rob came home one night with a pair of green budgies. I called them Peridot (Peri) and Broccoli (Broc). They joined Schroeder and Vandal.

One afternoon a bird flew into the sliding door onto the deck. It wasn't hurt and flew away again. About ten minutes later another bird hit the door. I had learned at the zoo to tape newspaper on the door so birds wouldn't fly into the glass, so I did. I also closed the drapes. About ten minutes later it happened again. I looked out to see a robin standing on the deck looking in the door. It flew off but came back ten minutes later and hit the glass again. This continued all afternoon and the dogs and I were all nervous wrecks when Rob came home. I told him what was happening, then it happened again. Rob opened the door, walked onto the deck and called Cheep Cheep. The bird flew to him. Cheep Cheep had found his way home after two years.

When we left Maryland we took the four budgies and two cockatiels with us. Our neighbor took charge of Cheep Cheep and Squawk. They continued to hang around her yard and eat raisins for the rest of their lives. She still feeds their descendants.

In Missouri, Vandal died. She had always been fragile. We found a breeder who had hand raised baby budgies. We got a small blue bird from her. I don't know how she raised these birds, but shortly after introducing her to the others, Schroeder died very suddenly. Then Broc and Peri died. Now we had only the new bird. We got two more birds, a yellow one named Buckley and a white one named Cloud. The blue bird was very small so we put her in a smaller cage and found an adorable small green bird named Bean to live with her. That was a mistake. The blue bird killed Bean. We saw her finish him off. We began to think that she was responsible for killing the other birds. She lived out her life in solitary confinement. Buckley lived about five years.

Buddy died at the age of twenty five. He was a happy friendly little character till the end. I miss him. We still have Holly and Cloud. They live in the kitchen and watch the dogs with great interest. They love to yell when I'm on the phone.

I have a great respect for birds. Their lives are not easy. Hatching is hard work. I watched ducklings struggle to be born and not all of them made it. Sometimes it was just too hard and they didn't have the strength to break the egg. Imagine having to build your home using just your beak, living outside in the elements with little or no shelter, having to hunt for food everyday for yourself and your chicks, and teaching your chicks to fly. I don't think I'd make it as a bird.

No comments: