Words for the Birds




There's something convenient about an either-or proposition. Heads or tails, up or down, black or white, us or them. So it's not a surprise that most popular pets fall into two categories: cats or dogs. I can understand the dual attraction. They have soft fur and big eyes and many human characteristics. I've known and loved some great dogs and cats. But I've never been fond of either-or. And my favorite pets have all been birds.

It surprises me to learn how many people don't like birds, or even fear them. I kind of get it. Birds are different, alien in behavior, and while they have faces, they don't show emotions the way, say, a golden retriever does. But there's no question in my mind that birds are intelligent. I once (long ago) raised a scrawny, abandoned blue jay nestling to maturity and I swear that bird had a sense of humor. Her jokes were usually at my expense, stealing things and hiding them, then dropping them on my head when I'd stopped looking. Seriously.

I eventually rehabilitated "Blue." After weeks of her going out when she pleased, she started spending nights in the trees. I'd see her from time to time, or so I thought, but soon she blended in with the other birds. One day a neighbor told me about how a blue jay had appeared and landed on her husband at a cookout. When the bird jumped onto the hot dog in his hand and began to eat the roll, they snapped a photo. She showed it to me. Sure looked like Blue - as does every blue jay I see to this day.

Since then I've stuck with domestic birds. I've owned a few truly great parakeets. My current one, Mistletoe (yes, a Christmas present), is a bit worn out - parakeets are fragile creatures. She limps on her right foot and can only muster the energy to fly over and land on my shoulder about once a day, but she still enjoys a good head scratching and still takes her baths in the sink while perched on my finger. Having a tiny bird allow you that kind of intimacy is really a magical thing.

I took her to one of the state's few avian vets at the Weare Animal Hospital for a check-up and Dr. Dutton won both me and Mistletoe over very quickly. He spoke to her like she could understand (as do I), checked her out gently, declared her fat (36 grams is "fat" for a budgie) and said she probably has some respiratory disease and maybe a tumor pressing against a leg nerve. I know the drill. I put her on a diet, gave her some prescribed anti-inflammatory drops and began the death watch.

That was about a month ago. When I called Dr. Dutton with a status report a week ago, he seemed genuinely surprised she was still upright, let alone flying around the kitchen once a day. So the death watch continues. Soon comes that moment that seems to be an integral part of the whole pet-owning arrangement: saying goodbye.

It's a curious time filled with many personal rituals and private reassurances. I know that some people who, like myself, believe in the afterlife still have a problem with the idea that pets might find their way into eternity. They figure that humans are full of quantum uncertainty but pets are simple binary equations, either alive or dead.

I can't really argue the theology, but, as I said, I don't care for either-or propositions.

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