I plow up my stairs, water everywhere, to the room where I’ve enclosed the bird. This is a relocation, a move from the bird’s original perch in the kitchen, beside a window—a move from the vast, echoey space pinging the bird’s laments all throughout the apartment—a move into a room, behind a closed door, in the hopes of tamping the bird’s fear.
To protect the bird against the cold, I throw the peach blanket that serves as its shroud of sleep over the cage, rush downstairs, out the door, heave the cage into the backseat of my car, start down the unforgiving, as-yet unplowed roads. White-knuckling it through mounds of snow and trenches of ice, I curve and bounce, periodically turning back to check on the bird, who clings eagerly to the bars of the cage, head cocked wildly, ardently gazing at trees. This is when the bird is happiest, being in the car, in motion. Which is no wonder. It’s a fucking parrot.
I plead and submit to total ignorance on the subject of bird-keeping. Before taking on the bird, I had never even considered the possibility that someone would. I imagined pet birds being a step above fish, akin to hamsters or gerbils you take out of the cage when you want, forget about when you don’t want. I had no idea I was taking into my home a rabid, sexually adventurous two-year-old.
I took on the bird as a favor to a woman in my graduate program who was leaving the country for several months, with little intention of returning to study. Her departure was yet another in an unprecedented number of people to leave our program in a single year, another splinter in our small writing community. It seemed a good and right thing do, helping her out with her bird—even if she was leaving, some part of her would stay.
The more we talked about it, the more exciting it sounded—A bird, a winged creature, a writing companion. Although I do not know the woman well, I know her writing. Her words possess a magic, measure, and unity that consistently inspire my awe. I suppose some part of me held this bird of hers partially responsible. I imagined it beaming out those same signals to me, telling me to write. Cawing again and again: Write! Write! Write!
This entire decision was made at the woman’s going-away party, the night before she was scheduled to leave, over drinks at a pub. As the plan began taking shape, the woman asked if I’d like to come meet the bird, at her house, a three-minute walk away.
The woman folded back the peach blanket from the bird cage, revealing a sapphire, verdigris, and silver bird, small as my hand, with long, taupe feathers streaming from the little cloth hut where, head tucked beneath a wing, it was sleeping. The woman unlatched the cage door and roused the bird, who ruffled its feathers and stepped gingerly out of the hut, onto the woman’s taut finger. A conure parrot: large, unctuous eyes on a tiny, culpable face. As it shifted sleepily on the woman’s finger, I reached to pet it, and was met with a poignant bite. The woman stroked the bird’s head, clucking and soothing, talking about how we’d woken it, of course the bird would be grumpy.
Then she floated the bird over to her shoulder, where it gracefully stepped, turned around, and sat primly, cocking its little green head. And I said, “Yes, yes, I will take the bird. It is adorable. I will take the bird, yes.”
The next day, the woman brought the bird to my house. The cage was filthy. She apologized, saying she had meant to clean it, but didn’t have time in the midst of packing her house. She handed me an empty greeting card, apologizing for having forgotten to write down the emergency number for the bird vet. There was a big cardboard box of food, though, and some little millet treats I could hang from the top of the cage. The woman suggested I leave the bird in the cage for a day or two, so she could get acclimated to the new space. We set her up on this little purple table, near a window in the kitchen, with a full view onto the bird-plentiful backyard. “I love that bird,” the woman said, as she was leaving, and began to cry a little. She handed me fifty dollars, saying it would cover the first month; she would send 100 later, to cover the remaining two.
The first week, I spent a lot of time googling conure parrot behavior. During this time, the parrot had its own point of view, meaning it would bit me every time I tried to get it to come out of its cage. I read you could train a conure parrot not to bite you by doing a series of clicker trainings involving a chopstick untarnished by human saliva. You stretch it between the bars of the cage, waiting for the parrot to gently tap the stick with its beak. If it bites rather than tapping, you pull the chopstick away. But if the bird does tap the chopstick, gives it a safe little beak-kiss, you click the clicker and hand it an almond.
Having been unaware of the bird’s preponderance for silver, I had no idea what manic flurry would be unleashed by the click. The bird rose up and away from the cage, in awkward, unproductive flaps of its clipped wings. It made it far enough to take a chunk from my hand before grabbing the clicker’s silver keychain in its beak, where it flew back to its cage, and had its way with the clicker on the cage floor.
Then I found a website suggesting a radically different approach. As with dating, it said, birds respond well to being left alone and never being told what to do. Playing hard to get is an aphrodisiac for birds. A game of Approach, Withdraw, Repeat is an attitude that works. In keeping with this approach, my reaction is non-reaction. I simply back away from the cage and go on with my life. Such a cold rebuff is said to foment deep longing in the bird. As it begins to understand that attention is rare, that there are methods to getting it, the bird gives up the desire to bite.
Marvelously, this started to work. About a week in, the bird effortlessly stepped up onto my finger. Then I carried it to this little ledge over my kitchen sink, and set it down. I fed it almonds and small slices of apples, which it held in its little prickly grey claws, cocking its head and munching cheerfully. It sat on my shoulder. It nuzzled its soft head into my neck. It nibbled on my ear. It pecked at my lips the way I’d been trying to train it to do to the chopstick. It sang to me, filling the room with colorful chatter, a buoyant, winking twitter.
What had happened was I had become the bird’s sole flock member. But because its wings were clipped, it was totally at the will of me deciding where and when to put it. But the thing about birds: they still have voices. They have very, very loud voices. And so the bird would get into these terrible states, where if I was at home and it wasn’t sitting on my shoulder or on top of my head or working its way into the hood of my sweatshirt or curling into my neck, it would try to fly to me: a pathetic, heart-wrenching sight, like watching a person in a straitjacket, or someone whose arms have been cut off at the shoulders. And the way it wandered around in those moments, and turned in circles, and manically flapped in futility, I knew it was not right, not right.
The times its desire would win out, and it would try to fly to me, it wouldn’t make it very far. It would get stuck on the ground, terrified, and then manage its way to my foot, where it would bite me, as though angry I hadn’t picked it up sooner. Or perhaps upset, thinking I had been the one to clip its life from its wings. But oddly, those times when I reached to pick it up from the ground were the only times it never bit my finger, as though knowing I was the sole person who could rescue it from its subterranean state, and so it was kind.
Another curious development of the bird having me as its sole flock member was what it started to do on my shoulder: flapping its left wing repetitively, making this little groaning sound, rubbing its gender-neutral junk (you can’t tell the sex of conure parrots by coloring, only surgically, so its sex was a mystery). At first I thought these measured, repetitive moments were the bird’s way of dancing. I googled it. “Avert your eyes,” a website said, “Your parrot is masturbating!” Soon I discovered the bird doing the same think in its little happy hut, the cloth house where it slept. Clearly, the bird was not in a good place. The bird needed another bird.
Around this time, I received a call from the woman, asking if I could hold onto the bird an extra month. “I don’t think so,” I said, “I might be moving.” “Oh. Where?” the woman asked. “I don’t know where I’m going to go,” I said, “But I’m considering Northern California.” The woman replied she and her partner were thinking of going there, too, so maybe I could hold onto the bird until then and we could figure something out.
I pictured the frenetic, sex-addled bird and me driving across the country. I told the woman we would have to figure something else out.
Then two of the bites on my hand became infected.
When the woman had dropped off the bird, she had said: “Worse case scenario: my partner will drive here from New Mexico and get the bird.” So currently, against the backdrop of the neighbors’ noise complaints and my mess of a hand, and the fact that one day, while perched near me as I’m getting ready in my bathroom, the bird gets startled by a sound and flies into the toilet, I call the woman and say mine is not the best home for the bird. The phone call does not go well. She finds the whole situation unfortunate. She acknowledges that it has to be a difficult responsibility, especially if I haven’t had a bird before. Then she says her partner can’t come get the bird.
And on the snowy Tuesday, arriving at the vet at 5:35, I grab the cage and lurch it through the snow. Before I reach the door, I am met by who I take to be Shannon, a pale, moon-faced woman with brilliantly blue, wide-set eyes, red hair pulled back in a bun. She grabs the cage from me and hurdles through the door. This must be the woman who needs the bird checked out so it can live with her three birds. In the waiting area, she introduces me to her husband and son—pale, thin, thoughtful-looking people, shuffling expectantly. Another woman is there, a friend of Shannon’s, named Barbara, long and gaunt and grey, shot through with Shannon’s same wide-set eyes.
The doe-eyed husband and son wave goodbye as Shannon and Barbara and me are ushered down a hallway to an examination room. Shannon sets the cage on the slick stainless steel of the examining table, and beneath the harsh yellow light, the cage is a mess. Food and water have spilled during the car ride, and the newspaper floor is soaked and stained. Though I had tried my best to clean the cage, it had been too cold to take it outside, and so most of the filth has been there for a long time, long before the bird arrived at my house. I want to say the bird came to me damaged and filthy, that I’ve done the best I can.
But then Shannon points to the two toys I’ve contributed to the bird’s cage—a leather tag from a purse, and a silver decorative holiday ball slung up with a shoelace. She begins unwinding the toys from the bars, handing them to Barbara, saying, “Get these out of my sight so I never have to see them again.” She turns to me and says, “Metallic and leather will poison the bird.” I frown, feeling like the worst Bird Person ever, the phony and the fraud that the Bird People’s sorrowful, sour looks say I am, from the vet, a white-haired, bowl-cut man of bushy, snowy mustache, who says, “This is a lifestyle. It’s not for everyone. You either know it or you don’t.”
“Yes,” I said softly. “You saw to the heart of the situation.”
They start cleaning the cage, talking about how the bird will have to go into quarantine if she’s ever going to live with other birds. The bird vet starts the physical exam. As he reaches into the cage for the bird, she flies out of his reach, heading for me, landing in her familiar place on the ground. He takes a blue towel and leans down, covering his hand, getting the bird somehow in his grip, and lifts it up, holding it with one hand, cradling it on its back, revealing only its small face, gripping its wings, like it’s in a vice, perfectly still, its little head peeking out. And he puts on a pair of clear glasses, and he’s looking down at the bird, and suddenly, he pulls a little filing tool from the counter, reminiscent of a dental cleaning tool—and he begins grinding away at the bird’s beak.
“What is he doing?” I ask.
“The bird hasn’t been grinding enough at hard, coarse textures,” Shannon says. “He’s filing down its beak. Her beak has grown out too far. You haven’t been giving her enough hard things to chew on.”
“Oh?” I ask. “I didn’t know I was supposed to do that.”
“It’s a spa day!” Barbara cries, sparks of beak whistling through the air, the bird’s eyes open wider than the whitish web that surrounds them, silent in pure terror.
They say the bird can stay at the vet for a few nights, until the tests are done, until they find her a right home.
“So, the wings?” I ask, as we’re returning to the waiting area.
“We’ll let them grow out,” Shannon says. “All our birds just fly around the house.”
And I say this is the right home, and this is where the bird is supposed to be, with people whose lives are birds, who work from home and never leave their animals alone more than several hours; and after we’ve settled everything, and she and her husband have leaned into each other expectantly, like new parents, trading their weddings rings back and forth, and we’re leaving, I go to give Shannon a hug. But she backs away, saying, “Oh. I don’t hug people. I only hug dogs.”
And I remember an article I read earlier that day, an anti-caged bird campaign, arguing that because the essence of birds is flight, there really is no such thing as a cage bird. And I remember the words of my teacher, an animal rights attorney and the person who found Shannon: Birds are smart, emotional creatures, whose very beings are frustrated in captivity.
Image Credit: “Wing of a Blue Roller,” Albrecht Durer (1512)