Saturday, January 23, 2010

Empty cage

I hesitated to write about this when there are so many larger tragedies about, but Susan persuaded me it would be worth noting: we lost our parrot, Spot, yesterday. The phrase "our feathered friends" is overused, but Spot truly fit the bill.

[Spot as sketched by my dad]

He's been part of our family for so long that we can't remember exactly when he came to live with us. I think it was the summer of 1992 when, after a year or so of keeping estrildid finches, we decided to try our hands at a psittacine with whom we might interact more directly. At the quarterly bird fair in Forest Park, Georgia, we met a breeder with a cageful of maroon-bellied conures (Pyrrhura frontalis), one of which particularly appealed to us for the playful curiosity he displayed in what could have been a bewildering environment of strange birds and people. The breeder warned us that he could give no guarantees as to personality; the bird and his siblings had been hand-fed for a time, but a subsequent clutch of parrots (a rarer and more economically valuable species) had placed new demands on his time and the conures had received less attention. In light of that, he was prepared to cut us a deal, and we were prepared to take a chance. It was the best $50 we ever spent...

We named our new conure Spot™ (the TM was silent) partly because he was 7-Up green, and partly because despite the name's alleged popularity for canines, neither of us had ever met a dog named Spot—and as long as they weren't using it... Evidently the hand-rearing he had received was sufficient; he was not just tolerant of of human company, he craved attention. He used to travel with us a good deal, and came to love the McDonald's drive-through window, because he knew we would give him a French fry—and then another when he accidentally-on-purpose dropped the first for later retrieval. (We knew we were being played, but it was impossible to resist.) The drive-through at the bank, on the other hand, was a huge disappointment from Spot's point of view.

It was also on these trips in the car that we came to realize that Spot had a sense of aesthetics: he loved to ride in the car at night because he enjoyed watching the streams of white headlights and red taillights on the highway. After this realization, we often made a point of taking him out around town at Christmastime to see all the colored lights. On these chilly December nights, Spot was in his glory, happily clicking and squeaking his delight.

[My stipple drawing of Spot helping out at pumpkin-carving time]

Spot never learned to imitate human speech, which was more than fine with us. Instead, we learned a bit of conure language, greeting him with a bow and neck-stretch and imitating his clicks and squawks. Most of the time, of course, we had no idea exactly what we were saying, but he apparently understood our intentions were good. We weren't his only people, in the way that some parrots choose one or two favored companions and treat the rest of the world with contempt. He got on well with my dad, adored Susan's mom, and was popular with most visitors (especially those bearing treats). Things weren't so harmonious, though, between Spot and Susan's sister, Christy: I believe Spot did like her, but he delighted in tormenting her because she offered such excellent drama rewards.

Ellie was born soon after we moved from Georgia to Nebraska, and Spot was her first friend. But inevitably the family dynamics changed, with Spot no longer the primary center of attention—fewer showers together ("visits to the waterfall"), fewer shared Cokes, fewer rides in the car. I'm sorry to say he was further relegated to the sidelines with the arrival of the dachshunds several years ago; an uneasy d├ętente existed between Spot and the dogs, and the door to Spot's cage was often left open so he could come and go as he pleased, but we were never entirely confident that the dogs could be trusted.

Conures don't live as long as the larger Amazons and cockatoos, and we had begun to idly wonder how much longer we would have this bird in our lives. I had always expected somehow that when Spot's time came, we would have some warning, would be able to cradle him and say good-bye. As it happened, I was eating lunch at the dining room table with the dogs at my feet when I heard a soft thud—Spot had abruptly fallen to the floor. To my surprise, the dogs didn't pounce, but sniffed tentatively at the fallen bird. One of them mouthed him gently as I got there, but immediately surrendered him to me; I held him as the light went out in his eyes. Heart failure? Stroke? I have no idea.

The harder questions are these: How do you thank a friend who's been there for over fifteen years, followed you from house to house and brightened each one? How do you express your appreciation for someone who remembers every kindness and (eventually, perhaps in response to a bit of bribery) forgives every slight? How do you say good-bye to a bird who always wanted to stretch hello?

Old habits die hard, and I suspect that for days we'll go to open Spot's window blind first thing in the morning, talk to him as we walk through the dining room, listen for the contended grinding of his beak at nightfall. Sad as we are now, it will probably be sadder when those impulses fade, when we finally realize that our friend is really gone.


John Carlson said...

Thanks for sharing and I feel for you and your family. Those darn animals we share our lives with that become so important. It is still worth it though isn't it.

Remchick said...

Awww, so sweet. Brought tears to my eyes. I had a french fries this afternoon and thought of our sweet little Spot.

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