25 March 2011

No Flying in the Museum (but Cyclists may Pedal Away)

This blog has made my life a little easier this spring as my time in college finally winds down (after 9 years and a few false starts). The manuscript I'm required to produce by the middle of April will be a memoir that consists of these blog entries edited into a series of essays about how I went from a 'no pets' lifestyle to to living in a flock. Having these entries already going has let me focus mainly on editing rather than composing.

Next week is my first public reading of an excerpt from the manuscript. It's scheduled to be in an art museum affiliated with the college and writers are encouraged to be creative with the presentation of their reading. For one author in the past, this apparently included a cyclist at full speed (his bike was attached to a stationary trainer). Now I'm deciding which bird to bring to the museum next Wednesday night.

Having one of our birds swoop over the crowd as I take the podium, and land on my outstretched hand would be a great way to get started. Cher could do the ol' dollar retrieval for me with a willing participant in the crowd. Sprite could recite the title, or Lennon could sing a few bars of a the theme song he sees best suited to the event. Problem is, none of our birds have been trained for any of that. Lennon could handle the singing, but he'd also insist on flying laps around the room. I'm pretty sure flying isn't allowed in the art museum. Poor Sprite would probably think he's moving, again. Coconut... well, that just wouldn't work out. I thought about bringing B-balls and just letting him hop around the room while the reading is going on. Then, there is the litter box problem. I'm pretty sure plastic trays of rabbit waste are not welcome in the museum (plus, he tends to leak when he's excited).

Cher has been my most promising idea for a companion that night. Her wings are clipped at the moment and I do have a harness for her to wear. She doesn't like it, but there is enough time to work on it with her before the reading. She wouldn't be allowed to interact with strangers because I couldn't get the earlobe and finger replacement added to our parrot insurance. She would be content to sit on my shoulder through the night, though. She is used to night outings like trips to Taco Bell after the other dining venues have shut their doors. The problem is that voice of hers. The screaming capability that would surely blow out the speakers and possibly shatter any ceramic sculptures the museum has on display.

I need to get permission in the first place before I am allowed to bring an animal in with me, but I have been told that is a real possibility. I just have to decide which one of these little guys (or the girl) is museum material.

14 March 2011

Cockatiel Cocktail, and other Concoctions

The animals kept our guests entertained this year again at our annual "Fifties Cocktail Party." Last year was our first themed party, and it was Sprite's first dose of human overload in the Feather Dorm. He lived in the bedroom then, and went to sleep early in the evening. This year he was the main attraction. He perched on his tree at the top of the stairs to give each entering guest a "Hi!" Then he held court with his human buddies.

Our menu, music, and dress for the party keeps with the theme. Ms. Flock Advisor put on her vintage-dress and cracked open her antique cookbook for a chocolate chip cookie recipe that requires no assistance from Betty Crocker. It's raw ingredients all the way. She also made a batch of Kraft macaroni and cheese which had been requested by several people who were also at last year's party. Relish trays were also laid out. I took on the cocktail menu in my best "Babalu" shirt. Champagne punch filled a giant bowl, and I dusted off the martini shaker. I also printed a menu of specialty cocktails named for their resemblance to the birds. A Mellow 'Prite was an apple martini with a golden delicious apple slice. A Singing Lennon was a gin and tonic with a cucumber garnish cut to resemble his raised crest. The rest of the menu is pictured at the bottom of this post.

Sprite manned (or, birded?) his perch and turned on the charm when he saw plates of macaroni and cheese coming out of the kitchen. His head stretched to passers-by until he found an accomplice. Our friend Diego stabbed one of the coated noodles and held it out. Sprite kindly ground his beak once and then took it from the fork. He savored every bite. When Diego then gave him two noodles at one time, Sprite set one down in his nearest food dish while he ate the other. Then he retrieved the second. Birds usually think nothing of grabbing one bite of a banana while the rest drops to the floor. Kenobi is always happy to Hoover the smorgasboard under their cages, but Sprite was keeping all of the Kraft to himself.

Macaroni and cheese is, of course, not part of a balanced diet for parrots. Like the cheese sandwiches Sprite is so fond of, it does sit near the top of the list in the "now and then" food group. An extra special treat was certainly in order for his willingness to interact nicely with a crowd of people. It was great to see Sprite as comfortable as he was, surrounded by people. He has come a long way from the shy bird that he once was. Last year he was exhausted early by the few people who leaned their heads into his room, but this year he stayed out to mingle until the last guest left.

Kenobi made his appearance for a little while. He likes to bounce around under everyone's feet, so he had to spend most of his time in a fenced off section of the room for his own safety. He got plenty of visitors, though, who were very happy to give his soft fur a pet. He also gnoshed on some carrots from the relish trays.

Most of our friends work with animals in one way or another, or are just plain animal lovers. We all love being around finned, furry, or feathered creatures as much as being around people (scaly critters, too). Our conversations always get back to animals we've worked with, or animals that live with us. We can't help it. Every animal has a personality that makes them special. Ms. Flock Advisor and I love getting to know our friends' pets as much as they seem to love hanging out with ours. We aren't "bird people," or "bunny people." Our friends aren't "dolphin people," or "fish people," or "snake people." We are people who love animals, all animals. Even if there is a certain species or family that we wouldn't particularly care to share a cab with, we are still curious about them and eager to understand a little more about them.

For the safety of our guests, Cher spent the evening perched on my shoulder.

04 March 2011

Why Live with Birds?

My life is better because I live with birds. Perhaps enriching is the proper term: my life is enriched because I live with birds. Yes, that's it. Let me explain why.

From my time in the zoological field I know that enriching doesn't necessarily mean fun, scary, or annoying. For dolphins a fun basketball (See: The Middle Flipper) can be enriching, but so can some scary sounds from sliding deck chairs around. Enrichment is just something different in the animal's environment. Four parrots, and Kenobi, provide my life with "something different" everyday.

I've wanted to write a blog on the subject of why I love living with birds ever since the question was posed to me about a year ago at a family gathering. At that moment Cher was clambering around to the top of my head for a look around and I basically said something like, "Just look at her, she's hilarious!" I was in a good mood at that moment and having a comical little conure around only added to the fun of that evening.

Some days are more trying. Does having several jungle animals in the house, and a grazing rabbit, help me cope with stress? Not when Cher is screaming her demands for attention and Kenobi is driving the security deposit into negative figures while I'm freaking out about a to-do list I'd trade for a day in Sysiphus's sandas, I'll admit that. What I'll also admit is that its hard to stay frustrated with life when all of these little guys are here not wanting anything more than company and snacks. Having one of the birds hop onto my lap while I'm struggling through some doleful project, then seeing them preen and just be happy that we are sharing the time together is a mental recharge.

If Kenobi is eating the carpet, then we can have fun re-directing him to playing with his stuffed animals or eating some fresh greens. When the birds are being loud, we know its time to spend some time with them. Even just a little thing like letting them perch in the room with us will quiet them down. Sprite's unwillingness to step-up from the time he came to live with us and Coconuts outright disdain for humans has led us to get to know them both better through training. The difficulties of having the animals around provide enrichment that can be turned into a positive so easily because just being their companions is a treat for us. This morning Cher provided me with a laugh and a photo-op first thing. She must have been snacking in the early morning hours because when I lifted her cage cover I saw her staring back at me with bits of crushed food pellets stuck to her beak. I was worried for a moment because this can often be a sign that a bird is throwing up and therefore very sick. Taking a closer look, though, it was obvious the bits had not been swallowed and were only on the tip of her beak where she had evidently been foraging for the last bits in her food dish.

Earlier this week I was experiencing a nerve-wrecking morning due to some computer issues (severe data loss). Ms. Flock Advisor was offering to help in any way that she could, and offering comfort. My mind was spinning, though. I was scurrying around the house trying to pull together what I needed for the day before I had to run out the door. Kenobi was bouncing around my legs as I walked, oblivious to my urgency. Sprite was perched on the top of his cage near the stairwell that leads to the front door. Keys, bag, and phone all in order I was stopped by Ms. Flock Advisor for some last words of encouragement before I rushed out to meet deadlines with fury. I looked over and saw Sprite stretching his neck out to me with widened eyes while he ground his beak, a sign of comfort. I reached out and gave his neck feathers a good kneading before I had to go. That moment lasted no more than 15 seconds or so, but it was a much needed pick-me-up (or settle-me-down, rather). In 15 seconds I had given this bird all that he really cared to get out of the day: a little interaction with the rest of the flock. He put me at ease too, as did the rest of the birds with their calls as I left. I took with me the knowledge that they would all be waiting when I got home for more time together.

Birds are social animals, but the relationship that humans develop with them is different than the kind of relationship usually developed with a dog or cat. With birds, humans become a part of the flock. It is a relationship built on interaction rather than food provisions. For parrots, in fact, the best thing for them is to make their food as hard to get to as possible: this way they can exercise their natural talents of problem solving and foraging. Spending time with them is crucial, but it is often very simple. We just let them out of the cage and go about our business. Lennon is content to fall asleep on Ms. Flock Advisor's chest while we watch a movie at night. Cher is content to play with the tag of my morning tea on my desk while I feverishly try to increase my online presence. Sprite would like a head scratch every so often as we walk by his perch, but really relishes in repeating words back and forth with us. Coconut lights up and becomes so energetic during his clicker training sessions that he makes my day, too.

Perhaps the best part about living with the birds is their necessity to communicate with their flock. This is the same ingrained need that drives some birds to become nuisances to their humans, but I love it. The birds call to us and to each other as soon as they see the light, or hear someone stir, just as they would in the wild. They are announcing that they've made it through the night, and are getting a report from their flock mates. Getting home at night, we are greeted by a big, "Hi!" from Sprite and the little birds strike up their discombobulated chorus.

The most endearing calls from them are the ones that they make as we leave: the sounds I heard on my stressful morning after getting some quick, mental therapy from Sprite and Ms. Flock Advisor. Sprite carried on with his mumbling sounds, Cher twittered and screamed in an attempt to call me back up the stairs, and Coconut went through his vast repertoire. Lennon gave his normal salutation over and over as he does each time he sees us begin to gather our car keys and descend the stairs: "Bye guys. Love yooooou." He learned the words from Ms. Flock Advisor who always says the same to the animals as she leaves for the day, now Lennon conveys the message to me. I'd like to think he speaks for all the birds.