Every morning we prop the door open with a chair to let the cat go in and out for a couple of hours. We call this her exercise time and she is usually in and asleep under the bed before I remember to close the door. A couple of days ago, a very small bird got trapped in our lanai when the door was still open. The bird was very frightened and kept hitting the screen in its attempts to get out. Carefully I herded it towards the door until it found the open space and quickly disappeared from sight. I heaved a sigh of relief.
Although this was a very small bird (a sparrow? I’m not good at bird recognition), the Florida birds I’m most familiar with are the larger shore birds. We live next door to a wildlife preserve, 487 acres of inland waterways, walking and biking trails, native plants, small animals and birds which often make their way next door to our area.
Every day, we can feast our eyes on blue herons, roseate spoonbills, white egrets, wood storks, ibises, ospreys, hawks, cormorants, pelicans and (sometimes) eagles resting on our lawns or fishing in our man-made lakes that are stocked with fish. When I walk in the late afternoon, I often take binoculars along to get a better view of the birds that are just out of eye sight. I never tire of watching them.
Birds have been in our life and even in our house since our middle daughter was in grade school and we were living in California. She fell in love with the smaller tropical birds that you see in pet shops. The first bird was a cockatiel that was hand raised and very tame. He loved to sit on heads and shoulders and once he chose to do this to a TV repairman just as he bent over the back of our TV set. I heard his scream from the other end of the house. I don’t know who was more frightened, the bird or the repairman.
Our daughter had two parakeets in a cage in her room. One, Marco, was very tame and could be let out for short periods. One day she called and asked me to bring the two birds to school for show and tell. Obediently I picked up the cage with the two birds and headed for the car. But when I placed them on the driveway to retrieve the car keys from my pocket, the cage door swung open and Marco flew the coop. Horrified, I watched him until he settled in a large tree by the corner of the house. I waited a few minutes, then decided I’d better take the remaining bird to school where our daughter was waiting,
At school, I handed her the cage, mumbling something about Marco’s absence. But after the show and tell was over, I knew I had to tell her the truth. She burst into tears and asked to go home to look for him.
When we returned to the house, I was surprised to find that Marco had remained in the tree but on a much higher branch. I pointed him out to our daughter and when I saw her sad face, I knew what I had to do. I retrieved the extra birdcage from the house and loaded it with bird seed. Then, cage in hand, I started to climb the tree. I’m no athlete and climbing trees was never something I did well (even in my prime) but I was determined. With help from a step ladder, I reached a V in the tree and when I looked up, I saw Marco watching my every move. Carefully I maneuvered to the next protruding branch and, when I looked down, I knew this was my limit.
I balanced the cage on a branch above me, door open and hoped the seed looked good to a hungry bird. Marco cocked his head, looked at the bird seed and looked at me. He hopped down to a closer branch. Fifteen minutes later, he came a bit closer. My legs were cramped, my back hurt and the ground was much too far away but my daughter’s tearful face at the bottom of the tree kept me going. Marco moved again, his eyes on the cage. Then – bang- he was in and I secured the cage door. My grateful daughter took the cage from me and I carefully made my way down the tree, very happy to feel the ground beneath my feet.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last bird escapade. About a year later, my daughter decided to raise finches to sell to pet stores. We constructed an aviary in the back yard and soon it was occupied by dozens of finches. But our building skills left something to be desired and a few weeks later, we discovered at least half the finches had escaped through an opening in the screen that had come loose over the door. The escapees were flying overhead and perching on top of the aviary. I remembered the method I had used to trap Marco and thought maybe it would work again.
I grabbed the old birdcage, filled it with seed and then surveyed the yard. There was no tree to climb but there was a small one to hide behind. I tied a fishing line to the cage door and left the cage in front of the tree. Then I released enough line to get me behind the tree. I kneeled down and pulled the line taught so the cage door was wide open.
It didn’t take long before the first finch hopped over to the door, enticed (I hoped) by the bird seed within. As soon as he hopped in, I let the fishing line go and the door swung shut. After I returned the finch to the aviary I repeated the exercise again and again, until we had most of the birds back in the aviary which, by now, had been patched up.
However, the birds were only part of the menagerie. We also had two dogs, a cat, a rabbit, two chickens and one duck. A friend of ours would bring his son to our house to visit because the child thought our yard was the zoo! And he might have been right.
When we moved from California to Syracuse, New York, the aviary had to go but the pet birds – one parakeet, one cockatiel and an African grey parrot – came with us, in addition to two dogs. We traveled by air to our new home and created quite a stir at baggage claim when the three crates holding the larger creatures rolled down the belt. I hand-carried the parakeet and cockatiel in a small cage. They, too, startled other passengers with their small vocabularies: hello, how are you, good-bye and cockadoodle-doo.
A year later, when my daughter left for college, we found a wonderful new home for the cockatiel and parakeet with a woman who had an equally tame female cockatiel. The last I heard both cockatiels spent most days riding on her shoulders and the parakeet followed close behind. The African grey parrot got sick and, when I learned that the veterinarian treating him had a room at home just for her parrots, I offered her ours in return for the bill. It was a win-win but most of all, I knew the parrot had a good home.
I’m very happy now to enjoy the birds in the wild and at a distance and to pet other people’s dogs when I pass them on the street. My husband and I presently have close contact with only one cat – she is more than enough to take care of (and sometimes, too much!). But the zoo years – along with our children’s childhoods – were precious and the memories will be there forever.
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By Jean Steiger