I’m babysitting my younger daughter’s three budgies at Sunnybank House while she’s on an archeological dig in Rome, Italy, and have been patiently learning the birds’ special ‘tells’- certain micro-behaviors that telegraph what is going on in their feathered heads as I play with them each day. There are three personalities- BB, the people-oriented soul, and her two friends, the much less social Daffy and Gray, who weren’t hand-raised. These two are close friends.
A year before before Lisa flew to Rome, the fourth bird, Blue, succumbed to cancer. Blue had been a happy, somewhat socialized birdie who was learning to appreciate her Lisa-human. One day, though, Lisa found a cancerous lump on her feathery body, and shortly after that, the tiny creature died quietly at the veterinarian’s clinic, with Lisa holding him.
Now there were three birds. Gray and Daffy, and BB. As a threesome, Daffy and Gray stayed cozy, and often shooed BB away. She wasn’t overly upset by their exclusionary behavior, because she has Lisa, and now me. Humans are far more intriguing to BB, who’d been lovingly brought up by our species. She enjoys exchanging sounds, sharing food, and otherwise communing. So now, even with the two-to-one situation, all was harmonious.
Then, last week I entered their ‘bird room’- one of the commandeered bedrooms at Sunnybank House- and counted only two perched birds. Daffy was lying on the large cage’s floor, dead.
BB and Gray rocked on their perches, squawking in nervous confusion as I gently picked up Daffy’s tiny, beautiful body, knowing at once that there was no life there. She had died during the night.
The cause will forever be unknown. She was a mature bird; old age was not an unlikely cause.
There was one other thing, though- Daffy had always had the unusual habit of ‘gulping.’ She’d bob her head, elongate her neck and gulp-swallow frequently, and not just after eating. The behavior could manifest any time. Lisa, finding the gulps peculiar, took her to the doctor. X-rays and a careful manual exam revealed nothing unusual. The vet finally decided it was probably just a personal quirk.
Daffy looked fine, otherwise, and was behaving normally. She even sang.
I’d observed the strange behavior too, but wasn’t alarmed because Lisa had mentioned I shouldn’t be.
After telling Joe of Daffy’s death, he thought a while, and then offered another theory. Daffy may have been coping with an esophageal stricture. The (congenital?) narrowing might finally have caused her death. Perhaps a bit of ingested food had settled in her throat in exactly the wrong way.
With Daffy’s body removed, BB and Gray settled into shocked silence. They knew that she was dead.
They remained quiet, not eating or flying that whole day. Frequent checks found them huddled close together on their shared perch. Once in a while one bird would touch the other in a caring way. I stayed with them to make soothing sounds, and play soft, gentle music.
We were all stunned, and so very saddened by Daffy’s sudden demise.
The next morning when I opened their cage door they flew immediately to their food, inspected it, then left without eating. They remained silent, fasting, until late afternoon, when BB flew straight to my shoulder when I entered the room. She sat on my finger and swayed back and forth for quite a while before issuing her greeting- a soft musical Brrrrrr... which I answered using the same tone and pitch. We chatted in this way for some minutes before she flew back to join a depressed Gray, who remained silent.
After a while I approached their open cage and offered them two fresh spinach leaves. BB bit down on hers. Gray sniffed it, thought, and, after backing away, warily approached it again to begin grazing, albeit unenthusiastically. I was heartened! It’s worrisome when eating stops; there’s not an ounce of fat on these tiny bodies, and their energy stores can quickly be depleted.
As I approached the bedroom door that evening, I heard them singing together. Wonderful!
And they’d made short work of their usual dinner while I was out.
They were adjusting, doing what we all must do when someone we love dies- mourn, cope, with support, accept what cannot be changed, and grab firmly at the life we have. Life is tenuous, confusing, sweet, rewarding, loving, difficult, and never is it forever.
Death has the peculiar habit of helping everything acquire a sharper focus. Hopefully those of us left behind will resolve to try to love more, dump resentments and anger, and relish the time we have. BB and Gray have grown much closer in these following days, forgetting all the sharp pecks and cheeky blow-offs they’d traded in the past. They’re chatting, exchanging songs, and Gray is suddenly doing things she didn’t do before. She downs the treats I bring to the cage on a fat tablespoon- a peeled green chopped grape, or a millet-laden twig, where always before she’d skitter away to the far side of her perch and admire herself in the birdy mirror.
Then, two full days after Daffy’s death, something amazing happened.
Across the room I sat in my usual upholstered chair and complained that I missed her. Sitting on my finger was BB, eating all the good stuff, as usual, while, again as usual, Gray chose to swing on her cage swing, looking the picture of ‘don’t need you, don’t care, won’t visit, and so there.’
“For goodness sake, Gray,” I sighed, thoroughly exasperated, as I watched her swung with her back to me. (I’d been trying to lure her out of it since Lisa left.) “Gray, come over here! Come, Gray, and have a yummy bite! You’re missing a treat I know you love! Will you never join us, you lonely bird?”
She stopped swinging, and cocked her head, thinking. Then, to my astonishment, she squawked loudly, left her cage, flew straight at me, lighted on my knee, cheeped, then stretched her neck to pluck out a green yummy from the big tablespoon.
By golly, she scarfed the whole thing down. !! !!