It has been requested that I put this story down in writing, although it has very little to do with Christmas. There is a loose association, in that it does pertain to the idea of gifts, somewhat. And it might bring to mind that pagan carol about the partridge in the pear tree, the two French hens, the three turtledoves and the four calling birds—particularly the four calling birds.
But in our case, it was two calling birds. Or, to be precise, two cockatiels.
It all began in August of 2003, shortly before Jonathan’s eighth birthday. All he wanted in the world was a game system for the TV, and some games to go with it. This was his hope and his dream. I, his strict, straight-laced and fun-squelching mother, deplored the idea of a game system in our home. Keeping the Gameboy and computer game usage under control was taxing enough. I did not want a PS2 or an X-box or a Gamecube to come under my roof. No indeed!
Have you ever seen Jonathan when he is hoping for something? There is a shining light in his liquid brown eyes, and his eyebrows arch above with a perfection that it almost hurts to observe. His mouth is serious and his olive skin pales slightly as though the hope is literally radiating out of him.
But I could not get a game system. They are so bad for kids—no exercise, total time wasters, a discouragement to reading and even to social interaction. I despise them. What then could I give to this precious child that would thrill him, when a Gamecube was the only thing he wanted?
I decided to get him a bird.
When Shawn and I went to buy the bird, we should have sensed trouble and left. To begin with, the man selling the birds was blind. But, being desperate for a gift for Jon, as well as feeling pity for this poor disabled person, we looked at his menagerie and picked one. There was another bird that the man wanted us to buy and kept pushing us towards. It had something on its beak that I didn’t like. We asked about it, but he didn’t seem to know what we meant. Being blind, whether he knew or not, he could act like he didn’t. Finally, when we picked the bird we wanted, he threw in the one he’d been trying to push on us. He said two birds would be nice together. We thought two male birds in one cage sounded strange, but we took them. We named them Jeeves and Bertie Wooster after the butler and drone found in P.G. Wodehouse’s writings.
Jon was thrilled with his birthday present. I will say that. He spent that autumn at school writing essays about caring for his birds and drawing pictures of them. Although the birds were wild when we got them, with patience we trained the calmer one (Bertie Wooster—the one with the funny beak) to perch on our fingers and shoulders. They were loud and messy and took up a lot of space, but Jon was enjoying them. I will say that.
On Thursday, October 30, 2003, we were getting ready to leave for piano lessons. I was upstairs, and I heard Jon call out, “Hey Mom, Jeeves is letting me pet him!” This sounded neither right nor good to me. Bertie Wooster was the tame one—Jeeves wouldn’t ordinarily even nibble a cracker if you held it through the cage. I went running, and Jeeves was huddled on the bottom of the cage. He looked very bad. I realized that he was seriously ill, and I had no idea what to do.
Shannon and David came running to see what was the matter. Shannon lifted Jeeves out of the cage, and he lay weakly in her hands, obviously dying. Everyone started to weep and wail. I didn’t know what to do—and we were going to be late to piano lessons on top of everything else. Should I try to get the bird to an emergency vet? Would he die before we could get there? I called Shawn at work to try to get some advice.
While I was on the phone, the weeping and wailing increased. On the other end of the phone, Shawn told me it sounded like a death procession in the ancient Middle East. Jonathan fell to his knees beside the birdcage and prayed, “Please, God, don’t let my bird die!” Shannon started screaming that it was dying and she didn’t want to hold it anymore. David bravely, compassionately took it from her. A miracle did not occur. Moments later, Jeeves convulsed in a final thrashing death spasm and flopped out of David’s hands onto the table next to the cage, dead. David said, “I killed him. I killed him.” I tried to assure him that he had not. Laura by this time had exited the scene and was sitting alone, out in the van, waiting to go to piano.
Shawn was still on the phone, so I told him it was over and hung up. We put the dead bird in a box and left it on top of the cage. I had them wash their hands very carefully, and we went to piano. They cried all the way there. It was a traumatic event, and creepy the day before Halloween.
While we were at piano, Shawn heroically went home from work and buried the bird. Afterwards, I thoroughly cleaned out the cage. But even then, we felt unsettled. Why had it died? It was the strong, healthy bird—bigger than Bertie Wooster and with better reflexes. So what was up? I decided to make an appointment to take Bertie Wooster to the vet to see if he was healthy, or whether we might expect him to die, too.
Upon first examination of Bertie Wooster, the vet exclaimed, “How long has his beak been like that?” I replied that he had been that way when we bought him. The vet immediately grabbed the bird and took a tiny scalpel to his nose, scraping away a great deal of his nostril. Bertie bled all over everything and was most unhappy. The vet informed me that Bertie had a chronic nose infection that would never go away. He gave me an antibiotic to administer orally twice a day for two weeks, and some salve that he said must be put on the nose once a day every day for the rest of the bird’s life. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ve seen them live ten years or more on this medicine.” Aauugghh.
So began the treatment of Bertie Wooster. Unfortunately, his surgically altered nostril was raw and moist and had a way of attracting seed hulls from his food. So along with administering medicine, we had to learn to pick seeds out of his nostril with a large safety pin every evening before applying the nose drops. As it healed, it left a huge, gaping hole on the right side of his beak, which is perennially filled with seed hulls.
We got used to the beak treatments. We were doing okay with them. Really, we were. But then one day last March, the kids noticed Bertie wobbling and almost falling off his perch. This, I knew, was not a good sign. Of course, Shawn was in California that week, so I was on my own with the issue. Upon closer observation, I realized that the bird’s feet were bleeding. I did not want to take him to the vet again, so I got out some clean, soft rags and pinned them around the perch to make it thicker and softer. Then I pulled out the oral antibiotic drops, which we had not come close to finishing over the original fourteen days. I gave him a dose of antibiotic twice a day until Shawn came home. The bird didn’t die.
When Shawn came home, he looked at Bertie Wooster, and pity won out. He told me to take him to the vet again. So I did.
This vet is probably older than we are—I’m guessing mid-forties—but he looks younger. He is tan and relaxed and obviously has not spent years of his life getting up with crying children in the night. He wears gold chains and smiles a lot. He looked at Bertie Wooster and announced, “I can tell you exactly what is wrong with your bird. Your bird has Bumblefoot. It isn’t that uncommon. In fact, I myself just recently returned from Aruba where I treated all the swans at the Hyatt Regency for Bumblefoot.”
I was dumbstruck. And then the thought lept into my mind, “Why don’t you just take your relaxed tan face and your gold chains and this stupid sick bird and go back to Aruba and stay there?” But, of course, I didn’t say that. Instead I said something like, “How does one treat Bumblefoot?”
I did not much like the answer I got. One treats Bumblefoot by completely cleaning and disinfecting the birdcage three times per day (yes, per day) with a solution of bleach and Lysol, changing the padding on the perch every time you clean the cage, and soaking the bird’s feet twice per day for ten minutes in an Epsom salt solution. If you do this faithfully, you should see good improvement within about four weeks. (You also give oral antibiotics for two weeks, but compared to the rest of it, that is minor.)
So, I bought a Rubbermaid bin with a lid (for the Epsom salt foot baths), and the treatments began. Actually, I am not ashamed to admit that I only disinfected the cage twice per day, while the bird was in his foot baths, because I couldn’t figure out where to go with him if I did it a third time. It was all we could handle, and the nose treatments were, of course, still ongoing. Anyway, it must have been good enough. At his four week check-up, the vet said that Bertie was much improved and another two weeks ought to do it. Yay.
Can I say that I am truly tired of this bird? He is not as tame as he used to be, due to the trauma of all his treatments. He still likes Jon well enough, since Jon has never taken any role in his treatments. He got pretty sick over the summer and grew black scabby stuff all over his face. We almost thought we’d seen the end of him when we left him with a poor, dear generous friend during our trip to visit relatives in August. But when we got back and brought him home, the black scabs fell off, leaving a featherless face with a crooked beak topped by a gaping hole where there was once a nostril. Jon says, “Isn’t Bertie Wooster cute?” Yep. Even cuter than a Boston Terrier.
I’m done spending money on this pet. We have developed a procedure for fixing his beak when it grows too long and crooked for him to eat. You are supposed to take him to the vet ($35) and have his beak filed down ($15), but we find that a toenail clipper works just fine.
The real kicker? Remember why I bought the bird in the first place? I didn’t want a game system in my home. Well, about 8 months ago, David and Shannon pooled some of their money, and Shawn took them to Toys R Us, and they came home with a Gamecube. So I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing, out of this whole deal. Nothing but hard work and vet bills.
The moral of the story: don’t ever buy a bird.
(But I know one you can have for free, if you want him.)*
*That last statement is no longer true. We gave Bertie Wooster and all of his paraphernalia away to some friends who loved him. He moved with them up to the Adirondack mountains where he died a happy and fulfilled bird, may he rest in peace.