Animal hospice care: Birdie Bird – a tail of two feathers
When this puny wild King Parrot waddled into my life earlier this year I first thought he was recovering from being attacked. He had feathers missing at the base of his spine, his neck and top of his head. He also was unable to fly because the long wing feathers were gone and his tail had just two feathers left. Though he certainly was physically vulnerable, you would have never guessed by his attitude! He was quite bossy with other birds except the bigger parrot species – the Galahs, Correlas and Cockatoos. The Rosellas, Bronze Wings, speckled Pigeons as well as his fellow King Parrots all skedaddled when he gave them the stink eye or latest when he charged to nip them if they pecked at what he considered to be his meal.
I started to leave seeds on the ground for him because he couldn’t fly up to the bird feeder. Once or twice a day he climbed down from the bare weeping cherry tree – where he spent most of his time – to look for them. I came outside to supervise and make sure the big parrots didn’t shoo him away. I named him Birdie Bird. And so our relationship began.
As it turned out, Birdie Bird appeared two weeks before my dog Enzo suddenly died. Curiously, last year two weeks before my dog Louie died, I had a special encounter with a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. Coincidence? If so, I like how Wayne Dyer defines it,
“In mathematics, two angles that are said to coincide fit together perfectly. The word “coincidence” does not describe luck or mistakes. It describes that which fits together perfectly.”
I called this ancient looking cockatoo Elvis. I know, I know, not the most creative name for a creature that has the same hairdo as the King of Rock n Roll. When I looked up the name I learned that it means sage, elf, or wise friend. That was resonant with what I sensed when I spent time with him. At first, he looked a bit hideous to me. But it didn’t take long at all until I could only see his beauty.
For five weeks I had been providing hospice care of my dog Louie’s paralysed body post-stroke which had prompted me to review my beliefs about ageing and dying. Replacing my fear and resistance with curiosity and openness revealed to me that what I thought was only horrible actually was rich and nuanced and bore gifts of wisdom. I was seeing with new eyes. When Elvis winged his way into my awareness I therefore was able to be present with him. I wasn’t blinded by his ugly appearance nor triggered by feeling sorry for him, I was able to notice that he was perfectly fine, not needing my help but welcoming my attention and care.
Elvis visited three days in a row and then I never saw him again. I am grateful to him for amplifying the true nature of beauty to me. Beauty is not reserved for the new and shiny, it expands beyond the surface. A common reason for people to choose euthanasia is that they don’t want to see their animal’s natural process of dying. They find it too hard to bear witness what they imagine loss of body functions and mental decline look like and how they would feel about it. I understand, I once did too. However, being with Louie until his natural death was nothing like I previously imagined.
I am not a bird person. I never had a special relationship with the budgies my family kept when I grew up. It was exciting for me when I moved to Australia to suddenly live among colourful parrots and I enjoyed watching them in our yard but our interactions revolved mostly around me putting out seeds when someone whistled or shrieked their inquiry about some tucker (that’s Australian for food) and then observe them eating. King Parrots are the most friendly and least shy with people and it’s not unusual that one lands on you, if you keep still, and eats from your hand. My new little flightless friend Birdie Bird, however, was highly suspicious of me initially and had a big personal space bubble, sprinting off in alarm when I came too close for his liking, climbing up the bamboo in record speed into the safety of the cherry tree.
A few weeks into our budding relationship, I noticed that Birdie Bird looked as if he had shrunk and was missing more feathers. That’s when it dawned on me that he likely suffered from Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), the most common viral disease among parrots in Australia. There is no known cure. I reached out to a bird person I know who put me in touch with a parrot rescue who confirmed my suspicion of Birdie Bird’s condition. I was told that he was in the late stages of the disease and it would be the kind thing for me to do to catch him and take him to be euthanised. Otherwise he would die a horrible death of starvation if he wasn’t killed by a predator first.
Before learning about and experiencing animal hospice care, I would have felt guilty to not have realised sooner what was going on and then I would have caught him to “end that poor creature’s suffering”. However, with my now expanded awareness I see things differently. Yes, his body looked pitiful. But this little bird, as far as I could tell, had no interest in being “put out of his misery”. He was participating in life to the full extend of his abilities. He thoroughly preened himself daily. He climbed around the nearby bushes and trees foraging for buds and sticking his head into their flowers for drinking the nectar. He loved sitting in the sun – whenever it made an appearance in the winter sky. When it rained, he sat in his dry shelter against the trunk of the cherry tree under a thick forked branch.
It seemed preposterous to me to take away another being’s life to avoid future suffering that might or might not happen but certainly wasn’t happening at that time. I decided that instead I would provide him with hospice care. What does that look like for a wild animal?
Within ten days of my dog Louie’s death last year, two Sulphur-crested Cockatoos came to spend their last two days of their life in our backyard. First one, then the other. When the first one appeared, I was wondering if he needed my help. Should I catch him and bring him to the wildlife centre? Would the trauma of being captured be worth the help he might receive? As thoughts raced around in my mind, I suddenly and distinctly heard his voice inside my head. He said, “I am not sick, I am just dying.”
My thoughts went completely silent as I absorbed the bird’s clear communication. My sudden inner stillness melted the jittery nervous emotions and this enveloping sense of All Is Well arose. There was nothing for me to do but meet each moment with my attentive kindness and offer assistance if needed and wanted.
Because he ate more slowly, there often was not enough food left for him as the rest of his flock gobbled up the seeds. So, whenever I noticed him sitting alone at the feeder, I brought him a refill which was much appreciated. On the night of what turned out to be his last day, I noticed that he could not lift off the ground anymore – I had seen the decline in his ability to fly over the past two days – and he was looking for a hiding spot on the ground. I don’t know what prompted me but I decided to offer him a stick to climb onto so that I could lift him up into a tree. To my utter surprise, he didn’t back away as I approached but stepped onto his “ride”. The next morning I found him dead underneath the tree. A few days later, another cockatoo came and things unfolded in the same fashion. I was so deeply touched and filled with gratitude for having been able to provide sanctuary for the dying.
When I noticed Birdie Bird for the first time, I was wondering if I should take him to the wildlife hospital but I knew from pervious experience that they only help those birds they deem having a good chance of recovery and being able to be released again. Everyone else gets euthanised. I didn’t want to take the risk of him being considered in the latter category because he really still enjoyed his life. Being afflicted with PBFD – a disease with no cure – would have meant his end from their perspective I realised later and was immensely relieved to not have taken him.
I also considered catching him to put him in a cage and look after him that way. I learned that this course of action would be illegal unless I had a wildlife license. Though I understand that this law is in place in an effort to protect wildlife it is astounding to me that such a permit entitles one to catch and breed and then sell wild birds. Yet it would constitute a criminal act for me to provide safety and hospice care for a dying wild bird that way. Going down this road was not what Birdie Bird wanted anyways. It was very clear he felt fiercely independent and although restricted by his inability to fly his climbing skills were remarkable. He also was able to madly flap himself across a short distance (his range was about one meter) as he moved around the canopy of the trees. In the same manner he could fly down from a height of up to about seven meters though it was more like breaking his fall rather than flying but his landings looked like any other bird’s, no crashing. And yes, he definitely dependent on the supplemental feeding from me, however, as mentioned above, he loved to forage the budding or flowering trees and shrubs.
Aside from providing and guarding his main meals, I connected with Birdie Bird throughout the day. The house front facing our backyard is all windows and made it easy for me to track him. His habitat was about seven meters by fifteen meters, centring around the cherry tree. Whenever I reached out consciously to him, he responded. I would notice he was having a nap and when I thought, “Hello!” Birdie Bird would usually open his eyes, stretch his wings and legs or give a yawn. When I took time to just be with him, we entered a mindful state together, he up in his tree, and I sitting on the ground or in a chair, inside or outside, depending on the weather. These joined meditations sparked a sense of profound peace deep inside me, filling me up and then radiating out. Birdie Bird spent most of his time in that state.
Sometimes, when it was particularly cold or rainy or he had skipped a meal, I worried bordering on feeling pity and no peace or connection was found until I let go and surrendered the responsibility I felt for his life back to where it belonged, nature. Although I had learned so much from my dogs and the cockatoos dying, this frequency of worry turns out to be a sticky habit, sneaking in when I don’t pay attention. But doesn’t worry mean we love and care for someone? We worry when we fear for the happiness, safety or life of someone. I believe when we are concerned this way, we over-extend our sphere of influence. We want to control something that’s out of our control. We want to fix the brokenness we perceive. We desperately want everyone to be happy, safe and undying. Our version of it, anyways. When we cling onto worry, when we insist that this is a reflection of our love, we miss so much. Peace is completely unattainable. Allowing the mystery of life? Impossible. Its hidden blessings remain invisible. All we can feel is anguish.
In our three and a half months together, I became so attuned to my thinking, I detected worry as soon as it tiptoed into my mind. Being so little, so vulnerable, Birdie Bird provided ample of opportunity for it. Sometimes it felt as if he was shaking his head at me, rolling his eyes, sighing, “Here she goes again!” Humour is a good way to shake worry.
I find that hospice care and being with the dying is an exercise in letting go, relinquishing control, doing what I can as best as I can and a lot of simply being present. Also, relaxing into that dying happens. Bodies know how to shut down. There is no help needed but our support and care is usually welcomed and appreciated.
Spending more time outside – on my guarding duty during Birdie Bird’s meal times – meant I started noticing things I never took in before. For example, the one-eyed Galah (another parrot species). You’d never guess he only has one eye, he behaves exactly like the others of his kind though missing half his field of vision. There is also a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo with a crippled foot. I only noticed because when he walks on the ground, he limps. He lands on trees one-footed without the slightest wobble or losing his balance. Birdie Bird and these other physically compromised feathered beings showed me that adaptability is an innate natural response. If only perfect is ever good enough, life is really hard to cope with.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.
Changes. Even though there is nothing permanent in this world except change, part of us struggles with change, it puts us on edge, rings the survival storm bells in our brain, and creates a default resistance. We like the comfort of the known and familiar. When a being is dying, what has been working well one day, suddenly, is not comfortable or possible anymore the next.
A hospice nurse once told me that it’s a relatively common occurrence that visitors bring their dying loved ones food they used to enjoy, such as jelly beans, being oblivious (or in denial) that the person’s likes and abilities have changed. With the decline of control over swallowing, many choke and the culprit jelly bean has to be suctioned out, the procedure coming with the risk of causing aspiration pneumonia. I had a similar experience when doing hospice care for my dog last year. Luckily, he managed to cough up the troublesome treat, and I learned my lesson, adjusting to his new need of soft food only.
When I first met Birdie Bird, he still had two tail feathers. His second to last tail feather he lost in an unfortunate incident involving one of my daycare dogs that after spotting him on the ground ran to investigate and must have grabbed Birdie Bird’s tail and managed to pull out a feather before listening to me and leaving the parrot alone. After that occurrence, I stepped up my security measures to keep Birdie Bird safe from such dangers as much as it was in my control. Then, one morning, Birdie Bird’s last tail feather was gone – likely due to his disease. I felt heartbroken for a moment, remembering how carefully he had been preening it daily. I was crestfallen and wondered if his body felt differently now, with no more tail feathers? When I pulled myself away from all my thinking and back into the present moment, I noticed that unperturbed, he went about his usual business of foraging for the seeds I had put out for him and the other birds.
A few days later, another change. This time, in his environment. The slender branch on the very top of his daytime hangout, the weeping cherry tree, from which he was able to climb onto a connecting gum tree branch, was broken. He could not make it to his usual overnight place. Some days he had slept in other trees too but this one seemed to be his home base. I watched him for a good twenty minutes attempting to reach, trying different angles, returning to the known, just to find once more that yup, this gangway was gone. He was a little worked up and it was starting to get dark fast. At some point, in a crazy kamikaze stunt that was less well calculated and more desperate than his usual modus operandi, he jumped out of the tree and broke his fall by flapping his wings rapidly, landing by my feet. He shook himself and sprinted to the next best climbing structure, the rhododendron bush. He climbed around it for a few minutes, dusk was about to turn into dark, and finding it wanting took another jump (from a much lesser height) and a wild dash to another tree where I assume he spent the night.
The next day I wondered if, come evening, Birdie Bird would attempt the broken branch gangway again. What a reflection on my beliefs about animal intelligence! After his dinner, he waddle-raced in a different direction, clearly having a specific destination in mind. I followed him slowly and at a bit of a distance – respecting his comfort zone – to a tall conifer tree on the other side of our house that droops its branches all the way to the ground. He quickly scaled it to about the height of my head. There he attempted to find a way to reach the neighbouring gum tree – gums clearly his preferred sleeping trees. But to no avail. I approached slowly with a stick, inviting him to climb on so I could lift him where he wanted to go. But he was not interested. Instead, giving up on his original plan, he ascended the conifer further to a spot close to its trunk, perching on a twig, a thicker branch over his head for rain shelter.
That’s where I discovered him the following morning still. What a cold morning it was, zero degrees Celsius. And yes, I noticed how I almost felt sorry for him again. I don’t deal well with cold myself, and projected my feelings onto Birdie Bird. He just sat there, puffed up into a ball but not visibly shivering, and looked at me.
The sun came up higher and extended its warmth to Birdie Bird who had a good stretch of his wings and legs and started nibbling on something, I assume the new tips’ growth. As he foraged, he climbed higher and higher and found a place where the branches of his conifer and the neighbouring gum entangle and he finally could access his favourite type of tree. There, he clambered all the way to its very top, and disappeared in the gently swaying foliage. I had an immediate sense of him being in his happy place. He stayed there all day.
I was wondering if he would descent for an evening meal of seeds. In the late afternoon, his usual time for that, I went to check on him again. This tree being on the other side of our house where there are no windows I had been unable to keep track of him throughout the day unless I stepped outside. I found his remains – his wings and one leg – close to the foot of the tree.
Though I will never know exactly what happened to him, I think he was on his way to come to the feeding spot when he met either the neighbour’s cat or a fox. Though both seemed so unlikely, I could not think of another alternative. I hadn’t seen the cat in months, I thought. Although now it dawned on me that she had simply avoided our backyard – because I had repeatedly shooed her away when I saw her stalking about, for her own protection (from being chased by our dogs) and for the sake of all the birds here. A few days after Birdie Bird’s demise, however, a delivery guy asked if we had a cat because he had just seen her slinking away through the fence. Although there are foxes in the area, I strongly doubt they would be so brazen during the day and come so close to the house. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Death had come for Birdie Bird.
My first thought was that it could have hardly been a better day to die. As far as I can tell, he had had a wonderful day high up in the tree top. Judging by what I found at its scene, his death had been swift. I felt sad all the same. And a little shocked. Just like my dog Enzo who choked on a bone three months earlier, his death was so sudden. Birdie Bird died on Enzo’s birthday who would have turned seven years old. I also felt grateful because I had wished to find his remains when his end came. Firstly, because I wanted to know. I didn’t want him to just disappear one day, leaving me to wonder about his whereabouts. Secondly, I wanted to honour his life and death in a special way.
Even though there was so little left of him, I could clearly identify Birdie Bird. Miraculously, his wings were intact. They were one of a kind because they missed all the flight-enabling, longer feathers due to the disease. I arranged his remains on a piece of bark with a floral adornment, carrying it to what have become the burial grounds on our property. I was looking for just the right spot. I had left the cockatoos’ remains on the ground. I was thinking how much Birdie Bird treasured being off the ground when my eyes fell onto the tall stump of a tree that had been cut down a long time ago. That’s where I placed his remains. Perfect! I let me tears fall in wonder of the relationship that had grown between us.
The next two days were hard. I realised just how much Birdie Bird had been part of my life for the past three and a half months. I kept catching myself staring out the window to the spot in the cherry tree where he had sat often. Seeing it empty, my tears welled up. But Birdie Bird had left me something from which I drew comfort.
A few weeks before his death, I woke up feeling blah. One of my clients dropping off her dog to daycare wore this lovely necklace, small glazed clay birds interspersed with translucent beads and copper rings. When I exclaimed, “How beautiful!” she took it off and placed it around my neck saying, “Wear it for today.” My blah-ness completely vanished in that moment. I felt elated all day.
The day that Birdie Bird died, I was texting my client that I couldn’t stop thinking about the necklace and was wondering where she got it from. She replied that it was a special necklace, it had belonged to her mother. But it was meant to be mine, so it would be from now on.
At first I wanted to decline. I couldn’t possibly accept this piece of memorabilia. I sat with my discomfort. It’s easy for me to be generous, not so easy to embrace generosity offered to me. I stepped out of my comfort zone and expressed my gratitude, joy and appreciation of her gift. A little later I went outside and found Birdie Bird dead. The necklace thus taking on a new memorial meaning. Elvis and the two Sulphur-crested Cockatoos last year opened a door. Birdie Bird took me down the path leading from it, getting me acquainted more intimately with the avian world. This is just the very beginning, a spark has been lit, shining through the crack of my ignorance of their realm.
There was more. But that’s for another time. Let me close this story with a bit of parrot mystery. I am not pulling your leg when I tell you there is such a thing as ‘parrot sniffing’. Apparently, many parrots have a very pleasant scent. Often when I stood outside with Birdie Bird and the other parrots, I smelled the most wonderful scent that reminds me of frankincense. I wonder if their bodies emanated it or if it was coming from a more subtle realm. Birds are said to be messengers of the otherworld after all.
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