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Inspirational Essays

Birds of a Feather
by Pamela deRoy

The raucous, earsplitting noises emanating from the courtyard of the U shaped apartment building where I lived with my husband and small son caused several of the residents to peer curiously from behind their curtains to see what was going on. I felt, rather than saw their disapproving stares as I struggled to hold on to the shrieking starling in my left hand while maintaining a secure grip on a full bag of groceries and my purse in my right.

Certainly none of the onlookers were the least bit surprised to see that the cause of the entire ruckus was a bird and that I was involved in the fracas. What else could one expect from those "pigeon lovers" on the third floor. Several times a week my Dutch husband and the kind hearted German janitor arose before dawn and crept up to the roof of the building to release the variety of song birds which had been caught in the pigeon traps ordered placed there by the landlord. With no food or water, the birds would have perished without the help of their tenderhearted benefactors. But their clandestine rescue missions had been witnessed and word had spread; my husband and I were less than popular as a result.

As a child I had a mission to rescue as many small injured animals and birds as possible and try to save them. Sometimes I was successful, but more often than not, due to serious injuries or the fact they were just too young, my patients succumbed. I staged elaborate funerals for them and buried them in the side yard of our home complete with cigar box coffins lined with scraps of dress material from my mother's sewing drawer. An additional piece of fabric was used to gently cover the corpse. Enthusiastic neighborhood children stood in solemn decorum as the cardboard coffin was lowered into the ground, dirt was thrown on top, and a prayer was said. Wilting dandelions, hollyhocks and lilacs (depending on the season) decorated the finished grave. Throughout my life, wherever I've lived, word has always gotten out that I take care of stray and injured animals.

Therefore it was perfectly natural for me to undertake a rescue mission when, as I entered the courtyard, I'd noticed the starling fluttering on the ground, one wing dragging unnaturally. It took ten minutes of frantic maneuvering as he darted in and around the bushes and other shrubbery, before I managed to catch him. The noises emanating from the injured captive were extraordinary. He was, while shrieking indignantly, busily pecking whatever parts of my anatomy he had access to with his sharp beak in a determined effort to escape. Left to his own devices he would have become an easy meal for a stray cat. He was not, however, in the least grateful to me for rescuing him from certain death. From the moment of his capture he developed an antipathy for me which was to last as long as he lived with us.

Juggling the struggling bird, groceries, purse and keys, I somehow managed to open the double doors at the entranceway and ultimately the door to our third floor apartment, continuously assaulted by the shrill, decidedly discordant noises issuing from the struggling bird. As he was obviously unable to fly, I felt safe in unceremoniously dumping him into the bathtub, after which I hurried into the kitchen to put the groceries away. A leaking carton of ice cream squished as I hastily tossed it into the freezer.

Somewhat reluctantly I returned to the bathroom and stood surveying my ruffled captive who, in turn, glared at me menacingly, defying me to lay hands on him again. With his left wing dangling uselessly by his side, there was nothing to do but set it. Gritting my teeth, I found strips of bandaging and tape and set to work.

By the time my husband, Bill and son, Scott arrived home an hour or so later, Zeke was bandaged (as was I), his wing secured in a natural position and perched on an old brass planter in the middle of the bathtub. I'd lined the tub with newspapers after half filling the brass planter with gravel and forcing a perch across the top. It was there that Zeke took up residence in an extraordinarily calm manner. It was apparent he had decided to make the best of the situation and he actually seemed to approve of his makeshift home. He spent his time peering at his immediate surroundings and while he took his time investigating the new bandage on his wing, he neither pecked at it nor did he make any effort to remove it. He peered at Bill and Scott in a coy fashion, his head cocked to the side, looking at them with one bright eye and then the other. He ate with zesty appetite the concoction of whole wheat bread, wheat germ dampened slightly with milk, which I prepared for him in an old cup.

Zeke astonished us with his easy adaptability and his ready acceptance of what had to be to him, a rather strange situation. He was our official bathroom greeter, as well as our new, automatic alarm clock, awakening us each day, bright and early - very early! It sounded as though we had an aviary in our apartment for Zeke could simultaneously produce trilling, whistling and truly musical sounds while making typically "crow-like" noises.

Unfortunately his reputation as an early morning riser extended to Saturdays and Sundays, and no amount of disgruntled protesting could persuade him to cease and desist so we could sleep in a little later on weekends. He greeted Bill and Scott with great enthusiasm as they staggered into the bathroom, muttering about his total lack of consideration and he kept up a steady stream of conversation the entire time they were in the room. He observed Bill's daily shaving ritual with unflagging interest, tipping his head to one side and then the other and conversing in a gossipy manner throughout the entire process. He was equally friendly with Scott. However, when I entered the room and spoke to him, he would silently turn around on the perch with his back to me and ruffle his feathers. Not for one minute did his aversion toward me lessen. He made it perfectly clear he was never going to forgive me for capturing him and we could never be friends.

By the time Zeke's wing healed, the Chicago winter had set in with a vengeance. Because he was still rather weak and had become accustomed to a life of ease, we were extremely reluctant to thrust him rudely into the elements and decided to keep him with us for the duration of the winter. There was, of course, a "No Pet" rule in the apartment building, but we did not consider Zeke to be a pet - he was simply our winter guest.

With his wing back to normal, the brass planter no longer sufficed and an old birdcage, dredged up from the storeroom, became Zeke's new home. To make it as comfortable as possible, we removed all the perches but two and took out the small feed dishes at each end of the cage. Lining the floor of the cage with newspapers, I sprinkled it liberally with coarse gravel. We provided water and a food dish in the corner of the cage and placed it in our sunny kitchen. I was profoundly grateful for the peace and quiet as I soaked in the tub at night without first having to remove the paraphernalia (newspapers, bird and planter), and then listen to the rude noises of our feathered guest as I bathed.

I wasn't the only lover of baths in the family. Baths were, for Zeke, the highlight of the day, although he loved them cold, the colder the better. He would actually tremble when he heard Bill running the water in the sink and filling an old coffee cup. As soon as Bill placed the cup on the floor of the cage, Zeke plunged in totally immersing himself and emerging minutes later, a sodden mass of plumage. He would then stagger dripping to the perch and preen himself luxuriously for at least an hour until every feather was shining and beautiful.

Bill made a nightly ritual of preparing his bath and it never occurred to either of us that it was of any consequence to Zeke who gave it to him. However, one night when Bill was working late, I filled the cup, running the water until it was cold, just the way he liked it, and placed the cup in his cage. Zeke ruffled his feathers in a disgruntled fashion and turned his back on me. After I backed away, he turned around and leaned toward the cup longingly, visibly trembling, but he would not get in and bathe. Although I left it in the cage for over a half hour, he remained on the perch, stubbornly refusing to move toward the cup.

Upon Bill's arrival home, I told him about the strange reaction of his feathered buddy. Taking the same cup of water from the sink ledge he placed it in the cage. Instantly, Zeke sprang from the perch and into the cup, splashing water on the wall and floor in his excitement and emerging minutes later drenched to the skin as he jumped back on the perch to preen himself. For some reason he never refused the food I prepared for him, but never in all the time he remained with us, would he accept a bath from me.

Not long afterwards, for several days in a row when I returned home from work, there were definite signs that Zeke had been loose in the apartment. Plants had been nibbled on, knickknacks were displaced and a couple were broken and/or overturned, and bird messes appeared in nearly every room. The door to Zeke's cage was always tied shut and when we went into the kitchen to check on him, he was in the cage peering at us impertinently as usual. We were mystified, to say the least - there was no logical explanation for what was happening.

Early the following Saturday morning, I was walking barefoot into the kitchen and a sudden movement caught my eye. Stepping back I peered around the doorway just in time to see Zeke using his long sharp beak to flip up the plastic panel at the end of the cage where the seed container had been removed a couple of months previously. He lifted it only high enough to permit himself to slip out, which he proceeded to do, but not high enough for the panel to slide out of the track completely and fall to the floor. I was astonished! We'd seen a great deal of evidence that this lowly starling was intelligent, but we had been unaware of the fact he could actually reason things out. He somehow surmised that if we discovered how he got out of the cage, his daytime excursions would be immediately curtailed, thus he took extreme care not to flip the plastic panel all the way out of the track. Most amazing of all was the fact he repeated the performance prior to our arrival home in the late afternoon, willingly returning to captivity.

In spite of our great admiration for his ingenuity, we reluctantly cut short his freedom by stuffing the tracks at both ends of the cage with cardboard so the plastic panels could not be moved. We hated to spoil his fun, but he was too big and clumsy to be allowed to fly free unsupervised in our small apartment.

Spring arrived in the Windy City at long last and soon it was time for Zeke to leave us. Bill, Scott and I stood on the back porch on a particularly lovely, balmy day as Zeke flew in a rather wobbly fashion from my extended hand to a nearby tree branch just off the porch. Ruffling his feathers, he smoothed a few of the longer ones with his beak and without a backward glance; he flew away never to be seen again.

We thought of him often. His intelligence, ingenuity and feisty personality stamped him, indelibly in our memories for all time. No cigar box coffin or sad funeral for Zeke - he was one of my success stories and the long, dreary Mid-Western winter had been brightened considerably by his presence.

--Pamela deRoy


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