A Gift of Wings
©2002 Linda M. Young

I seem to have gained my affinity for budgerigars in the womb.

In the mid fifties my uncle Guido raised parakeets on a small scale, a few birds in the family garage. When my mom made it through a trio of miscarriages and was carrying me, she was offered the pick of the flock; she chose an all-yellow bird she named Lemon. It was, in a way, my first budgie, although I never got to meet him. Soon after my birth Mom and I were shipped to my grandparents' while Dad and a couple of the uncles painted our house. No one made provisions for poor Lemon, however, and he died from inhaling paint fumes.

Indeed, life was a bit dangerous for the next two budgies. Pretty Boy, the second in line, was a handsome green fellow who enjoyed playing with the two-year-old human "chick" in the household. You had to watch your step, because he and I delighted in chase games across the living room floor and into the hall.

One day the chase ran too long—and Pretty Boy made it under the refrigerator. Alas, electricity did its deadly work.

I was almost school age when we had Bluebird—as indicated by his name, a blue budgie with a white face. Unfortunately we still played too many games on the floor, and Bluebird delighted in playing hide-and-seek behind the sofa. One day I called and called him, and when he finally came back into my sight, he was staggering—then fell over and died. To this day we aren't sure what happened to him.

Mom declared a moratorium on birds after that, but when I was about ten I began to nag for a pet. Since I was allergic to both dogs and cats and I had no interest in fish, the allergist suggested a bird. The budgie cycle began once more.

Frisky came home from Woolworth's a scrawny, wide-eyed yellow morsel of budgiehood. For two weeks not a chirp or a chirble escaped the baby's mouth. My father looked exasperated. "What kind of dumb bird did you pick out?" he asked.

Daddy's wish was Frisky's command. For the next five years he hardly shut up.

Treated more like a small person than a bird, he blossomed into a real personality. He sang, chattered—and talked. I don't think the others ever did. Mom tried to teach him "I love you" and he would cock his head at her, black eyes shining. Soon after he began subvocalizing, to which Mom always replied "What?" Finally one day she said loudly, "What did you say?"

Frisky replied, "What?"

After that he never turned back. His favorite phrase came to be "What do you think you're doing?", although he was pretty fond of "You dirty birdie," and a piercing wolf whistle. He sang with the birds on TV—a native bird calling in Daktari would excite him immensely. In his egotistical little budgie way he courted every mirror in the house with song and words, and it finally ended up that before we let him out we had to drape old pillowcases over the shadow box the dresser mirrors, and the bathroom mirror, or he would perch in front of one endlessly, bobbing his head at his reflection and cooing little birdie seduction lines to the mirror creature.

Like every other budgie—save one—I have had since, Frisky ate anything that didn't eat him back first. He sampled everything, from spaghetti to Mom's homemade soup with rice to salami, but his two favorites were Special K cereal and whole wheat bread. Nothing delighted him more than cereal crumbs. One hot day he found another use for a certain favorite food—we had no air conditioning and summer was often a sweltering affair: My father had finished eating a particularly juicy piece of watermelon and had left the plate, brimming with pink juice, on a TV tray until one of us got the energy to take it out to the kitchen. Next thing we knew Frisky was cooling himself off by taking a flutter bath in it...

We ended up giving a very sticky little bird yet another cool bath—to his indignation—but from then on in the summer an old soup bowl filled with cool water was reserved for further budgie bathing.

Like the eponymous collie in Lassie Come Home, Frisky had a "time sense" that was unusual and sometimes intriguing. Exactly at 3:30 p.m. when my father got out of work, he would start to sing, loudly and persistently. Twenty minutes later, when the car pulled in the driveway, he would abruptly stop, relax, put his head under his wing, and go to sleep, as if saying "All's well, Daddy's home!" Dad began to ask curiously, "Is that bird always sleeping?"

Oddly, however, sometimes Frisky was quiet. About ten or fifteen minutes later Dad would call up saying he was going to work overtime. "I know," Mom would answer. "The bird hasn't started singing yet." Frisky never missed.

A gift for my tenth birthday, Frisky remained bright and healthy until just before I graduated from junior high school. The week of my ninth grade graduation, he collapsed but I managed to revive him by rubbing his throat. A few days later, Sunday, June 21, 1971, he collapsed a second time. This time I was unable to bring him back.

I was understandably hysterical, but oddly enough, the person who took it worst was Mom. Dad brought the empty cage downstairs so she wouldn't have to look at it, but a few days later, seeing it in the basement, she burst into tears and took a sledgehammer to it. "No more birds," she declared.

Sixteen years later I found myself in a new place—sharing a two-bedroom apartment with the man who would later become my husband. I had several problems at that time, and it seemed they were all heading to a depressing low one weekend in April.

James had heard my Frisky tales many times by then and was unsure what to make of them. He'd always had dogs for pets and considered birds "boring." They sat in a cage and sang, right?

On the other hand, he was willing to do anything to cheer me out of my funk. One Friday afternoon after we had driven home from work together, he said, "I'll be back," and vanished for about an hour and a half. When he returned, he had a small animal carrier with him (the birdcage was hidden in the carport for the moment). I opened it to find a wide-eyed blue budgie with a yellow face staring back up at me.

He became Sylvester, named after Sylvester McCoy, who had just then begun playing the seventh incarnation of the peripatetic Time Lord in Doctor Who, and who had always reminded me of an cocky sparrow. Like Frisky, his cage was set up in the living room, and like Frisky, treated like a small person with feathers, he grew rackety and talkative.

Sylvester loved the outdoors. We'd leave the duplex front door open as much as possible—no easy task in Georgia—and also mounted a cheap towel rack on the front window so he could call to the sparrows outside. He became adept at imitating them and when we caught him preening the joke was always, "Sylvester has a date with a sparrow later tonight."

This didn't mean he couldn't talk. He managed to turn the oft-repeated "What a pretty bird" into "What a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty bird" without any human help (a budgie without an ego is no budgie at all...), and he also learned "My name is Sylvester McCoy II," but his favorite learned phrase was a funny one I was so glad he picked up. It was always amusing to have a bird that was sitting on your knee to look you straight in the eye and intone "Birds can't talk!" He was also the first of two birds who managed somehow—each without hearing the other—to say "Merry Chrisbird" instead of "Merry Christmas." "Happy Easter" was rather a failure, though, since a couple of similar syllables turned it into Sylvesterese: "Happy Easter McCoy II."

He was always a sober little bird, and we could never get him to play with any bird toys. And there were no flutter baths to amuse us as Sylvester was terrified of water. I had to give him the occasional bath and he always hated it.

In 1988 I moved to Atlanta with Sylvester in tow. The moment we hit the freeway a brewing thunderstorm broke and he rode it out wide-eyed at the motion and the noise. Once in the apartment, however, surrounded by the "moving crew," he was happy.

For the next two years, he became my company during the week (James would commute up on weekends, or we would drive down). I stuck another towel rack on the sliding glass door and he loved to sit up there and look out over the balcony to the trees for hours, making the acquaintance of an entire flock of new sparrows. But Mama always came first. When I was alone or sick he would keep next to me, chirbling softly in my ear. During one flu season I was confined to bed and, let out of his cage, he obligingly perched on a tissue left over the blanket at my chest. I would doze off and awake to find him dozed off as well, then one little eye would open, checking to see if I were okay. Then we would both doze off again.

When James and I were engaged in early 1990, we made jokes about using Sylvester as the "musician" for the simple wedding we were planning; the song we were going to use at the reception my mother was planning for us was "Flying Dreams" from The Secret of NIMH, which we always called "Sylvester's song."

Unfortunately, Sylvester never made it to the wedding. In May of that year he developed hepatitis from eating an all-seed diet, and after a week of shots and finally veterinary nursing, he died on Mother's Day.

I made the mistake of getting a new bird right away and not giving myself enough time to grieve. It made no difference that the new little guy, a mix of pastel colors who later turned chartruse after his first moult, was a sweet if often silent little fledgling I named Pip after the hero of Great Expectations. Pip's great joy was gnawing on anything he could get his little beak on.

We didn't have that long to get acquainted. By the end of September, Pip had died—of something that defied even the vet's diagnosis.

Since we were going to be away two weeks for our Christmas visit/honeymoon, James and I didn't bother getting another bird until after the first of the year. We found the next love of my life at a store called The Aviarium, which at that time was at the Market Square Mall, and the budgies, half-American and half-English crosses, were raised in one of the display windows. By the time they were fledged and able to be adopted, they had grown up with the sound of humans milling around the window and were therefore quiet and curious rather than cowed by these huge creatures.

The little blue budgie with the white face we chose was therefore not a bit afraid when we brought him home that weekend. He sat quietly taking everything in, was finger tame by the second day, and was had escaped to perch on the tallest curtain rod in the apartment by the third. His only early vice was eating too much millet—he'd been weaned on it. As for his name, well, I sat on the sofa one night reading names I liked out of a baby names' book. He looked up at me when I said "Merlin." So Merlin it was. His middle name, "Lucius" came from our guess that he had been born around or on December 13, St. Lucy's Day.

By the time we moved into a three-bedroom apartment in July, Merlin had become darn near as peripatetic as the Doctor. We had taken him to a friend's beach house at Alligator Point, Florida and he'd been to Warner Robins; he rode in the car like a trouper as long as he could see where he was going. (I always joked that he wanted to drive.) But when we moved to the apartment—and when James finally moved up from Warner Robins—Merlin had an entirely new experience: he had a big sister.

When I had moved up to Atlanta, James had gotten a puppy, a supposedly beagle/cocker spaniel cross that ended up looking like a half-sized German Shepherd. When she was small, her big shep-sized ears lopped, so she looked as if she were wearing doggie "earmuffs." That and her ladylike demeanor got her dubbed "Princess Leia," or Leia for short. Leia was a sweet dog, "so laid back she's falling over," to paraphrase an old filksong.

We realized that the moment we got Leia and Merlin together. She'd already demonstrated with Sylvester that she was afraid of flapping wings, and when she and a budgie were finally together in a household, she indicated plainly that the bird was free to be in charge. As long as she had James, she really didn't care!

Merlin took it with equinamity. As "a budgie of substance," he knew he should be in charge, and took the Alpha position at once. Leia accepted it all with good grace, although sometimes she looked as if she regretted it. Merlin, of course, was a great people-food nibbler, and could always be counted on to be at the edge of a plateful of food. (Leia looked at him mournfully at these times, as if to say, "If I did that, I'd get spanked!") He ate rice and soup, spaghetti, crackers, bread, chicken and turkey, but the great love of his life was a pork chop. All you had to do was walk in the room with a chop and he would dive bomb you. His favorite part were the bones...and thereby hangs one tale.

One night we determined that the pork chop bones we had were strong enough for Leia to chew on, and we tossed both on the floor. However, Leia only got one. Merlin laid claim on the other, and it was so funny to see him standing there, one foot holding the bone down, picking the leftover bits off it!

Leia had been brought up with a litter of kittens and didn't like to play any dog games like tug or fetch (she would play chase with James occasionally). Merlin on the other hand was on his way to becoming the budgerigar version of Pele. He had a set of little busy balls—little basketweave plastic balls with jingle bells in the center—that he played with at the front door entryway, which was linoleumed rather than carpeted, and unused 340 days a year. He would grab them with his beak and toss them, then run after them, cheeping happily. Sometimes he would grab them with a foot and kick them.

Eventually we worked out a game: I would sit cross-legged on the floor and toss a busy ball for him to "fetch." He would patter after it, and toss it back in stages. The object of the game was to place the ball between my knees, and then fly and sit on one of my knees. Sometimes he got lazy and fluttered on my knee before the ball was in my reach. I would tell him the game wasn't over and that he had to fetch!

Somehow out of all of those busy balls, Merlin picked out a favorite which was green on one side and pink on the other. He thought the others were fun, but "Ball" was his pet. If we wanted Merlin in the cage, or just wanted him to come, all you had to do was grab "Ball" and shake it. With a quick scold, Merlin was at your side. Toss "Ball" in the cage, and Merlin followed.

Try as we might, Merlin and Leia just never communicated, and we realized one day that they really never could. Leia was lying on the floor watching Merlin, who was just a foot away from her nose playing happily with "Ball," and suddenly he stopped, cocked his head at her, then grabbed "Ball" in his beak and tossed it at her so it rolled to her feet. It looked to both of us as if he was trying to get her to push it back to him.

Leia regarded the toy in puzzlement. When she didn't move, Merlin pattered up, repossessed "Ball," and continued chirping and rolling it. A few minutes later, Leia rose, stretched—and then play bowed at Merlin, wagging her tail.

Now it was Merlin's turn to look perplexed. Poor things, neither understood the other's body language! They never attempted to communicate again.

In other communications factors, he was fine. He'd developed his own human chatter, including an independent learning of "Merry Chrisbird." Parrot-type birds are supposed to be imitators, and it is said they do not know what words mean—Alex the African grey parrot seems to be an anamoly—but Merlin apparently figured out the word "Hi!" was a greeting that was supposed to get you attention. He would land on your head and say "Hi." If you did not respond, his voice got louder. "Hi!" If you still didn't respond, he downright yelled "HI!" until you spoke to him!

In November of 1993, Merlin developed a mysterious illness. Every two to ten days, he would vomit up seeds and mucus, and following would become very disoriented for 30 minutes to an hour. We eventually took him to an avian vet, but even she was never able to track down what was wrong with him. It became an ordeal to see the poor sweetheart be so sick, then recover in a couple of hours and try to preen the goop off himself. I helped by washing him down afterwards, and when he was at his sickest I would cradle him in my hands, singing "Hush, Little Baby" to him.

Thanksgiving night of 1994, after we all had had a beautiful day—Merlin had eaten some turkey soup and had sung to James and I as we sat watching television—he had another of his attacks. I made certain he was going to be all right before covering him up for the night, then went to bed. When I uncovered him the next morning he was on the floor of the cage, barely alive, only able to kick one leg. He had his head resting on "Ball," his inseperable friend.

I screamed to James, who held him as I called the emergency vet, but it was as if he had waited for us to come before he left for "Rainbow Bridge." He took his final breath while tucked warm in his Daddy's hands.

We had no backyard then, so we buried him in the bushes in front of Alice Spivey's house. Into his little shroud we tucked "Ball"—in the end it didn't seem fair to separate them.

At this time our apartment complex was beginning to deteriorate. The management no longer kept up the place, tenants were allowed to play loud music, break bottles, urinate off balconies, and commit other disgusting acts without penalty. We also had the complex's head of maintenance living in the apartment below us; about every two weeks he got drunk and partied and played music so loud the walls would vibrate, but we didn't dare complain because he of course had a key to our apartment and we were afraid for our things and Leia. We knew we would have to move soon.

I didn't want to bring a new bird into this environment, but we ended up getting a new budgie after Christmas. Bandit, despite the fact of being the last budgie in a very flighty cage of babies, took the racket with a phlegmatic calm that unfortunately didn't extend to his relationship with us. For a month we fed him and watered him, talked softly to him, but he didn't seem to want to be tame. I would put a hand in the cage and he would flutter and jump about.

Then one day I realized his "panicked fluttering" always had the same pattern. This wasn't a frightened bird, just one that had learned to get away! In a week we had conquered what was left of his fear—the astonished expression on his face when he realized that all that finger was was a perch was laughable—and very soon he was flying around the apartment and sitting on shoulders—though he preferred heads—like he had been born there. In fact, as a fledgeling his flying endurance was prodigious; he managed to make it around our large living/dining room six times before fastening himself, panting, to a poster we had on the wall. My friend Sue promptly dubbed him "the Energizer Budgie"—he kept going and going and going...

He got his name, BTW, from his coloring, a color mutation called "harlequin pied." Rather than having a solid color chest with a striped head and striped wings, he was pure yellow with a green tummy and a green "torc" around his neck. The black usually drawn as solid stripes on the back of the neck and the wings only forms some spots on his wings, plus striped right around his eyes so he looks as if he is wearing a mask, just like one of my favorites from long ago, Bandit the dog on Jonny Quest.

Leia took one look at Bandit and immediately abdicated her short position as head of the animal kingdom in our house. Bandit took one look at Leia and decided he wanted to be friends with her due to the "strings" she had on her face—his one love was gnawing on string and her whiskers just looked so tempting. Leia responded by slinking under anything Bandit wouldn't go near, for unlike Merlin, he hated being on the floor.

He didn't like the busy balls, either, but became attached to a bell we hung in his cage. If something happened that he didn't like, he beat up the bell. We put a set of interlocked rings on a perch fastened to the outside of his cage, and he ended up being a gymnast on them, going through the rings as well as perching with one foot on a ring, one on the side of his cage, an avian version of "the Iron Cross" move in gymnastics.

Most surprisingly, however, he would not eat food on plates. He always appeared to be afraid of it. Finally I was able to trick him into eating a celery leaf, which has remained a favorite treat, and one Easter Sunday we actually got him to eat some rice and a bit of chicken, but he has remained oddly aloof of human food except for occasional crumbs on someone's collar and rice in soup.

Despite his rather retarded early social development, he developed a decided flair for talking. He never quite got into Sylvester's "Birds can't talk" (which Merlin had mutated into a dictionary definition: "Talk! Talk! Birds can't!") and actually said "Merry Christmas" rather than "Chrisbird," but he developed his own unique vocabulary: "Where's Daddy?" "Where's the dog?" "Hi, Squeaker" (his nickname, "Squeak Mouse" or "Squeaker," came from his habit of uttering little squeaks whenever you had to take him in your hands), "I wanna go upstairs," "Where's your beak?" "Oh, my God." However, his favorite phrase turned out to be something I taught him as a joke: "I am not a chicken!" He will tell you that, earnestly, sometimes five or six times in a row. Sometimes he'll even tell you he isn't a computer. Or a that he is or is not a budgerigar.

In the meantime, as Bandit passed his third birthday, Leia developed a heart condition. She eventually died in May of 1998 of congestive heart failure. We're not sure if Bandit actually noticed she was gone, but he was quiet for a few days.

(I always imagined Merlin and Leia meeting again at Rainbow Bridge. Now, finally, they would be able to understand one another.)

Poor Bandit, there was to come one more shock in his life: we brought home a little upstart from the pound a month later, a terrier-cross full of boundless energy. Where Bandit had been the pesty little brother, he'd now inherited a pesty younger sister. Willow has indeed taught him that all dogs are not created equal.

The "Energizer Budgie" is now a plump and mature "rooster" eight years old. We despair of ever getting him to eat anything healthy like pelleted food and know this means we may lose him early due to a seed diet, and he has breathing problems when he flies. He's been sick a couple of times, but our marvelous vet has managed to pull him through. He loves to jump on the computer keyboard and has learned to make keystroke noises (for a while he was a regular on the Remember WENN chats) or sit on my head and climb down my forehead to peck at that birdie in my glasses' reflection.)

The one thing I have learned from all my budgies is to treat every day with them as a gift, one God has given us, for truly a budgie is something He gives you, a piece of joy and a gift of wings.



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