Rather than poke food down his throat, I began to place it on the back of his
tongue. Sometimes, Byrd coughed the food back up. But increasingly, he
used his throat muscles to swallow. Later, I began to train his neck muscles
by feeding him from an angle slightly below the 90-degree angle directly
above his head. At times, I had to wait for Byrd to become very hungry until
he began to take food from lesser angles. At times when he regressed, I
dangled food above Byrd’s head. As his beak settled around it, I applied
slight pressure to the tweezers, angling more toward a 60- or 45-degree
angle before releasing the food or poking the food down his throat.
Patience and empathy won the day. Perhaps two to three weeks
later, and only when very hungry, Byrd began to eat from my angled hand
without the assistance of tweezers. Within a few more days, he could take
food from my hand as it rested on the tabletop. And finally, he understood
fully and began to pick up food directly from the table. I don’t know whether
my training was wholly or partially responsible for his progress—simple
maturation probably was a factor—but I felt happy and relieved that Byrd
could better take care of himself. At about that time, I bought him a little,
yellow, weighted, gerbil food bowl.
My next concern involved my landlord. The apartment lease stated
that pets were not allowed in rental units. Since anyone maintaining the
apartment could easily see or hear Byrd, I had to disclose his presence to
my landlord. If I couldn’t keep him in the apartment, at least I would have
the option of releasing him in the clement, fall weather. I was very attached
to the little bird and felt a heaviness as I ascended the broad stairs of the
gangster-era building in which I paid my monthly rent. The winding, iron
railing was colder to the touch; the stairwell a shade darker; the beige, tile
floor a bit dingier. As I slid my monthly rent check across the wooden counter
top and through the glass opening of the old bank teller window, I asked
whether a bird in the apartment would be an issue. The grey-haired, elderly
woman smiled from behind her horn-rimmed glasses. She told me that a bird
was no problem whatsoever. That was the anti-climactic end of the matter.
I believe that her family owned my building and many others in that small
town. Perhaps, my habit of regularly exchanging small talk with her helped
my cause. Perhaps, my other habit of not bothering neighbor tenants and
paying the rent on time and in full may have been just as decisive a factor.
Also, Byrd needed a suitable cage. I couldn’t let him fly around the
apartment for the entire day, possibly hurting himself in some unexpected
manner or leaving his droppings in a hundred different places. The cage had
to be big enough for him to accept; however, I could not afford a large, metal
bird cage. They were priced at well over $200 in pet stores.
My original cage was a bird hovel and Byrd responded in kind. The
cage was cut from a large cardboard box. Since thin slits had to be made
in the sides of the box, I invested hours in its construction. After Byrd had
a meal, I placed his sleepy body in the cage. Hours later, when Byrd was
more energetic, he stuck his beak between the cardboard bars to the point
of rubbing his facial feathers off. When I opened the makeshift door, he
burst out of that dark ghetto as if it were an iron maiden. In spite of all of my
efforts to place the box cage in a well-lit area and to make interior amenities,
such as perches, sills, and stairways, he still dreaded that cage. He’d kick,
squawk and squirm as I placed him inside. I found a number of wire cages
on residential tree lawns on garbage collection days, but they were not large
enough for a bird of his size and energy. Every cage was a prison cell in
which Byrd could injure himself physically and mentally as he beat his beak
and wings against its restraints. I simply could not afford to keep Byrd happy.
Then, lightning luck struck again.
I noticed a large, wire dog kennel for sale for $25 in the local newspaper
classified ads. In pre-Internet days, it was my last chance. If Byrd did not like
it, my only option would be to set him loose in order to protect his own health.
He would have to find a way to fend for himself by watching other birds.
After my purchase, the transportation struggle began. That behemoth
measured 4 feet long, 2 feet deep, and 2? feet high—almost enough for me
to fit into. The cage included a one-inch thick, plywood board that covered
the bottom. I wrestled the cage into the back of my Dodge Omni hatchback,
and after returning to the apartment, lugged it up the fire escape. All 5 feet 8
inches and 150 pounds of me twisted every which way as the silver monster
fought me over each bare metal step.
Byrd observed as I awkwardly hefted it onto a front room coffee table,
next to a window. After opening the cage door, setting up a few perches and
tacking newspaper to the floor board, I stepped back. This rough contraption,
with a little bit of rust on the edges, was hardly what I had seen in any home or
pet shop. However, it was the best that a man on welfare could do. Byrd was
still watching closely from his perch atop my raggedy third-hand couch.
Only seconds later, Byrd swooped into the cage and lighted onto
a perch, claiming the kennel as his domain. I felt like a poor father who
somehow bought just the right gift for his young son on a Christmas morning.
Perhaps, Byrd knew of my struggles to transport that cage! Realistically, it
was large, airy and a place where a bird could stretch his wings. I placed
Byrd’s little yellow bowl on the cage floor and set up a drinking apparatus.
At this point, the obstacles were out of my way. Just me and Byrd.
The path of destiny is paved with many stones of good luck.
He was too weak to step upon the back of my hand and too weak to retreat to the corner of his
A Smart Little Byrd
Byrd quickly adjusted to his surroundings. As I guided him through a new
world, he guided me to a new world: a world of hope.
Byrd in his cage. Film photo taken in fall 1991.
Within hours of entering my life, Byrd learned that the image of
his caregivers had changed and became accustomed to me feeding him.
Although his eyes were open when I found him, perhaps my entrance into
his life was at a critical period in which he imprinted the image of mother and
father. After all, at first sight, he opened his beak to me. If I had found him
days later, he may have flown away, provided neighborhood cats didn’t kill
him by then.
After feeding him only a couple of times, Byrd was eager to jump
onto my hand and be taken to the dinner table. Once there, he anxiously
waited, beak open, for food and a few drops of water. Byrd would take no
more food when his chest stuck out like a balloon, indicative of a full craw.
At that time, I placed my hand in front of his feet, and nudged his toes. He
would step one lanky leg at a time onto my palm. After cupping my hand
around him and stroking his back and wings, he would lower his head into
his shoulders, shut at least one eye and doze. Many times, I added a lullaby
to the routine. Usually, this made Byrd fall asleep much faster. Lullabies
soothed him throughout his lifetime.
Byrd realized that he could manipulate his world. Within his first week,
Byrd must not have been satisfied with my speed to the breakfast table.
During his first few days of apartment living, he must have been studying
me. One day, as usual, Byrd began to squeak for food at the first light of
day. And, as usual, I rolled over to go back to sleep for awhile, content that
Byrd was in or near his box. But something was different that day. Rather
than a constant squeak from the front room, the squeaking began to grow
louder… to grow closer. I peeked from my bed in time to see Byrd hopping
into my bedroom. I pulled the covers over my head and retreated to the wall.
However, the squeaks only drew closer. Another peek—this time from under
the covers. Byrd was at the foot of my bed. I pulled the covers back over my
head. A flapping sound. Then, the sensation of small feet on top of the bed.
I lay dead still. The pressure hopped from my foot to the crook of my knee.
From the crook of my knee to my hip. From my hip to my shoulder. I peeked
from my hideout. Byrd jerked his beak to my face, yelling from his point-blank
position. A smart little Byrd, indeed. Breakfast was going to be served a bit
When Byrd began to take food from my hand, approximately two
months after I found him, I tried an experiment. On the kitchen table, where
he was usually fed, I covered up some food with my hand. Rather than look
toward me for more food, Byrd began to look between my fingers. A human
baby would perceive the food as being ‘all gone.’ Yet Byrd knew better within
a very short span of life. Perhaps, I could have guessed the result of this
minor experiment since he realized that Iwas not ‘all gone’ within his first
week of life with me. After all, he did track me to beneath my bed covers.
After Byrd knew how to eat on his own, he inherently knew what
constituted food. One morning, when I did not awake to Byrd’s demands to
be fed, he became quiet and retreated to another room, seemingly giving up
on the idea of an early breakfast. I fed him at about eight a.m. that day. At
lunch time, I grabbed a ripe peach from a plate on the top of the refrigerator.
That peach was now covered with gouges—gouges the size of Byrd’s beak.
He found his own early breakfast that morning. In the future, I had to stash
all soft food from what was becoming a flying vacuum cleaner. Byrd also
knew when I was eating. If he wasn’t in his cage with a bowl of food during
my meals, Byrd would fly to my plate and try to snatch a sample.
Byrd also began to hunt. He could’ve learned from watching birds at
his windowsill vantage point. Most likely, instinct was his teacher. I watched
him prowl the carpet, probing the brown shag for anything that moved.
Insects no longer traipsed upon my windowsills. They disappeared, as if
Byrd’s beak was a Venus Fly Trap. And spiders… they were a tasty morsel
any time of day. Byrd reconnoitered the dark spots on the apartment drop