Thursday, September 15, 2005

Angel on My Shoulder

This article was written for AERAS's Newsletter. You can visit AERAS online at:

Angel on My Shoulder
Janice M. Phelps
Tonight, an angel sat upon my shoulder. She was not as "light as a feather," but as light as many feathers, as light as the soft touch of a caring friend. Her feathers brushed against my cheek; her smooth beak nuzzled in my hair...

She doesn’t seem to mind that I’m tired from a long day’s work and sweaty from unusual September humidity. She doesn’t seem to mind that my makeup faded hours ago, I am watching CNN and drinking diet coke while reading the newspaper and gently rubbing her new pin feathers through my thumb and forefinger. She lets me do this; carefully remove the stiff sheath, releasing the small clean feathers that lie flat on her head like a sleek do.

Tonight was the first night she stayed up later than "the others." Tonight was the first night she stayed alone with me, on my shoulder, receiving kisses and loving words, bopping to the voices of Anderson Cooper and Paula Zahn, eyeing our two small dogs with less apprehension than she did six months ago. Yes, it’s been six months since Sugar came to stay. Since I said to AERAS, "I promise..." and Sugar said "Whoonk!"

I didn’t really need another bird. (Okay, is that the most frequently written sentence uttered by bird lovers everywhere?) My clutch included Bailey, a 4-year-old Goffin’s cockatoo, Gracie, a 6-year-old Maximillian Pionus, Pip, a 1-year-old Fisher’s lovebird, Tyler, a 4-year-old Pekingnese, and Jackie, a 2-year-old Chihuahua, and a rather nice aquarium. But, the house is big, I work at home, Goffin’s are relatively easy to care for and I thought a same-species friend would be good for Bailey.

AERAS’s site listed Snuggles, a 20-year-old Goffin’s cockatoo who had spent her life sitting on top of a bird cage and was given up for adoption because her owner didn’t have enough time for her. Time for her? I thought. How much time does it take to let a bird sit on top of her cage all day? I tried not to be judgmental and felt that there must be more to the story. If there was, the fault was not with Snuggles; she has not been one gram of trouble.

I changed Snuggle’s name to Sugar because she is the purest white; I have a weakness for sugar and had months earlier been forced to drastically cut back on its consumption. Forty-five pounds less now, adopting Sugar was a good replacement for eating candy.

Since I live alone and work at home I knew I would be able to give Sugar the stable and loving environment a rescued bird needs. I thought the other birds would be good for her to, and she has certainly been good for them. Bailey, at first cautiously timid, now accepts Sugar climbing up on top of Bailey’s big cage each morning, sharing her toys and food with Sugar and even, recently, calling to her from one part of the house to the other: "Ougar!" Sugar, never a talker, has tried to imitate Bailey’s calls, including "Mama!" Mostly though she is a quiet bird; her morning and dusk-time calls last for no more than five minutes, if that, and are not disturbing at all.

Goffin’s are a great species for anyone wanting a medium-sized parrot. They have the cuddle-factor of most cockatoos, but have less dust, smaller beaks, and less lung power. Their faces are very expressive. Bailey’s expressions include: consternation (furrowing of her forehead and a flatting of her crown), curiosity (lifting of her crown), brattiness (squawking for her own way), love (stroking my face with her beak in an up and down motion), bravery (she loves to swing holding onto the end of a dog leash with her beak), friendliness (once she sees a person is accepted into the home), independence (plays well with toys), and domesticity. I don’t know if this is true of all Goffin’s but Bailey loves the dishwasher, washing machine, making pies or cookies, making pancakes, toast, and watching the microwave...also sitting on the faucet and sipping water.

But, back to Sugar... She has been with me for six months now and until recently showed no signs of becoming more comfortable with stepping up or sitting with me. Then, I put a towel over my arm and she stepped right up! Tonight, she didn’t want to go to bed ("go in your house" is the bedtime signal), so after covering the other birds’ cages (just to prevent any jealousy or curiosity as they were to go to sleep), I picked her up and took her downstairs to my chair, and we had our time together.
"This is nice Sugar... we should do this more often," I crooned into her unseen ear. "Let me help with those tiny feathers; they must be itchy. I can help with that... Let’s do this again; this can be your time with Mommy. What a pretty girl. What a good girl you are..."

About two months ago I was in the local department store, the pet aisle, and saw an acrylic bird toy: a spinning mirror that affixed to the cage (approx. $3.00). I brought it home intending it for Bailey. But, Sugar came across her cage top and over to investigate. Since she was so curious, I clasped it on her cage top and soon discovered that she played with it every day. It was her favorite toy. Soon, she was playing with the wood sticks I’d bought at a bird fair and had had sitting around for about two years. At Wal-mart I found small wooden trucks in their craft department (88 cents). She loved her truck and chewed the wheels off with glee. Yeah, Sugar!
Sugar adopted us in March. It’s now September. She spends her days sitting on top of a huge cage looking out the window at the leaves on two giant trees, watching them go from bare, to buds, to leaves and now to orange. She can hear the children in the neighborhood come home from school. She can see my car when it drives away and when it returns. She can hear the mailman clang the mailbox and the newspaper boy plop the newspaper. She hears the phone ring in my office and knows that if she has a need for me, I am only right at the bottom of the steps.

She’s learned that a tiny Chihuahua is really only interested in any peanuts she might drop and the Pekingnese has a bond with avians that is uncanny and deep. They seem to communicate without words, and know just how to interpret the nuances of their respective body movements, no matter how small. During my lunch break, I go into the birds’ room, turn their TV from WOSU to CNN, lie down on the twin bed in there and Bailey, Gracie, Pip and Tyler make their way onto the bed, onto me, and we forget about deadlines, bills, the cost of gas, the war in Iraq, the sad situation in the Gulf states, and other birds without forever homes. We think of all we have, and how the best things don’t cost too much at all. The best thing is having birds who spend their days with their cage doors open, but they don’t want to fly away. They are happy, they are loved, they are home.

Sugar watches from her perch and sees the others interacting with me at lunchtime; I think this has given her the confidence to enjoy spending time sitting with me on her own. It makes me feel so good to know that she needed a home and I was able to provide it; that she is not in danger of mistreatment or neglect; that she found her forever home with me.

Being a guardian to birds is a serious commitment; it’s a long commitment; but I think it makes one a better human. A dog will love most anyone. A bird’s love is a prize that must be earned. Because birds are not as easy for humans to understand, it takes a person being willing to learn, observe, talk with others, try new things, persevere at times, and look for small signs of success. A bird requires that we be our best selves; and that is a blessing. It’s a blessing to be needed, wanted, and loved. To know that your presence is required; and with these rescued birds, it is required. They cannot just fly into a tree and survive. Someone, at some point, decided to hold them captive and to tame them. They cannot go back to the wild. Someone, at some point, let them down, and now they have no one to follow through and care for them until they fly to heaven.

It feels good to restore their faith in humans and to let them know they now have a place to call home, dependable food, and toys to play with.

Like most people, I have a busy life. I run two businesses, a graphic design and editing studio and a publishing company, and have an employee, two grown sons (one of whom is disabled), and hobbies that I don’t always have time for. But I’ve counted how much time the birds take each day, and actually the time they need undivided attention comes out to about an hour a day (and about half of that is for cleaning and food prep). Most of the time we spend together I am doing other things as well (watching TV, straightening up the house, doing my exercises, talking on the phone, working at my computer, reading the newspaper). The birds get up at 7 a.m. and go to bed by 7 p.m. They have their own room and their cages get covered at night. A regular schedule seems to be important to them and to me.

Sugar has been a great addition to our family and I am so glad that AERAS rescued her and made it possible for me to have another angel on my shoulder. She truly has an angelic spirit and caring for her has given me the opportunity to be her angel as well.