Birds Of A Feather
November 18, 2008, 6:48 PM
Filed under: Hunting and Game, Obsessions, Pet Trauma

As a child, I was highly regarded for my eccentricity by my mom’s side of the family, who’ve now decided I’m too eccentric to even receive a call on my birthday or a Christmas gift.  My grandparents owned a cottage in the northern woods of Wisconsin, but it was almost too extravagant to be a cottage.  Yet even after $100,000 worth of renovations and a sun deck later, the charm of the word was more important than the actual meaning.

Whenever me and my siblings were up to visit them, I would always create different and unique ways to amuse myself.  Sometimes I’d dive for stones and break them open with a dull hammer to look for gold.  Other times I’d climb up beautiful rock formations, imagining I was scaling Mount Everest.  Probably the most docile and odd of them all was my bird-watching, which escalated from habit to obsession at an alarming rate.

I was always the one out of the three of us children that went through intense adoration for just about anything you could think of.  It was mostly short lived, and in about a year or so I’d be on to something new.  Probably the first I can possibly remember was my cow phase.  I remember my mom telling me that I wouldn’t even eat ground beef when I found out it was cow, and that whenever we were driving and cows were afoot, we’d have to stop, otherwise I’d sob uncontrollably until someone dangled an utter in my face just to get me to put a cork in it.  It went from cows to birds to whales to video games to rocks to music to acting.  From there, it’s been music composition, back to acting, and now back to music performance.  Honestly, if there’s any sort of decent balance in my life, I wouldn’t be able to identify it even if you put all my past experiences in a police line up.

Since my grandparents were fed up with watching me attempt to re-enact Peter Pan with my little sister and cousin (who were probably the most difficult actors I’ve worked with to date), I had decided to focus my attention elsewhere.  The lake that my grandparents lived on was stunning: the animals, the plants, the air.  Everything just made sense.  It was as if in the city the pieces weren’t yet put together, like there was some sort of crack in the sky hindering it from it’s natural earthly beauty.  But up here, have a bag of roasted marshmallows and a couple of qualudes and you’ll be sobbing at a dandelion.

I remember laying out on the hammock on a balmy summer afternoon up there.  I just got back from catching turtles, amazed at my swift hand and ability to establish what was actually a turtle or just a lily pad.  Diving into an unopened bag of Fritos, I glanced upward to see what I could only describe a kaleidoscopic bullet, darting to and fro, almost dancing about the air, the hues of its case painting the wilderness.  It was a hummingbird, and just as I had seen it, it was gone.  I immediately ran inside, opened up the bird book that was sitting on the coffee table, stuffed my face full of corn chips, and began to learn everything I could about birds.

“Did you know that those things I always thought were coyotes are actually just birds?” I’d announce at the dinner table later that evening.

Feigning interest, my mom looked up from her meatloaf, “Really?  What kind of bird, honey?”

“A loon.  They come out at dusk and make lots of noise in the water.  They’re kinda like ducks.”

“Imagine that,” my grandfather would add, knowing full well that they were loons.  All of them would try and pay attention as much as they could, but at a certain point, usually around the mating call portion of the seminar, they would tune out, look down, and wait for me to be struck by lightning.

Another time I had gone up there, that very same summer, my grandfather had just gone hunting.  I have never been a big fan of hunting, mostly because it’s inhumane to me to kill something in it’s natural habitat without any warning whatsoever, but also because it seems exhausting, and camoflauge is really unattractive.  Needless to say, I stayed behind to play Power Rangers with my cousin.  When my grandpa got back, my grandma began to shout down the hallway for us: “You’re grandfather’s back!  And look what he’s caught!”

Had it been a deer, I would have been fine.  Or a bear.  Or moose or otter or maybe even a python, I would have been fine.  His kill, however, was a grouse.  A grouse is apparently delicious and found in most parts of Northern Wisconsin.  Most importantly, it’s a bird.  A bird I didn’t want to see lying there, bloody and battered on the porch.  As soon as I realized what it was, I made a mad dash for the door, as if I was a doctor running to save a patient in the ER.  I didn’t think I could do anything to save it, but I wanted to try. 

Unfortunately, not only did I not get there in time, I didn’t get there at all.  My sprint was halted.  Looking out onto the porch, I assumed that the paneled glass door was already open.  I learned the hard way that you should always look before you leap.  I ran full speed into the glass, knocking myself back a few feet.  I was dazed for a good fifteen seconds and then began to cry.  My grandma ran to my aid, only to tell me that I “could have broken the screen door.”  The screen door may have had a warranty, but it opened and closed on command, something I can admit I was never good at.

After the glass door incident, my fascination with birds was beginning to come to a close, partly because I was afraid my parents wouldn’t have the medical coverage.  My grandma on my dad’s side never got the memo that I had moved on to whales, so for my sixth birthday, rather than getting me a orca whale or porpoise, she decided to get me a small, squeaky Budgie parakeet.  Albeit adorable, the parakeet smelled liked woodchips and sounded like a high pitched car alarm.  I decided to name the bird after this boy in my class who I subconsciously had an infatuation with, Max.  My grandma reminded me that the bird was a girl, but with no vagina in sight, I held fast to my christening.

Max was relatively low-maintenance, but miss a week of cleaning the cage, and the house would smell like a compost heap.  I’d almost always pass this off on my mother, who begrudgingly cleaned it just to prevent her house from reeking.  In all of the five years I’d had him, I cleaned the cage maybe about twice, and that was perfectly alright with me.

One day, while I was watching Spongebob, Max began to chirp.  Maybe chirp is the wrong word.  Gurgle is more like it.  I checked his cage to see what all the fuss was about, but he wasn’t on his perch.  Looking more closely, I realized that he was on the ground, shaking uncontrollably, like some sort of wind-up toy.  I didn’t know what to do.  I remember asking him, as if he’d respond: “Max!  What’s wrong?!  What’s wrong with you!?”  He’d continue to chirp frantically for another minute or so.  As the seconds passed, the noises got closer together and more high-pitched.  Finally, there was a flurry of wing flapping, one last gasp of breath, and then silence.  Max just had a heart attack, and now he was dead.

I mourned over Max for a few days, suggesting that we bury him in the sandbox we had in our backyard.  I thought it would be spiritual for the entire family, since my sister and I pretended we were Hopi Indians whenever we were in the sandbox, I figured we could do seances or ritual dances to bring him back.  Ultimately, Max was thrown away in a plastic bag, eaten alive by maggots, and never once did I get to ressurect his soul through sacrifice.

I took it the hardest out of everyone in the family.  Not just because he was my bird, but because I had neglected him, refused to show interest in him or take care of him.  My mom would try and console me: “Nancy said that Budgies don’t usually live past four or five…he was an old bird, sweetie.”  Yes, he was an old bird.  But with the proper treatment, diet, and maybe even a little birdie jungle gym, his life may have continued, and I wouldn’t have to bear the burden of the one who sat back and let it happen.

I really don’t intend on getting a bird again, mostly because I’ve realized, after being absolutely fascinated with them and even owning one, that we aren’t that different from them, and that’s always in the back of my head.  Some of us are bright and colorful and talkative, and yet we’re stifled by iron bars, only to dream of the world outside them.  And some of us are too free, able to fly through the air on a whim and spend are time as we please.  Some are swift, almost impatient, and beautiful, like the hummingbird.  Some are somber, elegiac, and dark like the loon.  And then there are the Budgies.  The happy, boisterous bird with the careless owner, just waiting for the five year expiration date.  And instead of embracing and maybe even understanding that I was that similar to Max, I ignored and distanced myself from what would be my, and everyone else’s, fate. 

We may eventually have the wings, but that does not make us free.