Monday, September 25, 2017

Air beneath the wings, water under the bridge

We inherited a new macaw last week from two of K’s clients who were getting too old to care for their high-maintenance pet anymore. He’s a green-wing macaw, he’s 25 years old, and his name is Fred. This doesn’t quite fit the two-syllable city-name theme we started with our boys Boston and Phoenix, but we can pretend that Fred stands for Fredericksburg, which can be altered to “Fredericksbird” which can be shortened to Fred Bird. I imagine the transition to new people has been traumatic enough; no need to further torment him with a new name, as appealing as it would be to have a parrot named Vegas.

Fred did seem a bit freaked out at first by his new environment. K is the only familiar element, and K is Fred’s vet, so it’s a little like a child being adopted by their dentist or the principal of their school. Initially we kept him separate from our boys, but gradually we’ve been putting the three together in hopes that they’ll all get along and perhaps even be buddies one day. They’re social animals, and though there was a bit of tension and some minor skirmishes, in the long run Fred should have a better life. The transition will likely be tough, though. In terms of a captive macaw’s lifespan, Fred is barely middle-aged, yet he has still spent a quarter of a century in a relatively small cage being served food in a cup, as is the case with a lot of pet birds. Our aviary is nothing like that. It’s a room, a big one, not a cage, and there is none of this food-in-a-cup business. Nuggets, vegetables, and nut treats are hidden in tubes to be shaken or wheels to be turned or wire contraptions to be pried from. If you want to eat, you’ve got to forage. This isn’t a cruel tease—just the opposite, in fact, since foraging is what they’d have to do in the wild and it’s what they’re very, very good at, so long as they’re used to doing it. Fred isn’t. It’s a brave new world.

Then there’s the even stranger world known as outside. The first time we set him on an outdoor perch, he seemed stunned. What happened to the walls? Where’s the ceiling! My god, what is that thing that looks like a gigantic piece of broccoli? A “tree,” you say? WTF!  Everything seemed to fascinate him: butterflies, airplane contrails, twirling windblown corn husks, the elaborate bird fountain K constructed from PVC pipes for the boys to splash around on hot days. Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing, but there’s something poignant about that kind of wary wonder. Discovering something new at a not-so-new-to-life age can be terrifying or exhilarating, and usually both. I can relate. 

But there’s another relatable aspect of Fred’s new life that isn’t quite so exuberant—is, in fact, a bit sad. Fred wasn’t kept shut up in his cage all the time; he had been allowed to roam around the house, but as is common with large birds, his wings had been clipped when he was very young, so he never learned to fly. The practice is common because many owners of macaws can’t realistically deal with a large flighted bird in their homes, with windows to crash into and things to knock over. If the bird never learns to fly, it can be taken out of its cage from time to time or even kept in an open stand. That’s nice and all—the bird can still have a good life with caring people—but … it’s a bird. Keeping a bird from flying is about as much missing the point as keeping a horse in a stall all the time. And this is how we ended up with a dilapidated farmhouse on four acres of land in the middle of the cornfields. Our birds fly.

Well, at least Boston and Phoenix do. It is unlikely that Fred ever will. Though his clipped wing feathers have long since grown back, flight seems to be something best learned at a very young age. So whenever Boston and Phoenix take off for a few loops around our property before landing high up in the giant broccoli, Fred stays behind on his perch, alone. Sometimes we’ll catch him fanning his wings awkwardly, frenetically, which could simply be a sign that he’s anxious in these strange surroundings or could be borne of some innate yearning to be up there too. Boston and Phoenix aren’t flying aces yet—Boston in particular still doesn’t always stick his landings, and while Phoenix is quite skilled at most aspects of flight he hasn’t use these skills in many places other than home. But they’re only 3 years old; they’ve got most of their entire lives ahead of them to explore the skies. Fred doesn’t and probably never will.

I say all these depressing things because again, I can relate. I’ve never been one to believe that anything is possible; many things are possible, sure, and because we don’t always know what those things are, it behooves us to try out a whole bunch of stuff in case we do end up being deeply enthralled by and/or gloriously successful at some of them. But not even the most talented, privileged, fortunate person on earth can do whatever they want whenever they want it, especially given that many endeavors have expiration dates. Fred may be too old to fly; someday, I may be too old to run long distances as fast as I want to—and then too old to run at all. When I started training for a Boston-qualifying marathon, I hoped to push that day off a bit. Now that injury and time off from training has derailed me, I start to wonder just how far off that day really is. Age is just a number, and I don’t happen to think my particular number is all that enormous (despite the fact that rotary-dial phones, rabbit-eared TVs, and even a manual typewriter figured prominently in my childhood). But there’s a reason they make BQ times slower for older runners: many things, running and flying among them, get tougher with time.

Thing is, people also get tougher with time, and perhaps macaws do too. The one thing that did not seem to intimidate Fred was the fact that he’d soon have two new roommates. When Phoenix first approached Fred, stretching his body out to look bigger and fake-lunging at him, Fred held his ground. Didn’t snap at Phoenix, didn’t squawk in anger or fear, just shrugged it off. I like to imagine him mentally rolling his eyes and thinking Oh brother, look who thinks he’s Mr. Big Shot. Give the old man some room, will ya, kid?  We are hoping this bodes well for the future; K has this idea that we can all go camping together someday soon, maybe somewhere in the southwest where there’s a lot of room to fly if that’s your thing, and a lot of beautiful scenery if it isn’t. Yeah, it’s crazy, but who knows—we could end up deeply enthralled and/or gloriously successful, and as with attempting to BQ, there really is only one way to find out.

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