Sunday, March 3, 2019

The big reveal

This year March came in like a lion disguised as a cuddly kitten, luring you into thinking “how sweet!” and getting all comfy-cozy. Nope. Today the lion is back out. The sunshine, mild temperatures, and calm winds of Friday are a faint memory becoming ever fainter with every miserable snowflake. Stupid lion.

Speaking of animals, ours have had a tough winter. The polar vortex cold spell we had back in January necessitated an alteration in living arrangements. Chickens and goats had to be moved into an enclosed space with heaters and heated water sources, as well as kept separate from each other since the goats’ favorite thing to eat in all the world happens to be chicken food. Everyone survived frostbite-free, but no one was happy with the arrangement. The chickens, used to having an enormous space for their free-range pleasure, now seemed perplexed by the fencing around them and seemed to keep thinking a door was almost certainly going to open any minute for them. The goats meanwhile stood on the other side of their partition staring forlornly at their food. It wasn’t just for the chickens’ sake that we kept things this way; chicken food would not agree with goat tummies, no matter how much they craved it. And so the forlorn staring, like lactose-intolerant children at a birthday party with an ice cream cake.

But winter is the worst of all for our macaws. Even though they have a large habitat that’s a good 20 times larger than even the biggest cage you’ve ever seen a parrot in, it just isn’t enough. They’re used to having access to all of outdoors on a regular basis, after all. With arctic wind chills and limited daylight hours, outdoors was not an option for many weeks. Nobody felt this lack more keenly than Phoenix. While all three of them were clearly going a bit stir crazy during the worst of it, Phoenix missed being outside most of all. He wanted to fly again, and he couldn’t, and it reminded me of every moment in my running life when I was injured or sick or the weather sucked and I couldn’t go hit the trails.  

The thing is, even after spending nearly four years with them, I still find our birds difficult to read. Stir-crazy in a macaw is not always obvious. Nothing in a macaw is always obvious. They never smile, they never scowl, and the things they say—the things we say that they’ve picked up—are often used differently from their original intent. When Boston was learning to fly, he spent so much time stuck in trees with us down below calling “Boston! Boston!” that the boys have come to understand his name to mean “Come back here!” and will yell it at us if we’re clearly heading to the car. So when I say Phoenix reminded me of me, antsy for winter to be over with so we could be free again, I’m mostly projecting. The truth is much of the time I have no idea what’s going on in his crimson feathered head.

Despite the nastiness of this winter and its fraying effect on all our nerves, for a while Phoenix and I were getting along magnificently. If I held up one of his favorite treats, he’d fluff up his feathers endearingly and reach over with almost exaggerated gentleness to pluck the nugget from my fingers—as if to emphasize that he meant me no harm. He would follow me around the macaw room as I filled foragers and scooped poop, not in a scary, stalkerish way but more simply out of a need for companionship. Or at least that’s how it seemed. Or at least that’s how I wanted it to seem. In the back of my mind, though, I still wasn’t sure, because after weeks and weeks being all sweet and companiony, Phoenix flew to me one afternoon, perched on my arm, accepted and consumed the treat I offered him, and then bent his head and bit my forearm. Then he flew to a perch some distance from me and we stared at each other.

“Why?” I asked him, neither expecting nor getting an answer. Later I asked the same question of K, who had no answer for me. What had I done wrong? Possibly nothing. Phoenix had not seemed angry or scared. It was possible he had been simply trying to get a better stance given that the heavy winter jacket I wore was slippery. If I’d wanted to be charitable, that’s what I’d say. But I did not want to be charitable. I was disappointed. I had thought we were finally becoming buddies—and now this. When I got over my dismay, what it began to seem like more than anything else was curiosity: he wanted to see what my reaction would be.

Macaw brains are complex; they are capable of a great deal of, well, everything—emotions, puzzling-solving, learning, memory. And curiosity is certainly a hallmark of a developed creature. Nobody has to be curious, and indeed a lot of the activities one does to sate one’s curiosity aren’t always good for much else. Pet macaws that are given their food in big dishes are missing one of their wild counterparts’ major activities—foraging—and so often become destructive of their habitats and their own selves. They pick their chest feathers, break their toys, scream. They need to do something, and that something has to be more than just looking pretty and saying amusing things so their people can post videos of them.

After that incident, I remained wary of Phoenix for several days. Then March began to purr. On the first of the month, K got off work an hour early and let our boys outside. The big field in front of our house has been set up with various standing perches with a footworn path between them, which we called Macaw Mini-golf. K would carry Phoenix out to the field, let him go, and walk down the path to a perch. Phoenix would circle the field and return to K, who would continue this way to the next perch until they’d completed the circuit. This didn’t always happen, but today Phoenix eagerly went from perch to perch all the way through to a full round. His joy was palpable, and irresistible. Back in the aviary, I held up a treat. He fluffed up his head feathers adorably and reached slowly forward with his beak. So slowly, like a flower reaching for sunlight, his beak brushing my fingers like a petal.

Chances are these birds will almost certainly outlive K and me, yet I imagine I’ll never fully understand them even with the rest of my life to try. That’s not a bad thing, nor a good thing for that matter, because it’s not a simple thing to live so closely with another creature. The title of this post refers to the “cover reveal,” which is what publishers term it when a soon-to-be-published book gets its cover designed. My new book, due out in June, does indeed have a cover, one that features Phoenix himself front and center. But the big reveal is also about the book’s title: Bird People. It has been a revelation to me that I would ever call myself a “bird person,” given how perpetually challenging, frustrating, and literally bruising it is to deal with our boys. It is, however, accurate. Birds and people, as I’ve discovered, share a great deal, including curiosity, complexity—and yes, companionship.

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