Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Bird in the Hand

I recently got some of my Peace Corps pictures digitized, so I thought I'd tell you a bit with some pictures:

When I moved to my site as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was the only PCV in the area, or so I thought, until I heard about R, who lived up the road about 15km. So I went to visit R on weekend, and was lucky to find him around. R was, well, odd. His site was an otherwised unused set of buildings from when an oil company thought they'd find oil right there, and things got a little developed, and then the oil wasn't there after all.

R's project (bats!) involved using mist nets, and so he'd also get birds in the nets. He'd put some of these birds in a big room with tree branches. Once I got to know R, I would go up on a weekend day and we'd go out to the mistnets and such. I learned a lot of cool stuff about birds and bats. At some point, I asked him and he said he'd give me one of the parrots from his room. I had to go back and arrange to make a cage (metal frame and chicken wire, and that was the ugliest cage ever), and then I went and got my small parrot (a conure, actually) and took it on the bus in a pillowcase. (The cage was huge and wouldn't have fit inside the bus.) R clipped her primaries on one side, so she couldn't fly. I called her Lacy, after the Doonesbury character. But that wasn't her name, of course. (I don't get when people "name" wild critters; you can call an animal whatever you want, but we people need to recognize that calling them something is for our convenience, and really not much to do with the wild animal at all.)

At the time, I was living in a boarding house, and there wasn't much for me to do in the evenings, so I spent a lot of time trying to tame the bird. And eventually, she (R thought she was female because of the way she behaved with the other birds in the room) became tame. So instead of living in the cage, she lived more on top of the cage or wherever she wanted to be in the room. (I put little branches inside and on top of the cage so she'd be able to climb around and move her feet into different positions and grip different diameters and all, and chew.) I covered the cage at night, and if she wanted to, she'd climb down and go in, but mostly she tucked her beak into a wing and slept on the branches on top.

It was about this time that I started experiencing the single most hedonistic wake up ever: she'd come over to my bed when it got light and get on my forehead and preen my eyelashes, one lash at a time. In case you've never experienced bird preening, and you're thinking, that beak! it could rip your skin to shreds! Yes, she could take out quite a chunk of flesh when she had a mind to. But her beak was warm, her tongue like a warm damp eraser, and when she preened my lashes, I could barely feel each lash being individually groomed. Talk about attention to detail. I probably had the best groomed lashes in human history.

Then, about eight months in, a couple more volunteers moved into town, and S (one of the new volunteers) and I decided to rent a house together (scandalizing the local US missionaries). We fairly quickly acquired a dog and a cat,* so the bird lived mostly in my room unless I was around. When I was around, she'd be with me riding around on my shoulder or exploring. She went to the store with me, did dishes, whatever. (That's Lacy supervising from the faucet.)

When she molted into new primaries, she could fly well again, but she pretty much stayed on my shoulder when we were out, except for one time when she ended up screaming in a tree til I climbed part way up and she hopped back onto my hand, grabbed my shirt as hard as she could and wouldn't let go for HOURS. (Usually, I'd flip her back to her cage every few minutes where she'd take a dump and then fly back to me, but she would have none of THAT on that day.)

Sometimes, the neighbors' bird would come walking over (its primaries were clipped), and the two would get into some serious preening. I don't know if parrots of different species hang out together in the wild or anything, but I've seen loose parrots of different species hanging out together in LA, and heard of them doing so in SF. (Were I to want to be a biologist now, I'd want to study parrot populations in urban US areas; are they breeding populations? What do they eat? How do they intermingle? It's just fascinating!) (That's gentian violet on my hands, not some scary disease. I'll tell you about the gentian violet another time.)

I didn't teach Lacy many "tricks." Other than getting used to being on a hand, a shoulder (a head, whatever) and learning to enjoy being groomed by a clumsy human, mostly, she thought of things she wanted to do and I worked around that. I learned to hide books (or anything else I didn't want chewed), and to wear a towel on my shoulder. I learned to give a proper under the wing massage. I learned to share whatever I was eating, though sharing chicken seemed a little weird at first (I realized it was no weirder than me eating another mammal, but still).

The one thing I taught her was to lie on her back in my hand. It was a stupid idea, but there you are. I was (and perhaps am still) stupid at times.

In my minimal experience with birds, I gather even the most finger friendly tend to want the fingers below them until they're ready to relax and get their neck groomed. They tend not to like their backs touched unless they're really in the mood (usually part of the under the wing massage, which could pretty much get Lacy totally in her happy place). So, to put my hand on her back (while she was on the other hand) was the first step. Then she let me turn her over with my other hand still in place, firmly gripped by her very strong feet. Finally, I could withdraw my other hand, and she'd lie for a moment, turning her feet a bit this way and that. But if there was the slightest noise, a noise that normally she'd barely notice, she'd be instantly in flight, maybe calling, and then on my shoulder holding firmly. (It's a bit blurry, but you get the idea. We're outside, and about 15km from where she was mist-netted. But by this time, I was her flock, so she hung out with me.)

*Today, I'm ashamed at how careless we were in getting Lacy, Kiddo (the dog) and Oliver (the cat). When we started, two years seemed like forever, but when it was time to go, it was in reality a very short amount of time. My roommate, S, was in country for a while longer than I, and got a new PCV roommate, who then took on Kiddo and Oliver. I'm not sure what happened to them after that.

How stupid and young I was. We took the precautions of getting rabies and distemper vaccines, but we didn't think about the long term.

When I was getting ready to leave, I looked into bringing Lacy back with me; she wasn't of an endangered or protected species, but she was wild caught, so from what I found out, she'd have had to stay in caged quarantine for about six months. I couldn't imagine leaving her alone in a cage for a week, much less for six months. She was strongly socialized with people by that time, used to being with someone a lot of the time.

So I gave her to another PCV who liked her lots and was responsible. But she got in a bit of trouble because he was in a restaurant with her one day and she flew into the kitchen and scared the cook, who got really mad at him. He decided to clip her wing again, so that he could take her to the restaurant and town as always. And then one day he came home from work to find no bird, only some feathers strewn about, and he thought one of the local cats had gotten in and caught her. And that's the last I know.


  1. I love the bit about how she preened your eyelashes! What a great experience you had.

  2. I'm really sorry about the ending, but otherwise, what a sweet story. Makes me want a bird.

  3. it is a wonderful story. except the end.

  4. Aaa! Sad story! I mean, good story, but sad!

    I never could deal with sad animal stories. They always get to me. Damn.