Our Choices

Families often consist of more than only those who are genetically linked. As many of you know from personal experience, they may include non-human members: pets. We sometimes forget that pets think about more than family and food. They are complex beings with their own view of the world. Every once in a while we are jolted to learn that their view of the world is not the same as ours. The story below is about one pet’s view of the world, and how it changed.

Our Choices was published in the on-line magazine The Corner Club Press in February, 2014.

OUR CHOICES

Felix entered my life when my son Dan brought him home from the bird store. Like other sun conures, Felix displayed a brilliant blaze of sun colors. His head and body glowed fiery orange, flickering between yellow and red at different angles, and his wings displayed yellow feathers trimmed in green. A white ring outlined his dark eyes, highlighting the intensity of his gaze.

As Dan started high school, he researched the many birds available and decided that a sun conure had what he wanted in a pet bird. Sun conures, small members of the parrot family, grow to slightly larger than a parakeet and can live to fifty years. Dan saved his money from mowing lawns and washing cars, and after discussions with me, he brought Felix into our family. Felix was a chick too young to fly and barely old enough to feed himself, so he required a lot of attention. Dan provided it. He hand-fed Felix bits of apple and birdseed and talked to him at every opportunity.

As Felix grew, he and Dan became great pals. Felix hopped or climbed to the side of his cage nearest to Dan when Dan came home from school. He fluttered his wings and hopped from one foot to the other until Dan let him out. He climbed all over Dan, exploring everything, nibbling on Dan’s ear, climbing around on Dan’s shirt, tasting the buttons, climbing down inside to explore, and hanging upside down from the hem of the shirt when he emerged from the bottom. When Dan settled in to do his homework, Felix sat on his shoulder or the back of his chair. Dan invited many of his friends over to meet his new pal. Felix was friendly with everyone and would sit on an offered finger or perch on a handy shoulder to investigate earrings, eyeglasses, and buttons.

Sometimes Felix flew across the room to perch on Dan’s shoulder. Because Dan didn’t even try to “house-train” Felix, Dan usually wore a small towel across his shoulders. When he didn’t, he often had to change shirts earlier than planned. Even so, Dan always enjoyed these visits.

“Hi, Felix. How’s my pal today?”

“Worbl worbl.”

“Oh, I know how it is, believe me. Some days are just a drag and others are just hoppin’. This is one of the draggier days, isn’t it?”

“Chip-chip. Muddir, muddir, muddir.”

“Well, we could always play checkers if you had a bigger beak. Maybe you’ll grow one later. Why don’t you work on that?”

“Cherp. Muddir, chip.”

“I know. I know. Sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair. I’ll get you a cracker. A good cinnamon graham cracker always brightens a bird’s day, doesn’t it?”

Dan got out a small piece of cracker from Felix’s personal cracker box under the kitchen counter, and walked back to his cage. He leaned down so his pal could step onto the top of his cage. Then he offered the cracker.

“Tweet.” With careful attention, Felix took it from Dan’s fingers with his beak. Felix then balanced on one foot while he used the other to hold the cracker and proceeded to whittle away at its edges, producing a gentle shower of crumbs.

After Felix could fly for a while, we discussed clipping his wings. Our major concern was that Felix would fly through an open door and be gone. That, we agreed, would be a tragedy. With clipped wings Felix’s opportunities to fly away through an open door would be eliminated. However, so would his independence around the house. We didn’t know how much a flying bird’s self-image was bound to his ability to fly, so we feared that clipping his wings would change the personality that brought us so much pleasure. After much discussion, we decided we would be cautious about opening outside doors around Felix and his wings would remain unclipped. Felix continued his life as an active and aerial member of the household.

* * *

When Dan went away to college a few years later I became Felix’s caretaker. Every day I gave him clean water and fresh fruit, and I reloaded his seed dish. During the day I offered him a peanut or a piece of cinnamon graham cracker as a treat.   Dan came home often that first year and got a summer job in town. But in the years after that, his visits home became rarer, and he got summer jobs on the campus at college. Felix and I grew closer.

Mature sun conures are one-person birds. In contrast to the behavior of their youth, when they get older they bond with only one person. They ignore or scold everyone else. Felix matured and developed this behavior with me after Dan left for college. And so Felix became my bird, and I became his person.

* * *

By this time Marj, my wife, had been taken by cancer for about a decade. Marj and I had had a great life together, successfully meeting the challenges of two careers, raising a son, and the myriad other issues that arise in life. When she died I was devastated. In the next ten years, some friendships loosened while others grew stronger. My friendship with Barbara, a close friend of Marj’s, provided a friendship that grew stronger. She was always understanding and helpful as Dan and I wended our way without Marj. I spent more and more time with Barbara.

* * *

Felix had a cage large enough for a full-size parrot, with bars, not wires, and almost as high as my shoulder, making its wheels a useful feature whenever I needed to move it. I always imagined its dark forest green color enabled Felix to feel as though he were in his native habitat, although he’d never seen a forest. For most of the time, one of its several doors stood open, and when hungry or thirsty, he just clambered down inside where his dishes awaited him.

Felix spent his days on top of his “room,” surveying my domestic life. From his vantage point, he could see the family room with its television, the kitchen and dining area beyond. He also had a good view of the door to the garage so he could see me leave for work in the morning. When I returned in the evening after a day of running the advertising department at the local paper, he greeted me with an ear-splitting “SKREE-SKREE!” I always gave him a treat afterwards and we talked about the day’s events.

Felix also had a clear view of the front door and the frosted glass panels on each side of it. When Felix saw the blurry images of visitors through the frosted glass, he announced them. Barbara, my most frequent visitor, stopped ringing the doorbell.

At night, Felix slept on top of his cage in a tent-like hutch I had constructed there. I covered his hutch and cage down past his open door with a large piece of cloth, so he felt private and secure. He entered his cage by climbing down inside his cloth cover, and sometimes I found him inside having breakfast when I uncovered his cage in the morning. He looked up to see who disturbed his meal and then, after giving me his it’s-only-you look, continued eating.

After our respective breakfasts on weekend mornings, Felix sat on my shoulder (on a towel) and we read the paper together. Afterwards, I put a half page on the bottom of his cage. He clambered down below and spent the rest of the morning shredding the paper. After finishing, he climbed to the top of his cage and let out a “SKREE-SKREE!” in his best ear-splitting declaration.

I usually handed him a peanut. “Peanut, Felix. Peanut.” He took it in his beak as though it were a delicate gem. He balanced on one foot, held the peanut shell upright with the other, and shredded the top of it, exposing the prize inside. At a leisurely pace he took small bites of the nut meat and mashed them against the inside of his upper beak with his tongue, as though savoring each morsel before swallowing. When he finished with the first nut in the shell, he started on the next one below. Felix did not rush eating a peanut. Being one of his special pleasures, he enjoyed it as long as possible.

* * *

            Because Felix removed pieces of fruit clinging to his beak by shaking his head, there were bits of orange, apple and banana stuck to the inside of his cage bars and some on the nearby walls and the surrounding floor. I could clean the walls and floors with water, a little soap, and a brush. The cage, however, needed the use of a hose, something best done out in the yard. The multicolored flecks of fruit that formed a fuzzy coating on the inside of Felix’s cage testified to the cage’s ground-zero status for Felix’s beak cleaning.

We could coax the young Felix into a smaller transport cage before we opened the sliding glass door to move his cage outside for cleaning. The mature Felix, however, hated the transport cage, and I had to force him into it.   This elicited lots of screaming and wing beating. I hated that part. So one day at cage-cleaning time I tried a compromise.

I set up a perch on a table in the main room along with some peanuts and crackers. From there Felix could look out the sliding glass door to see me in the yard cleaning his cage while he worked on his treats. I wanted him to see his cage so that he knew that his personal room, his home, his sanctuary, had not gone away. I hosed it down, scrubbed it with nontoxic biodegradable soap, rinsed, and dried it.

I rolled it up to the sliding glass door. Felix watched me. I slid open the door and, with my back to Felix, started to pull his cage into the room. I felt the brush of wing feathers pass my ear. My heart skipped a beat as I looked up. Felix had flown through the open door and was outside. I saw him sitting on top of his cage, ready to ride it back in.

After I brought them both inside, I smiled at him as I closed the sliding door. “Well, Felix. It sure is good to have your own room back isn’t it?”

“Chip-chip.”

“It’s all clean now, but you probably don’t care about that part.”

He put his head back and let out a “SKREE-SKREE!”

He remained on top of his cage while I reassembled his sleeping hutch, and hung his toys back inside. When I returned his food dishes, now reloaded, he went in to eat.

After that first time, he always ate his snacks with one eye on me cleaning his cage. When I opened the door to bring his cage back inside, he always flew past me and sat on top, riding his cage back into the house. It became our routine.

* * *

            After Dan had finished college and had been pursuing his own life for a few years, the house seemed larger than I needed. When I came home from work or from an evening with Barbara or my other friends, Felix’s greetings from across the room almost echoed in the emptiness. Downsizing the house looked attractive but moving my household seemed so daunting. Moreover, breaking away from the echoes of Marj’s presence in the house might be wrenching. How would it feel to leave it? To be in my “own” house? Marj and I remodeled and redecorated this house together. We had a lot of emotional equity in it. The convenience of a smaller house may not be worth the inner turmoil of leaving this one. I discussed moving with Felix.

“What do you think about moving, Felix? Would you like to live in a new house? You could keep your same room. I’d make sure you wouldn’t have to give up your room.”

Felix cocked his head and looked at me with one eye.

“We could move to a smaller house so we could talk to each other even though we were at opposite ends of the house. What do you think of that?”

He went to his food dish and started poking around in his seed dish.

“Maybe our new house will have a better view through the window for you. Would you like to see lots of trees like a forest? Or maybe you’d like colorful flowers. What do you think?”

Felix started eating his seeds. When Felix ate seeds, he shelled them in his beak and spit out the hulls. A steady rain of hulls fell towards the bottom of his cage. Some landed in his seed dish, and he had to push past them to get to the whole seeds. When the hulls got too deep, he brushed them out of his way with a couple of quick sideways flicks of his beak, scattering hulls and seeds everywhere.   Despite my best efforts at sweeping, the floor near his cage remained perennially crunchy.

“Our move could be a big adventure.   Would you like to have a big adventure?”

Felix raised his head up from his seed dish and looked at me. Then he went back to eating.

“At least we would stay in town. I wouldn’t have to get a new job or new friends. You probably don’t care about that part. You scold everyone except me, anyway. In fact when I have friends over, you make such a screeching racket I have to cover your cage to quiet you down. I wish you would at least be friends with Barbara.”

Felix ignored me.

* * *

            After dinner one evening I watered the houseplants with Felix perched on my shoulder, supervising and occasionally offering advice. After finishing, I thought I would pour the water remaining in my watering can into the potted plants outside the back door. Usually I put Felix in or on his cage before I opened the door. This time, however, we were having such a great visit that I hated to end it.

“If I step outside for just a minute, Felix, would you stay right here on my shoulder with me?”

“Cherp.”

I made clicking noises to sooth him as I eased open the door. I stepped out into the darkness the one step to the nearest pot. I could feel Felix shifting weight from one foot to the other and back again. I made more clicking sounds. With my most soothing voice I tried to keep him calm. I bent down to water the plant, and Felix launched from my shoulder with the sound of whirring wings and a rush of air.

I looked up to see him flying back into the house, across the room, and landing on the rim of the potted plant by the wall farthest from the door. Then he walked on the rim around to the far side of the pot.

I approached him while offering words of support and held out my hand, so he could climb onto my finger. I held him close to my face as I walked him back to his cage. “Everything’s okay now, Felix. We’re not going back out there. It’s pretty scary when everything is dark, isn’t it? We’ll just be in the house now. You’re home. Home.” I put him into his cage, and he stepped off my finger. He remained inside for the rest of the evening, not even venturing up to his hutch by the time I covered his cage that night.

* * *

            I looked through the housing ads to see what was on the market. I wanted a small house with a pleasant back yard. It also needed a large door to the back, so I could get Felix’s cage outside to clean it. And I wanted the house close enough to downtown so that I could continue to walk or bicycle to most of the places I frequent. There were not many choices. I drove by a few candidates but rejected them for different reasons. Between the challenge of moving my household and the paucity of housing options, I put off making a final decision.

* * *

            One sunny spring morning, from his perch on my shoulder, Felix had helped me water the potted plants inside the house once again.   I eyed the thirsty plant in the pot outside the back door. “What do you think, Felix?   Shall we water that plant outside? You can be a brave bird this time and stay on my shoulder, can’t you?”

“Chip, chip.” He walked across the back of my neck to my other shoulder.

“It’s not dark like the first time we did this.” He fluttered his wings. “Today is very bright, so it won’t be scary.”

I made clicking sounds as I walked to the door and eased it open. I looked at Felix. He had bent down slightly, sort of crouching. I stepped outside. “Felix, you’re such a brave bird. You’re very calm.” I emptied the watering can into the pot, all the while making clicking sounds, and turned to enter the house. Then I felt a gust of wind generated by two small wings and Felix’s feet left my shoulder. I jerked my head up just in time to see him disappear over the roof of the house.

“Felix! Felix!” Panic rose into my throat. I ran to the front of the house, but couldn’t see him anywhere I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I checked the trees nearest the house, but saw no orange fluff anywhere. I gasped for air.

Felix was gone. I felt sick. A rush of thoughts crowded into my head. Why did I do something so foolish? Just because he seemed at ease with his life with me doesn’t mean he would never choose to leave. How would he fare out there on his own? Could he find enough food? Would he avoid cats? He’d never even seen a cat.

I pulled his cage into the back yard. If he flew by, he could recognize it as his home. I grabbed a few peanuts and graham crackers and went out to walk through the neighborhood. I walked up and down those familiar streets and checked every tree while calling, “Felix! Felix!” An hour later my agony had not eased.

Back home I put fresh fruit and seeds into his cage and peanuts and graham crackers by his hutch on top. I looked out at his cage frequently, and sometimes I stepped outside. I wanted to see Felix perched on the fence or someplace close. I wanted him to fly over to me and to land on my shoulder. I wanted him to chirp to me about his adventures. I never saw a sign of him.

For the rest of the weekend I dragged myself around the house, worrying about Felix. I kept looking out at his cage, hoping so hard to see him that I almost expected to see him. I had my morning coffee without a warm bird on my shoulder, and I felt cold. I cleaned the seed hulls from the floor where his cage had been, and the area remained clean all that day and all the days after that. I went about my weekend morning routine without the soft background sounds of a bird shredding a newspaper.

A week passed with no sign of Felix. I told myself that he would never return, but in my heart I held on to a shred of hope. Barbara was very sympathetic, even though Felix always screeched at her. After two more weeks I decided to sell his cage. With this final acceptance I felt relieved. A chapter, the Felix chapter, of my life had closed.

To mark the occasion, the next morning I went to the neighborhood coffee purveyor to read my paper over a cinnamon-enhanced latte. As I walked home, I noticed the sky seemed to have a sparkle in its blueness, and the air carried the mixed fragrances of the many flowers in bloom. It seemed like the perfect day to think about a new start to my life. Maybe moving wouldn’t be such an ordeal. I wouldn’t have Felix’s needs to consider, just my own. And then there’s Barbara …

I’ll talk to Barbara about moving. I hadn’t told her I had been considering it and now that it’s more likely, a talk with her may help. She seems to understand what I need, and is always supportive.

As I approached the front of my house, my thoughts were interrupted by a familiar “SKREE-SKREE!” I looked up, and there in the lowest branch of a nearby tree perched a familiar fluff of orange, yellow and green feathers. I stopped and looked up at him with a smile that went all the way to my heart. “Hello, Felix. How’re you doing?”

Felix rapidly shifted his weight back and forth between his feet and fluttered his wings. Then he tilted his head back. “SKREE-SKREE!” he replied.

“Have you had some good adventures? Are you ready to come home now? Let’s go home.” I held out my hand so he could perch on my index finger. “Home. Home. Let’s go home.”

He turned his head to look at me with one eye.

“Let’s go home now, Felix. You can have a cracker.” I paused, then repeated, “Cracker.”   I saw no response. “You can have a peanut. A peanut.” He rapidly shifted his weight between his feet and fluttered his wings again. He seemed almost persuaded.

I stepped closer with my arm outstretched. He could almost step onto my finger when he relocated himself to a higher branch. I couldn’t reach him there.

I took a slow step back, still holding my arm out to him. “Let’s go home, Felix. Home. Peanut.” He tilted his head, and looked at me. I took another step back, watching him, hoping to draw him to me. “Peanut, Felix. Peanut.” I paused, and then took one more step back.

Felix launched himself from the branch, flying toward my outstretched arm. Then, in a rush of wing beats, he flew past my arm, over my head and across the street.

I watched his bright colors get smaller and smaller as he passed over the neighborhood roof tops. He disappeared when his flight curved to the right behind some sycamore trees. I stood there in the morning quiet, straining my eyes at the blue sky, searching for a fluttering puff of colorful feathers. The sky remained empty.

* * *

Without Felix to attend to, my life is much simpler and freer. I don’t have the hassle of seeing that he always has a supply of fresh fruit, clean water and seeds. I don’t have to clean his cage and scrub the nearby floor and walls. But I still miss him. I miss the chats we had. I miss him flying over to sit on my shoulder to visit. I miss how we understood each other.

Although he’d had many opportunities to leave, Felix repeatedly chose to stay. In the end, however, Felix changed his mind. When I saw him that day in the tree by my house, he could have come back with me if he wanted. He had to choose between his old life of safety and comfort but confinement, and a new life of excitement and danger but freedom. After trying it for a few weeks, Felix knew what a new life had to offer. He made his choice.

Now was a good time for me to make mine.

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