The Gift of Flight - by Jenifer Dermer
I can always hope.
Wow, to be a bird. Just lift those wings, baby, and you're off! What a treat to watch birds fly. I've seen seagulls on the beach, 20-30 of them, while I watched, it was as if they were having a contest on the sand. Three or four of them would fly up at a time and hover over the others at about five feet above the sand, without moving their position in any way, including their wings, except to adjust for the oncoming, heavy wind. The first group would stay up in the air for about three minutes, land in their places and then the next group of five or so birds got up and did the same thing. It was fascinating to watch this orchestrated show of flying ability.
I love to fly. I must admit, I get a little nervous on any plane, but the thrill of seeing the earth from such a different perspective soon takes over and then relaxes me. I've sometimes been in places, like we've all been, that I'd have loved to have sprouted wings and just flown away. Angels fly, love has wings and she needs to fly, according to Madonna. I must admit that it is fascinating to watch any birds that are happy and healthy, whether they are flying free, or getting scratched on the beak.
I bought my first bird over 20 years ago. A sweet little parakeet, Petey. I loved that little bird so much. He flew around my apartment, even landing in my German Shepherd's mouth, the dog's teeth breaking the skin, as well as a wing, but that little bird survived to fly another day and sing and whistle with me. For some reason, when my then husband was transferred to a new base, we were not allowed to take my little bird, or my many plants. I gave my little cutie pie to my best friend, a wonderful gal who loved Petey already. When Petey went to her house, he refused the same meals he'd been eating for two years. Ten days later he died. My friend called me crying, saying how sorry she was, I knew it wasn't her fault.
Being in a totally new place and chapter in my life, I went on without a bird until about 8 years later. I divorced and lived in my own home with my three year old daughter, and our little Pekingnese Dog, Tasha. Almost immediately, we went to a store and bought little Gabby, a maroon-bellied conure. People loved to see us together, we would go to the beach; the bird on my shoulder, my daughter holding little Tasha's leash. Gabby would scream, "Momma, Momma, wait!" just like my little daughter, when I'd tell her I was leaving. We were definitely a happy sight. It was as if we made our family bigger with our pets, and that was how we felt.
Eventually, I met the man I would marry. Naturally, he has asthma. We tried living with the dog and the bird outside on the screened porch. But, my little pets couldn't understand how they could go from being sitting on my shoulder and lap, to sitting on the porch. They would only sit and cry and stare at us inside. It broke my heart, and I decided that I had to find good homes for them. I did. My mother had a friend who had a small boy, about my daughter's age. When I left Tasha with her new family, she was so busy getting chased around the living room by her new big brother, that she never even saw me go. My bird, however, was another story. I cried and cried that my little shoulder girl had to go, but my new life wasn't able to contain a bird who could seriously affect my soon-to-be husband.
A friend of mine had a daughter that was 18. I'd known her for some years, she would come over and play with Gabby and claimed she would love her and take great care of her. This was way back in 1987, when there wasn't much talk about pet bird behavior! Gabby called for me all the while I was leaving. "Momma, Momma, wait!" I cried all the way home.
Two years went by. I was married now, we had moved to Miami Beach and lived in a rather large home. I went back to Palm Beach to see my family, and when I saw the friend whose daughter had taken Gabby, she asked if I'd like to see the bird. Of course, I was delighted to see how my little green girl was fairing in her new home.
I walked in the front door of the home and said, "Hello, Helen," to the woman who answered.
Instantly, from around the corner we all heard a fever pitched voice screaming, "Momma, Momma, Momma, MOMMA!" I couldn't believe she could know it was me, but my friends confirmed that she'd never done that before. I walked around the corner and saw my little green baby girl completely bare. Her little pink belly stuck out smooth all over, like there had never even been feathers there. Her head was still green and she was still screaming, "Momma, Momma." I picked her up out of the cage and looked at my friend and said, "I'm sorry, but I must take this bird back home with me." They easily agreed to give me back my bird.
I got into my car and called my very understanding husband, and said, "Honey, I don't know what I'm going to do with her, but I've got Gabby in my car and I'm bringing her home." He agreed that I'd done the right thing and Gabby came to Miami Beach. Within three months my beautiful bird was fully feathered and singing and talking like she'd always been. My husband fell in love with her and decided he needed his own bird because Gabby was so enamored of me. She didn't seem to bother his asthma. So, we went to a store and bought an African Grey Parrot, and my husband named him Zutar. At that time, more than ten years ago, I didn't know how to clip the bird's wings, but from my Psychology studies in college, I'd experienced animal intelligence. I started teaching the birds to pick up plastic toy baby keys and bring them to me. One day Gabby was just about to bring me a little red key, when she looked me in the eye, lifted her wings and flew a circle around the pool and headed east. It was the last I ever saw of my sweet little baby bird. I blamed myself for not knowing how to clip my bird's wings, and blamed the vet, who claimed he knew what he was doing, certainly not a vet I ever used again.
Zutar was very lonely without Gabby to play with while we worked. I had always put the birds side by side in their large cages with lots to do to and see, to keep from being bored, and allowed them out to play the instant we were home. The birds stayed downstairs in our huge home and the marble floor allowed for easy cleanup and seemed not to bother my asthmatic husband. We ended up going to the store again and bought a Moluccan Cockatoo, that I named Kharma. She was my bird and Leon had his Zutar, who, even today, worships even my husband's feet. Kharma soon was dancing and singing and preening Zutar and the two birds were in birdie love. Another year went by and I still hadn't found the right Avian Veterinarian. This one told me that you couldn't clip a feather that had blood in the top by the follicle or the bird would just start bleeding and bleed to death. Thinking that she couldn't fly, even though she had those few long flight feathers, we took Kharma and Zutar out on the porch on Christmas Eve, and Kharma flew away. My heart flew away with her. I was distraught. I cried the entire day of Christmas that year and walked the streets calling my Kharma with tears streaming. Months went by before my eyes were dry. My new vet, Darrel Styles, who is now doing research at a university, told me that what probably happened was that she flew out onto the open water heading for a light and just got tired and ended up in the water and drowned. I couldn't believe I'd lost another bird to the sky, all the while thinking I was safe. It was truly devastating.
I decided I had to learn to clip wings and nails, because I couldn't stand seeing the trauma the birds faced with being toweled simply for grooming. And I was not going to let another bird fly away from me.
But, now Zutar was alone again. He became a comatose bird. He sat sadly on top of his cage. No more whistling, preening and getting preened or dancing with his beloved pink beauty. I was no better. I cried daily. I got a phone call telling me that my bird had flown into this guy's truck and sat on the steering wheel and what a beautiful cockatoo it was, and did my bird say much?"
"Well, she does say a few things," I naively replied. You know the rest. I sent him money against my husband's wishes, but, he let me do so. I never heard anything again, naturally. Salt in the wound. I started crying anew for my loss and Zutar remained a living statue. I wouldn't leave Zutar alone now. My husband agreed I could take my bird to the golf course in a special cage that fit the cart and we could play without guilt, because Zutar wouldn't be sitting home alone. Well, that is, until the time my husband got up to swing on his tee shot and Zutar elicited an ear-piercing rendition of the golf cart backing up. Anyway, needless to say, especially to those golfers out there, Zutar was banned from the golf course that instant.
We went away for a weekend and boarded Zuey at a store, when we came home from the weekend to get our bird, my husband must have already decided he was going to get another bird for me. I wanted to have nothing to do with it and wanted to leave. My husband then picked up a Catalina Macaw that, literally, was leaning heavily into my husband's chest and holding on with his feet up by his beak. He was so scared he couldn't move. I felt so sorry for this little orange orphan, who'd been owned by someone else who no longer wanted him, because he only knew one behavior: biting. Being in the strange environment of the shop had been such a shock to his senses that he was just frozen from all the strange hands and people. We took him home. He vomited the whole way home in car (yes, it's different from regurgitation). I called the store and someone told me it was car sickness. We tried to sit down on the porch with the new bird and he immediately latched onto my husband's upper arm causing intense pain, not to mention blood and screaming as the bird punched a hole in my husband's arm.
I called my new vet, Dr. Styles, and told him the situation. He agreed that we should not put Rusty in the car again due to the stress it would cause him and he made a house call. After his examination of Rusty, Dr. Styles left me with the comment that the best thing that ever could have happened to that poor bird was to meet me. I'm sure I must have glowed at the compliment.
Although I was doing it, I wasn't really aware that I was already showing people that I had an extraordinary talent which enabled me to befriend a bird and have the bird, in return, befriend me. It took me almost a year to get on solid ground with Rusty, where I could hold him in my arms upside down like a baby and swing him or dance and he wouldn't try to bite me. It was a tough road with Rusty and he didn't like Zutar, either. Rusty wanted to play, but Zutar was too small to play without fear. He had no interest in being in the same room with Rusty. I didn't like the thought that Rusty could hurt Zuey without really the intention, by just not knowing better. I don't know if Rusty had had anything but a cage. Just a cage. In an office. He may have even had to sleep there. I'm not sure. I told my husband I wanted another bird for Rusty to play with. He asked me what kind, and we bought a baby Hyacinth Macaw from a breeder.
I now had met a very reputable and compassionate veterinarian, Don Harris of Avian & Exotic Animal Hospital in South Miami. He made a visit to the breeder's so I could check out the birds before I bought one. His assurance and competence made me comfortable in taking home my bird. I couldn't find a name until one day, while playing school with Zutar on a table on one side of the screened porch, my huge macaw lifted his magnificent wings and flew to my shoulder about fifteen feet a way without an ounce of effort. The wind he made before landing on my shoulder was what determined his name to be Moriah. His first wing clip was about ten minutes later.
When Moriah was home with us a few months, I started feeling sorry for Zutar, because he was being left out, while my two goliaths, Rusty and Moriah, had their play fights and preened each other almost constantly. I told my husband I needed a small bird for Zuey, so we got a two week old baby Blue-Fronted Amazon, Kaila. She had these little pin feathers sticking out of her little pink body and could hardly pick up her head when she had her first bath on a large sponge in my bidet. My daughter could only exclaim, at the age of 7, "Mom, she's so cute!"
I had started teaching my birds to play basketball and many other things that were just for fun, I decided I had to share my birds' antics with kids. I began by volunteering my flock for little mentally and physically handicapped kids. Then I went to nursing homes, churches and schools. Kaila learned to play peek-a-boo with the kids, when I asked her where the kitty was, she'd meow. I'd say, "Kaila, where's a rooster," and she'd give the loudest crow you ever heard. She barked like a dog and was always full of mischief. I had by now started my business and "Aunt Jeni's Baby Birds" were on the road. We went from the Keys to Palm Beach doing shows and passing out smiles.
We decided to move to the Keys, thinking we'd retire. I produced a show "The Wild Rainforest" with my birds at Hawk's Cay Resort, and my husband brought his beautiful fishing boat to the Keys and chartered it from Hawk's Cay. The birds were teaching people from all over the world about their intelligence and allowing me an avenue to get an audience for my cause, which is the plight of the earth due to deforestation of the rain forests, as well as the animals that are caught in the destructive wake (including us). My relationship with my four birds was one of working together and living together. When we got home from our shows, we'd sit in the back yard on a hammock together and watch the boats go by. It was truly idyllic.
I had complete coverage from the sun with several large trees in my yard. I was able to keep the birds outside in the trees with ropes where they could travel throughout the yard and up to the kitchen window, so I could interact with them while I cooked. Their wings were clipped, but we lived on the water and sometimes the wind would just pick up one of the birds and take them away. Especially, Kaila.
Once she flew across the canal and spent the night in a Bougainvillea waiting for me to come get her. In the morning I got up early and went to my neighbor's yard and called quietly, "Kaila," and I heard from across the canal,
"What," in her sweet little amazon voice. I quickly went over and climbed on some recycle bins to get her down from the huge bush.
Once she rode the wind over the top of our home and waited for me on the next door neighbor's front drive. She was so invisible in the trees that once I even went searching for hours, only to have my daughter drive up to me as I walked telling me that Kaila had been in the back yard the whole time. Kaila had walked over the ground to where my daughter sat and had bitten my daughter's big toe!
Needless to say, every time Kaila flew away, I was hysterical to get her back. But every time she flew away, I DID get her back. It was amazing. It was as if she knew not to go very far and just waited for me to come get her.
I had a truly interesting experience in the Keys. I was living in a house across the street from a cable company with a giant metal tower beside it. I noticed an Osprey nest in the tower. You couldn't miss it, it's a HUGE nest and Osprey are large hunters, like hawks. As the months went by, I started seeing a tiny head pop out of the nest and scream in a high pitched voice as one of his parents would fly toward the nest. The scene was always a warm one. I loved looking out my front window to watch what was happening in the birds' nest. One day, I was truly fortunate in getting to see the parent birds flying in circles around the nest screaming and screaming. At first, I didn't know what was wrong. Then I saw the baby bird standing awkwardly at the edge of the nest. It was like seeing a four year old child at the top of a giant slide hesitating in fear. The parents screamed and landed in one tree nearby, then they flew up and around again and landed in another tree. All the while they were screaming and screaming. The baby was trembling at the edge of the nest. It was as if his parents were saying, "Come on, You can do it, baby, come on!" And sure enough, the tiny little osprey lifted his wings and flew directly to where one parent was in a nearby tree. The other parent flew to the same tree and they were all screaming together. It was a very lucky moment in my life to have been able to see such a beautiful sight.
After a few years, we moved back to our home in Miami Beach. By now, my birds and I were doing shows on a regular basis and I had become an Avian Behaviorist with Avian Veterinarians in three counties giving me referrals.
My shows were fun. The birds would play basketball, and sing and dance and Kaila was always ready to play "Peek-a-boo" with the kids. She was a real show off, who would let the kids hold her while she'd say, "Hello" or show them how a rooster crowed. We got lots of good feelings from doing the shows and I always loved spending time with my four special birds.
In March, the winds are still kicking up in Miami, and storms can come up instantly over the bay. One day I was walking outside with my birds and had Zutar and Kaila on my shoulders and Rusty and Moriah were held on my hands. When I opened the door, the wind blew past me like a train had hit me. Zutar and Kaila were instantly lifted off my shoulders and up into the air about 50 feet, before I even had time to say, "NO!" I ran back in the house with the two big birds, put them down and ran back out to see nothing. No sign of anything except white caps on the waves in the bay behind our house and wind whipping my hair into my face.
I searched for 45 minutes, I was home alone, I was crying hysterically, people were looking at me in the streets as I called and called for my baby birds. Not one, but TWO birds taken away from me at once. I couldn't bear it. I finally thought to lay down on my dock and look in the water. What I saw was Zutar face up in the water unconscious about three doors down. I ran around the fences that divided properties on the sea wall and jumped into the cold, wild water and picked up my sweet baby bird. He was like a bean bag. Limp and cold. No heart beat, no breathing.
I got back to my house and jumped into the shower with him to warm him up. Nothing. The heat lamp was on. I got out of the shower and used my blow dryer to try to get him back to life. Nothing. I laid him on my chest beneath my chin as I laid down on the top of the vanity. My tears fell down on his beak. My heart was breaking. I made all kinds of deals with God about doing more shows and helping more people to give their birds a life with meaning, and being the best person I could. Nothing. I ran, while clinging Zuey to my chest into the bedroom and called my husband home from the golf course. Just as my husband closed the front door on his way into the house, Zutar suddenly woke up and kissed me on the lips. I started laughing and crying and couldn't believe it when my husband walked into the bathroom, Zutar was alive!
Now, I only had one bird child out in the cold and it was getting dark. I ran back outside as my husband took Zutar and just held him so he'd stay warm. I walked and screamed for Kaila. Nothing. My heart was sinking for my little baby bird that I'd had for almost seven years, since she was two weeks old. It got dark and cold. My husband found me walking the streets and drove me home in the car to get some rest. I, of course, couldn't sleep. I screamed out my windows, "Kaila, I love you! I'll see you in the morning! Mamma's here, I love you!" My husband thought the police would come to take me away.
I'd let the birds wings grow in just a little, because I thought they enjoyed flying so much. They'd fly to the hammock about six feet away. It seemed they enjoyed their little flights. I've always been a big believer in freedom for any pet and to respect their needs for exercise. I also believe that birds should be able to fly. I'm hoping to some day have an aviary big enough to be able to let my birds fly.
The next day, I searched all day long. It was Sunday and I could do nothing but cry and search. Why did I let her wings grow out so long? What an idiot I am! I searched until about dusk and my husband picked me up by car and took me home. We were in the kitchen getting something to eat and talking when Moriah let out a squawk, then Rusty let out a squawk, and then I heard "AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH" as my little amazon flew to the fence right outside the bird room window! I knew her voice instantly and ran into the bird room and she looked at me through the window and said "HI" in her sweet little amazon voice. Oh, thank you, God, for giving me back my baby. What a big girl, she flew home!
Three years went by and my birds and I were more and more on the road at this school or that, singing and dancing and having fun together while we amazed everyone with the intelligence and the emotional attachment to me that my birds demonstrate. I was now doing weekly shows for abused kids, also. Kaila's wings were getting a little long again and she seemed to like the bit of independence it gave her to be able to flit from here to there, so I let her have them again. I started teaching her to fly to my hand or to the cage or to the chair and it was great. My husband would stand 20 feet away from me and say, "Kaila, fly to Momma!" And she did. Again and again she did. It was really cool. I kept thinking how great it would be when I could let her fly in one of my shows to one of the kids' outstretched hands. Life was great, I was feeling wonderful about all the things I was doing with my birds that were good for kids and good for not only my birds, but all birds that I was lucky enough to come into contact with in my practice.
On December 22 of last year, I was outside with the birds. It was just after a bath for all four birds. I had just finished blow drying their feathers on the back porch. The wind had come up a bit and I decided to go inside. As I was putting the blow dryer away, something scared Moriah. He instantly squawked like a crazy bird and went flapping to the ground, the other two boys, Rusty and Zutar also went to the ground and my little baby Kaila went soaring. She flew right past me toward the water and was forty feet up in seconds. She tried to grab onto a swinging palm frond, but couldn't. She zoomed over the neighbor's roof and was gone.
I wasn't really too worried at first, because Kaila had flown so many times before and I felt that she would probably fly back. After three days of crying and looking for her, I was more than worried, I was hysterical and distraught. Christmas Day some wonderful friends came over and walked the streets where I live calling her with me. I went out at 5 a.m. every morning after by myself, thinking that at first light I could see her or hear her. I searched a radius of about 10 miles and couldn't stop. First a week went by, then another week. I couldn't do shows, I couldn't talk to my friends, I couldn't even talk to my husband. Everyone I knew would only ask "Is she back?" whenever they called. I answered every found bird ad, and once thought that another amazon was my Kaila. I made a total fool of myself excitedly talking to this amazon. When I finally picked up my binoculars and found it wasn't her. I was on top of a roof of a person who had called about a loose bird in a neighborhood. I almost fell off when I realized it wasn't my Kaila. I drove home crying like a baby.
After about two months of searching, keeping ads in the paper, posters everywhere, vets knew, everyone seemed to know, I decided to buy a megaphone. I thought that if she was out there lost maybe I could call her in with my voice. I drove over and over around the streets and called and called my poor little lost baby. There was nothing I could do, but look for her. I didn't care how I looked or how I felt and I barely even fed the other birds before I raced out each day to find my Kaila.
Four months went by. I was consumed with finding her still. My husband and I were at a restaurant seated at the bar waiting for a table and I said to him, "I'm going to go early tomorrow to the park on 163rd Street and call Kaila."
He said to me, "Honey, you're going to get arrested if you don't stop doing this." I asked him what I was supposed to do, just give up on this little baby bird that I'd had for so many years? Then I got angry and told him that he just didn't understand me if he thought I could do that. We left the restaurant without ever eating and came home silently in the car. When I walked into the house I went to the computer without saying a word. He said, "Oh, now, you're going to give me the silent treatment?"
I turned to my husband and burst into torrential tears and wailing and told him I felt like I had killed her and I was so stupid to believe that I could keep her from harm when I had let her wings grow in. I felt as if I had given a five year old the keys to a car and let her go drive away. My weeping and wailing wouldn't stop and then my husband started crying too. He told me that he was angry at himself for letting me do such a stupid thing because he KNEW she would fly away and he should have MADE me clip her wings. So he blamed himself for my loss and felt so helpless because there was nothing he could say to console me. We cried and cried until there was nothing left. My heart was numb. A bird that I had gotten at two weeks old and had lived and worked with for almost ten years could not be found. I felt like I should be punished for doing such a stupid thing. Then I realized that I had been punished. My little baby Kaila was gone. It took four months for me to accept the finality of the situation.
Looking at little Zuey was sad. Seeing him comatose again was almost more than I could bear. My husband said, "Honey, let's go find a new bird for you and Zutar." I didn't want another bird. I felt I didn't deserve another bird, but Zutar did. We started out on a Saturday morning and went from Ft. Lauderdale to Homestead looking at the poor little birds that sat in cages in every store just waiting for someone to finally come and give them some love. At the last store, there was a little blue fronted amazon that went crazy when she saw me. I picked her up and would have thought it was Kaila if I hadn't known better. I named her Punkadoodle, Punky for short and brought her home with me. Zutar took about four months to accept her and let her preen his head. It was a wonderful moment for me to see.
I now keep my birds wings trimmed on a weekly basis. I NEVER want to go through the pain and heartbreak of having another bird fly away. I teach all my clients how to clip their birds' wings and nails with NO STRESS, so that their birds won't fly away either. I feel love for every bird that I meet in my practice and I bathe and clip all the birds my clients bring me with never a need for toweling.
Not a day goes by without my eyes looking skyward to see if my baby Kaila could possibly just sail right back into my life. I will never forget her sweet little voice and laugh and the joy that she brought to so many children and adults alike. I don't think I'll ever be able to forgive myself for letting her have wings. I should have known when I saw those beautiful osprey teaching their baby how to fly that I could never teach a bird such a feat.
I gave Kaila the gift of flight, but I couldn't give her the instructions on how to turn or bank or fight a wind. Whenever I see a bird dead on the road, I think: "That little guy had lots of flying hours on his side and still got caught in a wind and died." I don't think Kaila had much chance of surviving the high winds, but I can always hope that God took pity on her and pray that she's out there somewhere eating sea grapes with a little boy amazon named Jose.