I Thought We Were Getting a Gerbil?

My daughter, Fauna and I were taking in the warm air down on the farm whilst brewing in the hot tub the other day and we noticed a very busy bluebird couple setting up house in a birdhouse nearby. It was mesmerizing. Mr. Bluebird was warily eyeballing us from a tree branch nearby as he dove in and out. Granted, we were hard to see, what with our camo bathing suits. Eventually, he decided we were harmless, swooped in with a beak full of something, and lighted just outside of the doorway of the birdhouse. After giving a one last side eye glance, he popped inside, staying in there for just a moment and then popped back out. Pretty soon, Mrs. Bluebird did the same. We were rapt in attention. In and out and they went, dutifully caring for a house full of hungry beaks. When we strained to listen, we could just barely hear the baby bluebirds’ tiny little peep-peeps as they hungrily devoured their meal.

“This is the way to have pet birds,” I thought. “Outside. Just like those barn cats.” My mind went back to the pet birds I’ve had over the years. As I have mentioned before, pets never lasted long in my house growing up. But there was a time around the mid-70’s when my parents were all about canaries. It seems my dad had always wanted to own a canary. Perhaps he owned one as a child? I can’t remember. At any rate, we owned two different canaries: Bing (as in Bing Crosby, the crooner), and a little later, Twitty (as in Conway Twitty, the country music star). They were lovely: small and yellow with beautiful songs. I’m not sure how those birds survived in a hectic house full people in and out at all hours. One of the canaries did meet a tragic end while I was out of town with my parents. Twitty mysteriously kicked the seed bucket while under the care of my older brothers. The details are murky, but it involves a microwave. 

Fast forward to when I myself was a young parent with three eager, animal-loving children. It was decided that, ok, we will get a gerbil (God help me. Aren’t gerbils just a hair away from being mice?). My husband, an animal lover himself, took the girls to the pet store to pick out a gerbil. Next thing I know, Dr. Doolittle and his posse are walking in the door with a very large cage and a feathered friend, a cockatiel. She was very beautiful, I must say. All yellow and white with bright red circles on her cheeks, like hastily applied rouge. 

“A bird?! What happened to the gerbil?!” I exclaimed as they excitedly paraded our new pet and his accouterment into my kitchen. “Oh, we just thought this bird was so pretty,” Dr. Doolittle replied. “And look, she jumps right onto my finger.” The girls named our new pet bird Polly. (Original, I know.)

So there I was with three little girls and a brand new pet bird. All was well and good for the first, I don’t know, three years. The girls would watch TV or play house with the bird. Our youngest, Meriwether, loved setting up Polly Pocket play villages in the basement where Polly the bird would rampage through the town, nibbling on the dolls and charmingly poop all over Main Street. Dr. Doolittle, a world-class whistler, taught Polly how to sing the theme song from the Andy Griffith Show. It really was delightful. They were quite a team, like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. They entertained adults and children alike at dinner parties. But Polly never really took a shine to me. “That Andy Griffith number is wearing a little thin,” I thought. “She needs new material.” So I tried to teach her Whistle While You Work, from Snow White. It seemed like a perfect ditty for her. Nothing. Day after day, month after month, I would whistle to her, but that damned bird just stared at me in defiance. “Come on, you filthy animal, sing the bloody tune,” I would growl at her. Still, nothing.

Then, about five years into our relationship, Polly took an evil turn. We got a very large, 100 lb. Doberman pinscher and that bird tortured the dog. She would sneak over to the dog’s cage and light on top of it, pooping on top of the dog as if to say, “Don’t forget who’s in charge, pal.” She would wander over to the dog’s hubcap-sized water bowl and take a bath in it. The indignity of it made our Doberman beyond neurotic. And then there was the screeching. We had old, funky kitchen drawers that would kind of stick and screech when we would open and close them and Polly began to imitate that annoying sound. “Really? You’ll imitate that obnoxious sound and not cough up a ‘Whistle While You Work?’ That’s f-ed up,” I would whisper to her. “You are a mean-spirited little bugger.” 

It continued like that for another couple of years. Polly would scream and make the most annoying racket all day until our youngest daughter, Meriwether, walked into the room, at which point Polly would break into that damned Andy Griffith song, trilling away with unbounded joy. It was confounding. And torturous. What the hell was the matter with that damned bird? 

We had to take Polly to the vet every month or so to keep her wings clipped, else she fly all over the house, which was almost as annoying as her screeching. To make matters worse, Polly was afraid of heights, so if she would fly up to the top shelf of a bookcase, for instance, she would panic and, screech to the rafters until one of us retrieved her. At her monthly wing-trimming appointment, I asked the vet about Polly’s incessant screeching and fixation on my youngest daughter. “Oh, that’s typical in adolescent male birds,” he exclaimed. “He’s probably attached to your daughter and thinks she is a bird, like him. He’s flirting.” 

“Um … wait,” I replied. “Polly is a dude?” 

“Yep, and he’s got a crush on your daughter.”

“Ewe ...”

To get away from the racket, and to make room for the Holy Spirit between the bird and my daughter, I began to put “Pauli” (renamed for his newly discovered gender) outside in his cage. On one such occasion, we forgot about the bird and mistakenly left him outside overnight. A raccoon tried to break into his cage and knocked it off the patio table, damaging Pauli’s cage door so that it never really closed tightly thereafter. 

Then, one day, I came zooming home after running errands in time to get the kids off the bus. As I jumped out of my car I noticed that familiar, grating, screeching sound. But it was coming from … where? Just then, my daughter, Fauna was walking home from the bus stop. She heard it too. We both followed the sound into the backyard where we found Pauli on top of his cage, screeching to high heaven. “Oh crap,” I thought. “This is not going to end well.” The two of us slowly tiptoed towards the bird, trying to coax him onto my finger. Then, as if to say, “screw you, lady!” off he flew into the bushes nearby. Fauna and I closed in on him and were just about to grab him when up, up, up he flew, first to the top of the bush, then, to the top of a 200-foot high monster oak tree. “Oh, for God’s sake. You stupid @#$%ing bird,” I muttered aloud. There he was, at the top of the tallest tree in town, afraid of heights and unable to figure out how to fly down to us like a, you know, bird. 

Fauna was panicked. I was pissed. Then, home came Pauli’s lover, Meriwether, who was completely bereft, inconsolable. We each tried to talk him down, but it was no use. That stupid, infuriating bird stayed at the top of that tree and then another tree two doors down for three full days. It was especially heinous, torturing my daughters with his proximity, but with us having no earthly way to retrieve him. I was out of my mind. “Oh for God’s sake, you stupid idiot! You need to either die or fly. This is ridiculous. We cannot do this for one minute longer.” 

And so he flew. Finally. We told the girls he flew to Florida, but honestly, I hope he flew to the jaws of Hell, that crazy little bastard. Meriwether mourned his loss for months and that just ate me up. But, I’m not going to lie, I didn’t miss him. Still don’t. We had him for nine years. Nine years of my life. It was about eight years too many. But, I got off easy. Those buggers live to be twenty five years old.

So, no more birds as pets for me, thank you. Three’s a charm. I’ll stick to admiring them in the wild, where birds don’t imitate obnoxious sounds, aren’t afraid of heights and don’t put the moves on my daughter.

Bye, bye birdie ...

Bye, bye birdie ...