It is obvious to me now that I was NOT thinking rationally when I sold and gave away my beloved bird family so I could accept my postdoc in NYC, especially when I promised my birds (and myself) that I would bring them all back "home" after my life settled down. I remember dropping them off in pairs at the Continental Airlines desk in Seattle shortly before they flew away to their respective destinations in all parts of the country. I remember looking at them through teary eyes as I fiercely promised, "I will bring you back home to me, as soon as I have a home."
Then I turned my back on them and walked away, even as I could hear their piercing whistles echo through the cavernous building. Even as my heart was breaking.
But I lied. Like all of my fantasies, that's never going to happen because my flock of birds not only moved to new homes, but they are continuing to move beyond this plane of existence, forever beyond my reach. They scatter. They are gone. Fading memories. They glitter in the distance like broken glass. Broken promises. Broken trust.
The first lory I ever had the pleasure of living with, Paris, died yesterday morning. Of course, I try to read my email only once per day, so I did not learn about her death until this morning when I found this message waiting for me from my friend, S, whom Paris lived with for the last 4 years of her life;
This morning my 21-1/2 year old dusky hen, Paris,
died in my hands at the vets. I checked on her this
morning and she was in her dog kennel outside by her
heat lamp and she was panting and acting like
something was wrong. I threw on my coat and headed
to the vet's about 40 min away from home. When they
put us in the examining room and were setting us up,
she died. My vet is doing a necropsy this afternoon
and I'll pick up her body tomorrow. I've got her
old friend, Pierre, in the house now so I can
observe him and keep him company. I've been
dreading the day when she would die. At least I got
to hold her and say goodbye. S
Paris was a female orange-phase dusky lory, Pseudeos fuscata, who was born on the 4th of July, 1984. She was 20 years, 6 months and 2 weeks old when she died. For the first 14 years and 8 (or so) months of her life, she lived with me, first as a pet and then later, with a male of her kind. Paris (and the flock of lories that I purchased and bred over the ensuing years) intrigued and delighted me with her funny voice and her sweet nature. She was a gentle and kind presence in my life who always could cheer me with her goofy antics -- antics that earned her a vast collection of nicknames such as "BatBird". Paris was a brave and unique individual from another culture who generously shared her life with me and my friends and who taught me much of what I needed to know, particularly about social behavior.
Even though no one really knows how long lories live, Paris's longevity was unusual. Most captive lories don't tend to live very long on average, because people tend not to feed them properly. Because lories are parrots, people often feed them seeds or pellets under the misconception that all parrots naturally eat dry seeds (actually, few psittacines naturally eat dry seeds). In fact, because lories are nectivorous, their diet is similar to what the average hummingbird consumes. Further, since they have a soft diet, lories' crops are unable to grind hard objects, so seeds collect and build up like a block of concrete, choking the birds.
Several other common hazards to lories' long term health in captivity are also related to diet; first, they must be fed nectar, fruits and vegetables -- all soft, sweet foods that spoil rapidly and therefore must be replaced often with fresh to avoid bacterial infections that can rapidly kill them. Lories are also susceptible to iron-storage disease, the bird version of the rare but deadly human disease, haemochromatosis. This is a condition where the body captures excessive amounts of dietary iron, a rare essential element, and hoards it in the liver. After a few years of a typical captive diet that is rich in iron, the bird's iron-choked liver is transformed into a hard, blackened mass that resembles the sole of a shoe, and the bird suddenly dies from liver failure. So considering this brief listing of health hazards that easily could have cut her life short, Paris was certainly well-cared for by others in the lory community after she left my care.
But I always thought she would live long enough to come back home to me, even though knowing that she was happy and healthy and living in lovely Seattle gave me much comfort. Almost as if she was my child, I was proud that she was out there in the world, teaching others about birds as she had taught me, that she was giving other people so much pleasure -- she was a true birdie ambassador. But regardless of where she lived, she is -- was -- part of my inner emotional core; my family. Thinking about Paris now almost seems to call her here to me. I can almost hear her silky wings cut through the air as she flies to me, almost feel her push her warm fluffy head under my hand, slowly, slowly ... demanding in her quiet but persistent way that I stroke her soft plumage, just as in days long ago. I wish I could postpone her departure by stroking her again. And again. Stay with me, Paris.
My fascination with Paris and her tribe led me to refine my life's passion. You could say that she changed my life forever. My love for lories quickly embraced all that they touched: I came to know and appreciate the flora, fauna and geology of the islands of the south Pacific, the evolutionary home of the lories. As I learned more about them and their island homes, I was convinced that telling my birds' story will greatly increase our understanding of the molecular mechanics of evolution while also deepening our knowledge of evolution in this compelling geographical region. Because I believe in my birds so much, I carefully prepared for years to pursue my longstanding fantasy called "Plan B" (to sail away to the islands of the south Pacific so I can live with and study my birds' wild relatives); I learned to sail, to cook southeast Asian/Pacific island cuisines and to speak and read Indonesian. Paris and her kind were the focal point and the inspiration that launched the thousand bright, shining ships of my postdoctoral career, the career that eventually led me to give up my flock of lories -- the very same career that has abandoned me now, just as I abandoned my flock of lories several years ago. Karma is a bitch, isn't it?
But I was stupidly optimistic: I thought that making small personal sacrifices, such as temporarily giving up my flock of birds so I could pursue my postdoc work that focuses on lories, would provide me with the credibility necessary to make big advances for my birds in the future. I thought my research would direct scientific interest onto my birds and therefore protect many (most? all?) species from the onrushing extinctions that threaten the continued existence of almost all island species, particularly island-dwelling birds. But as with everything, I was wrong. I failed. Again.
Sleep well, sweet Hallowe'en bird, upside-down BatBird, demanding shriekmeister, loving VelcroBird, gentle sensei who taught me so much. I am so sorry I let you down, dear Paris. I abandoned you. I am just like my parental units.
After all the relocating I've done, I don't have a single picture of Paris to share with you all, so I linked to my favorite photo of a dusky lory. This is a picture of another friend's dusky lory, Tiki, standing on a camera. By seeing this picture, perhaps you can sense the person under the feathers.