January 24, 2014 @ 5:00 PM

It’s been a while since I’ve sat down and penned a blog.  The reason for the sabbatical is because of the recent illness and consequential death of my husband.  I won’t dwell on the series of events that lead to the diagnosis of 4thstage lung cancer.  There were weeks of anxiety as we waited to see specialists all the while his pain and level of dysfunction was intensifying.  There was a misdiagnosis that ultimately delayed treatment that perhaps would have given him a less painful road he was forced to travel. 

It seems most everyone has had someone they love or someone close to them affected by the cancer.  Stories can be both heart wrenching and heartwarming.  What I’d like to address here is the affect an Illness can have on our feathered loved ones. 

Of course, when a non-curable illness is diagnosed, the primary focus is your loved one.  Everything else takes a backseat while your attention is given to care and comfort, as was the case in our house.  After it became apparent that his health was taking a turn for the worse and that only weeks remained of his time on this earthly plane, we turned our family living area to a make-shift hospital room.  His wish was to die at home surrounded by the people, the parrots and things he loved.

Years ago, little was known about the intellect of parrots. Their level of comprehension and their ability to feel or show emotions were deemed minimal, if at all.   Research done by Dr. Irene Pepperberg and Alex, the African Grey, changed many preconceived philosophies of parrot brain function.

In our home, it was evident early on that all of our birds were sensing and feeling something was wrong…something different.  We were home and away at odd times of the day to meet with doctors.  There were several hospital stays, which would leave the house empty.  Family, friends and strangers were coming and going frequently There was sadness…a different vibe within the house and within us.  I’m convinced parrots feel emotions!

Unfortunately, with a house full of parrots of varying sizes, two were displaced from their locations within our living space to make room for a regular bed, hospital bed and all the paraphernalia required for home health care.  If you are a bird mom or dad, you know that changing a bird’s surroundings; can often lead to unusual or unwanted behavior.  Sometimes it’s the smallest of things that can create havoc within the mind of a parrot…a package left near the cage…a new plant…a sweeper left unattended!  So you can imagine how difficult it was for me to transpose our big Blue & Gold Macaw (Buckley) and our Amazon (Andy) to a smaller room where our other parrots are happy and comfortable.  I was hoping they would enjoy a change of scenery and chatter with the smaller parrots.

For Skylar (one of my Indian Ringnecks) it was exciting to have Andy within sight as he considers himself Andy’s best friend. Most times, when out of cages, he and Andy roam the floors together.  Andy more or less ignores Skylar but is tolerant enough that they often play hide and seek under furniture and get into trouble together. Nonetheless, Andy is in a stage of his life that he has become a screamer. I had begun targeting training to alter the unwanted behavior and was making good headway with the taming of the shrew when the diagnosis was handed to my husband.  Training was preempted and I became very anxious trying to figure out how I was going to keep Andy and all the other parrots and birds as quiet as possible.  I was surprised and amazed that they toned down their squawks and squeaks. Even their daily flock calls were subdued.  When they did get a bit too noisy, a little extra attention seemed to calm all.

Buckley, on the other hand, was not dealing well with the move.  His cage is normally in a predominant spot in the family room.  He was now cage-to-cage with Andy (Andy is the Alpha) and worst of all, he could not see us from this location.  He could hear us as we were just around the corner, so he would cry for us and he would do repetitive pacing that he does when stressed.  A few weeks after the shift of position, I started noticing over-preening and plucking of his golden chest feathers.  I was concerned because often this behavior becomes a habit that can be extremely hard to break.  I began to notice all the parrots were eating less and also exhibiting unusual hostility to me and to each other.

As the days became more hectic, I would often say to them….the feathers must weather…that we have a flock member down that we need to protect and leave unruffled. I was reminded of when one of our little finches becomes ill, how they sit quietly on the bottom of the cage and instinctively, the others in the flock keep their distance, giving them space with time to heal or time to die peacefully. I told them we must be like the tiny finches. As a flock, as a family, we will get through this.

My husband’s cancer was extremely aggressive and enormously painful.  His body released his spirit within six weeks of his diagnosis.  I am grateful to have my family, my friends and my flock as my support.  I am also thankful that a few weeks after his passing, my flock returned to their normal activities and manners. Buckley’s cage was rolled back to his special area. His plucking has stopped and his feathers have returned.  Andy seems quite content to remain with the others.  He and Skylar rule the roost when it’s play time. He is still showing aggression so I will begin targeting once again in hopes of retrieving the previous progress made. 

My husband was not the primary caretaker of our birds; however, he was willing and capable of feeding and caring for them when I needed his help. He had a special bond with several of them.  We both had a silly routine in the evenings before we retired at night.  It was to say good-night to each of them by name.  If you are familiar with the older TV series, The Walton’s, they had a similar ritual.  I would tell the birds it was time for John-Boy to go to bed. Unfortunately throughout his illness, my husband didn’t have the strength to interact with any of the parrots, not even his favorites. I found this so sad for him and for his precious favorites.  The Monday before his passing however, he had an energetic day, so very unlike his previous days.  As I turned off the lights for the evening, he called out to the birds….each and every bird…good-night Puck, good-night Buckley, good-night Skylar, good-night Bandit, good-night Billy, good-night Dali, good-night The Twins, good-night  Andy and to my breaking heart, he cried out a good-night to our African Grey we loved dearly that had passed away almost a year ago to the day.  Those sweet good-nights were his last words spoken. 

My human family and my flock family are getting used to a “new normal”.  We miss him terribly but know he is without pain, in peace and his spirit is soaring high with his sweet Gonzo.