Wild kingdom at her fingertips

January. The mandatory time for reflection on life and lessons learned.

As I ponder what hard-won knowledge I have gleaned in 1995, one area stands head and shoulders — make that wing and paw — above the rest. The aviary my husband built.

The word aviary used to mean a peaceful stroll through a lush portion of the San Diego Zoo. Now it means an attractive but demanding 6-by-6-foot structure just outside my back door, filled with plants and creatures that my husband insisted would be nearly carefree. They may, in fact, feel carefree. I certainly don’t.

Right now it houses two guinea pigs who can evade capture with enormous skill, a cockatiel that will consent to sit on only one of four pairs of shoulders in this family, nine finches and a pond that barely sustains six goldfish. I think these critters are happy enough, but they are very close to losing “pet” status and gaining “wild kingdom” status.

It isn’t their fault. They get visits from my children only about once a week. To avoid a trail of seeds from the cabinet across the living room and out the door, I fill the feeders myself. Consequently, I have become the harbinger of hatchings. The finches are particularly happy here, it appears, and have produced five babies in the dead of winter.

The water pump required in the pond still clogs up about once a week. I don’t even bother with rubber gloves anymore. I just reach right into the slime and yank that sucker up, disassemble, rinse, blow the muck out of the air tube and shove it all back under the water hyacinths.

The startling part is that I am finding this crazy cage somehow therapeutic. There is an unexpected satisfaction in watching tiny eggs turn into fat, little birds and in triumphing (however fleeting) over the gathering of algae.

I have found, however, that, like fear, animals can sense complacency. When the feeders are full and the pond is clear, something generally escapes. I have lured back quail and finch, but one Sunday I firmly cinched my selection as Mom of the Year. My easygoing husband decided to take the cockatiel outside for a little change of scenery. The bird behaved well for an hour, then decided it was time for a road trip and flew away. We thought she would come back at dusk, but no. My daughter went immediately into deep shrieking mourning and would not be consoled.

The next afternoon, for reasons even I cannot explain, I went into the back yard and did my imitation of a cockatiel whistle, a questionable gift I possess. Lo and behold, the bird answered, from high atop the neighbor’s tree. Off I whistled into the neighbor’s yard and up the tree on wobbly limbs, high enough to break my neck, my only grip being branches alive with ants. I grimly continued to whisper sweet birdie nothings, as the cockatiel sat one branch higher than I could climb. After the longest three minutes of my life, she admitted that one night in a cold, foodless tree was enough and hopped down onto my hand. I grabbed her around the wings, which she hates and swiftly popped her back into the aviary.

I am still amazed that I caught her, and that I got down from the tree unscathed. But it did earn me some big-time points with my children. I don’t think the bird likes me any better, though.

Fortunately, she doesn’t get to vote for Mom of the Year.



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