October 18, 2001
How Can You Love a Bird?
By Avram C. Freedberg
As a child, I always wanted a dog. My wife, Rhoda, had parakeets when she was a kid, so when our kids asked for a dog, she said a dog was too much work, and we bought a conure. This small parrot was followed by another conure—and a mynah bird that was supposed to sing the Star Spangled Banner, but didn’t!
Then, despite the work issue, we eventually ended up with the most loveable dog—a Boykin Spaniel named Cricket. The whole family immediately fell in love with Cricket. I understood interaction with dogs: they’d follow you around and be excited when you came home, and they’d jump up and lick you and show affection in so many ways. But how, I wondered, could you love a bird? Nonetheless, Rhoda always wanted an African Gray Parrot, supposedly the best of all talking parrots. One day at the bird store, she saw a shoebox filled with grey fluffy balls that looked like mice. When she discovered that they were baby African Gray Parrots, she knew she had to have one.
Six weeks later when they were old enough to be taken home, she took me to the store to see them. There were several gray babies. One in particular seemed very precocious and pecked at our hands. She followed us around and seemed very personable. Of course, this was the bird Rhoda wanted.
“Couldn’t we get the quiet one?” I asked, pointing to the sedate parrot next to this active one. But Rhoda was in love. Once again, I wondered—how could you love a bird?
So, we brought the new little parrot home. We were not particularly creative with her name but she was gray, and when our daughter was little and would say something silly, we would tell her to say “Goodnight, Gracie!” like George Burns used to say to Gracie Allen. So, our new addition was named Gracie.
Gracie was still nervous and active. She had to be fed by hand using a turkey baster. She got scared easily and used her beak to protect herself. Even though she was Rhoda’s bird, Gracie once bit her on the lip when Rhoda tried to kiss her. If some interloper (like me) or one of the kids stuck a hand into the cage, we were fair game.
As the bird learned about us, we learned about the bird. Frankly though, the kids and I were mostly scared of dealing with her. But Rhoda was nevertheless in love. I still didn’t understand how she could love a bird. Of course, I couldn’t understand how she could love me either!
After about seven months, Gracie began to mimic voices and sounds. We thought she was quite the conversation piece. For a long time, none of our friends believed she could speak because she always demurred in public. But the family enjoyed her mimicking Rhoda’s voice calling Arielle to the phone or saying, “Hello!” in Rhoda’s voice.
Soon Gracie was doing everyone’s voice at appropriate times. She would say, “Apple” or “Wanna waffle?” when she was hungry and “How about a kiss?” to get our attention. We all enjoyed this aspect of having a talking bird in the house. Gracie even issued commands to Cricket, our dog, who appreciated Gracie’s habit of throwing food on the floor. She was Cricket’s long-term food source!
Nonetheless, the constant bird droppings, the food on the floor and, of course, the biting were sources of irritation. You couldn’t play with Gracie if she acquiesced to get up on your finger—unless you were prepared to deal with the possible droppings or biting. So, at this point, I’d say we learned to like the bird. I, for one, couldn’t see how you could come to love her.
Gracie’s wings were clipped to make sure she didn’t fly around the house and hurt herself; so Rhoda took her everywhere. One day Rhoda walked outside with Gracie and, despite her clipped wings, Gracie flew off into the woods. I never knew there were so many birds in the trees. Even our son Jonathan—who liked Gracie the least—took out binoculars to search for her. We brought her playpen into a field a quarter mile away, hoping she’d see it and fly down to it. She didn’t.
I was becoming panic stricken for Rhoda, or so I thought. After an hour and a half of searching, I was ready to give up. It was impossible to find Gracie in all those trees with all the other birds. Surely a predator bird had already consumed this house bird. But Rhoda refused to give up.
“I hear Gracie! There she is!” cried Rhoda, as she walked over to a tiny branch at eye-level and calmly got a traumatized Gracie to climb right up onto her hand. After this incident, Gracie was always transported outdoors in a transparent bird carrier and she was held tight when doors were opened.
I had to admit that I was becoming attached to Gracie. The panic I felt was not only related to how Rhoda would feel if we lost Gracie. It reflected my feelings, as well. Still, you could be concerned about a bird without loving it.
Rhoda always tried to have the other family members bond with Gracie. One day she suggested that I take Gracie in the shower with me, put her on a portable perch with suction cups and let her get wet. I was afraid that Gracie might bite me but I agreed.
A little spray bounced off my body onto Gracie. Not a very good cleaning, I thought. I aimed the shower nozzle at her. Even though it was only a moderate pressure, Gracie got scared and started flapping her clipped wings. She left her perch and came right at me. I was scared for myself but more scared that she’d be hurt if she hit the floor of the shower. I reached out and managed to cradle her in my hands. Finally, I let her climb onto one of my fingers while I caressed her head and ran another finger down her back. I was clucking to her as she clung to me and nuzzling her while she snuggled me. It was truly a bonding experience.
Rhoda started asking Gracie if she wanted to shower with Abba (the Hebrew word for father that the kids called me). It was not too long before Gracie would say, “Shower with Abba!” Every morning she would say, “Go see Abba!” and so our morning routine began. Rhoda had succeeded in bringing us closer together.
Soon I realized how much I loved Gracie and she responded by giving me unconditional love. Yes, you could love a bird. She’d say, “See you later!” when I’d leave for work and, “Abba’s here!” when I would come home. She loved sharing my Froze fruit pops. In fact, one day Rhoda asked her what flavor she wanted and she replied, “Pineapple!”
Not only can you love a bird but the bird can love you back. Gracie was able to show affection not just by kissing me, trying to clean my teeth, or by snuggling and bouncing her head, but she could do something other pets could not do: she could speak our language and say the right thing at just the right time.
She liked being snuggled at night more than in the morning. So, we’d try to fit in some snuggle time most evenings.
Most of all, Gracie made us laugh. Rhoda is a realtor and Gracie would say, “Wanna buy a house?” She’d call out for Rhoda in my voice or laugh at one of my jokes with Rhoda’s unique cackle. She’d sing, “Let’s go, Rangers!” for our favorite hockey club or bob her head up and down when Arielle sang Um Bop! to her. She’d even greet our once-a-week housekeeper with, “Hi!” in the housekeeper’s voice!
And if Gracie ever thought we were forgetting about her, she’d shout out “Gracie!” just to remind us. She would say, “I love you!” and very often we’d hear just the smack of a big kiss. She was a good girl and repeated those words. On Friday night she would sing Shabbat Shalom with us as we welcomed the Sabbath.
When the recent tragedy in New York City left us stranded in Los Angeles, we were worried about Gracie. The delay resulted in our being away from her for longer than ever before.
Sometimes when we’d been separated there was a period of readjustment. We assumed she was acting funny as part of this readjustment. However, when ten days or so passed with her not eating well and not acting in her usual way, we decided to take her to the vet. We thought she might need some bird Prozac to lift her mood.
Thursday was Yom Kippur and we were in synagogue all day. We took a break between prayers to walk Cricket and snuggle Gracie. I stroked her and sang to her for half an hour. Later, after the fast was over, we ate and I took her in hand once again and repeated the snuggling and cooing.
I’ve been speaking mostly in past tense because Gracie never made it to the vet the next day. Suddenly that night, she could not grab Rhoda’s finger when we tried to move her from her perch to the cage. Instead, she clenched her claws and lost all strength. We tried to rush her to a New York City animal medical center from our Connecticut home. It was the only facility available for emergency treatment after 11 PM. She died about halfway there. We continued to the clinic but it was all in vain.
This story is meant to convey a message to those people who have never loved a bird nor been loved by a bird. It is not about a play-by-play of Gracie’s death, though I play it back constantly. My waking hours are filled with a list of, if only’s. After all, she was supposed to outlive us!
Instead, this is my love letter to a little bird (she was small for a Congo African Gray). It is one way for me to remember the happiness she brought into my family’s life and, specifically, the incredible love and happiness she gave me.
Yes—it may be hard to believe or comprehend but—YOU CAN LOVE A BIRD! If you do, you likely will be repaid in love a thousand times over. Thank you, Gracie. We will love you and remember you forever.
Post Script: For a few months prior to Gracie’s passing, I’d felt like I had an irregular heartbeat. Two days before the loss of Gracie, I took an EKG, which confirmed the problem. I was scheduled for a stress test ten days later. When Gracie died, I often cried uncontrollably; my chest would heave as I grieved for my loving friend. After a few days, I realized my heart rhythm seemed pretty normal. It was as if the crying and heaving had reset my heart’s rhythm, and the stress test and echocardiogram confirmed it. So, even after her physical presence was no longer with us, my love for Gracie and her love for me continued and continue to play a positive role in my life!