Why Parakeets Are Better Left Dead

Why Parakeets Are Better Left Dead

Mount St. Helens killed my brother’s budgie parakeet. But an obsession with Egyptians only made matters worse.

the budgie trioMy brother wanted a pet goat, but they weren’t allowed in an apartment. So, Garth moved on, visited the local pet store and brought home a budgie parakeet. He named the bird, Woodstock, after the little bird in Charles Schultz’s famous comic strip, Peanuts, Snoopy’s best friend.

Schultz’s Woodstock flew with an awkward mix of klutz and peril. He smacked into trees, fluttered upside down, spun wildly and landed on the ground with stars and spirals drawn around his head. Garth’s bird was either an avid follower of Peanuts or suffered brain damage as a chick in the egg, because he flew exactly the same way. That is, when he got the chance to spread his wings, which wasn’t very often.

Yes, because a dirty little secret about bird ownership is that it comes with a hefty side dish of guilt. When you purchase a wild animal with survival skills long ago stripped from the DNA, you’ve made a lifelong commitment to keep your pet from doing the main thing he was born to do, fly. He’ll live in a cage. With clipped wings. So he will never get away. Never. Because, the truth is, you haven’t purchased a bird, no, more like your own feathered prisoner. And that makes you his warden.

Ninety-nine percent of Woodstock’s life was lived in a tiny cage. His sole companionship came from a mirror attached to the wall. The reflected Woodstock made the real bird bob his head up and down in a somewhat pornographic way. Besides eating and bobbing, Woodstock’s entertainment consisted of sharpening his beak across a large cuttle bone, sitting on a wooden perch, and crapping on newspaper. Not an excellent way to spend a life, in my opinion.

jenn's version copy
My drawing of the budgie trio. Pen and watercolor.

I think Garth sensed the emptiness of Woodstock’s life immediately, but I’ve always been slow on the uptake. On Saturday mornings, after ingesting a bowl of sugar-coated cereal and watching a few hours of Looney Tunes, I was happy. Something about the afterglow of Tweety cartoons and the crash from the sugar made me keenly aware of Woodstock’s imprisonment. I found myself begging Garth, “Open the cage. Let Woodstock fly.”

It didn’t take much to encourage Garth, I suspect because he was already chanting the same thing in his head. He’d open the door and Woodstock remained on the perch. Garth would call his name, and Woodstock stayed on the perch. Finally, Garth would reach in and gently pry Woodstock’s curled nails from around the perch and release him into the room.

I always hoped that Woodstock would circle above our heads in graceful loops to our cheers and whistles. Nope. Woodstock’s flying, if one could call it that, resembled the inky up and down readouts of the old fashioned EKG machines. It was all quick drops and high bursts. The bird sputtered up and down in the air, almost hitting the ceiling, nearly smacking the floor, creating spastic Vs in my mind until, wham! He slammed into a window or wall, lost a handful of feathers and then crawled up the drapes where his long nails got caught in the fabric. He jerked and bobbed frantically, losing more feathers, until he was freed by Garth’s gentle hands. It was unnerving, heartbreaking and horrifying. And somehow, within minutes of nestling Woodstock into his cage again, I forgot the cruelty of letting him fly.

Well, I liked Woodstock, and because he was Garth’s, I assume Garth loved him. When we moved into our house, Woodstock came with us. He had a place of honor on the corner of Garth’s desk, next to a stack of books about Egypt, my brother’s latest fixation.

Then, on May 18th, 1980, Mount St. Helens blew. I don’t remember any house-shaking booms, but the sky outside became pocked with ash sacs. And poor Woodstock died of a little birdy heart attack during the eruption. We found him dead in his cage and left Garth to bury or flush him however he saw fit. I was sad, but not sad enough to miss Bobbie McPherson’s birthday party at Farrell’s, a restaurant that offered, “magical fun for everyone” in their ads. Her mother, God love her, ordered the most expensive item on the menu for us, the volcano ice cream sundae.

Farrell’s volcano ice cream sundae

May. Woodstock died in May. I don’t remember Garth mentioning the bird again, and then summer came. We went to California to stay with our family there. Before we left, Garth, who’d gotten heavy into Egyptians, made an immaculate black pyramid and set it in the bare spot on his desk that Woodstock’s cage once occupied. I thought maybe he’d put it there as a sort of memorial to his first pet. After that, I didn’t give another thought to the bird, his death, or Garth’s grieving.

The summer sped by, but at the end of August, it was time to return home to Mom and school. Before we arrived, Mom changed bedding, vacuumed and dusted our rooms. In order to clean Garth’s desk, she had to move the black pyramid. And when she lifted it up, she found a petrified Woodstock. Woodstock. If anything could bring the bird back to life it would be a few months sitting underneath a pyramid, right? That’s what the Egyptians believed would happen, resurrection, new life.

Maybe Garth’s calculations were right, and Woodstock did rise from the dead. But, with no birdseed and water and mirror and cuttle bone and Garth after waking, maybe Woodstock decided that death was an improvement.

In death, Woodstock could soar like an eagle, avoid any obstacle and hold onto his feathers at last.

Jennifer Hotes is author of YA thriller/suspense novel, Four Rubbings.

2 thoughts on “Why Parakeets Are Better Left Dead

  1. Jen, this is such a great post, and thank you for writing about the parakeet issue. I saw a documentary about parrots recently called “Parrot Confidential” and it was one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen. These poor birds! And poor Woodstock! I hope he’s flying in some beautiful place right now.

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