By the time a bird is noticeably ill, it is often too late to help. That's the worst thing about loving birds and taking them into your heart. You can be the most vigilant of caretakers, and still a bird of any species is a genius at hiding illness because that's what birds do. When they can no longer hide it, it's bad.
Maggie, fondly known as the Pigeon Queen, died yesterday. I am obsessive about changing cage paper daily and examining poops and watching food and water consumption, feather condition, brightness of eyes and energy level so that I have as much opportunity as possible to catch the clues if something is wrong.
Maggie offered no clues. Everything was perfectly normal until right before she died. Thursday evening, she was already on her perch – in bed, for a bird – and snoozing when I got home from work. Her food dish was only about half empty, but the parrots like her food and steal from her dish, and she stole from theirs. Still, her dish always, always needed refilled by the time I got home at night. I saw odd looking poops in one or two of her usual favorite perching places – the top of the dryer, the utility sink. I petted her and she cooed, and I thought maybe, because I was late getting home, she had just decided it was bedtime. Jade often does that, but it was unusual for Maggie. I decided to see how she was in the morning before panicking. In the morning, she was off her perch and by her water dish when I went in the room to open cages. I refilled her water, which was low, and she drank some. There were watery poops under her perch where she'd spent the night, but the fact that she was drinking and near her food and water made me think maybe she'd just had a tummy upset – because pigeons who steal parrot food surely would have trouble digesting it occasionally. I think really I knew and just didn't want to face it. I petted her head and told her I loved her and went to work, because I had no choice. I work long, hard hours and this was the kind of week where I saw more of my cubicle than I did of my home.
When I got home Friday night, late again, I thought the birds' room was abnormally quiet. Usually they hear me come in and set up such a cacophony that I have to go say hi before I can do much of anything else. I heard one or two soft chirps and no shrieking. And I knew what I would find when I went into their room. Maggie was lying on her cage floor, eyes closed, gone. Her wings were slightly spread and her beak slightly open.
The smaller parrots who lived with her (Clyde, Jade, Freddie, Johnny and Benjy) weren't fond of her. She bullied them and Johnny, in particular, felt it was his cockatiel duty to scold her emphatically any time she did something or sat somewhere that he did not approve of. Yet they lived more or less peacefully together and she was a member of the flock. They knew, and they knew what my reaction would be when I found her. After a few minutes, Clyde flew over and landed on my shoulder and kissed me. He sat there a moment or two, and when I stood up, to start doing what was necessary, he flew back to a boing. The rest remained where they were and quiet.
When a bird in my care dies, I dismantle and remove the cage immediately. It would be too hard to leave the empty cage sitting there. After I kissed Maggie goodbye and wrapped her body in a towel, I removed everything from her cage and folded it up (for a pigeon, you used a large dog kennel for a cage) and set it aside. I emptied her dishes and put them in the sink to be scalded, just in case. I scrubbed the table her cage sat on. All the while, the parrots watched in almost perfect silence. They have, unfortunately, watched me do this before. I left to bury her in the back yard, next to the other creatures we have lost in the four years we've lived in this house: George, a basset; Boots, a mixed breed that formerly belonged to my deceased mother-in-law; Trixie, the bald canary; Greta, the cockatiel. Bonnie, a budgie, is buried next to the bird feeder in the front yard instead of near the others because she enjoyed watching the bird feeder.
We took Maggie in because her family was moving away for health reasons and the doctor, as doctors so often do, blamed living with a non-human family member for some of the health issues. That always seems to be the first question a doctor asks when you come in with any sort of complaint. They believed the doctor (I argued with mine when he blamed birds for my migraines) and Maggie had to have a new home. She had not quite reached her fifth anniversary with us, and the previous family had her for five years. They found her in their back yard, so we don't know her age or background. She was, as my husband phrased it, “a real people person.” Maggie was friendly to everyone and enjoyed landing on a new person's head because most people are not accustomed to having a plump white pigeon land on their head and the reaction apparently amused her. She always was the first to come flapping over when I came into the room. She ruled the roost, being so much bigger than the others that they let her have what she wanted, whether it was a perch, the food dish, or the shared bathing dish. Her favorite thing was to sit on the back of my chair, with her head buried in my hair, and coo madly while I reached back to stroke her. She loved to be petted. Until Rocky came along, she was the only bird I could snuggle. I can pet most of the others and they let me kiss them when they're in the mood, and Clyde even kisses back, but snuggling is out. Maggie loved snuggling. She learned to step up, which “experts” will tell you pigeons won't do. She slept on a perch, also against “expert” knowledge. She played with toys, not as much as the parrots, but some, and her favorites were budgie-sized toys, in spite of her size.
After I took down her cage on Friday night, the room seemed hollow and empty in spite of the five remaining cages and the parrots, who quietly started to chirp a little when the cage was gone. Clyde returned to my shoulder. Benjy took possession of my left hand, his favorite perch. Jade sat on the boing next to my chair, but had nothing to say, which is unusual for her. All of them were subdued. By this evening, they will probably be back to normal, more or less. Birds are pragmatic. Bird business must be resumed. But I will miss my pigeon queen and her affectionate, sweet nature.