Friday, February 22, 2013


A lot of people mistakenly believe that if you are a birder i.e. enjoy traipsing in the great outdoors, staring at birds with binoculars―perhaps even photographing them―that you also would like to have a pet bird. Not necessarily the case. A few years ago, a relative suddenly declared that she and her husband are moving Back East, and foisted her Zebra Finches on us. Didn't ask if we wanted to have the birds; just showed up at our kitchen door with an over-sized white metal cage with two equally white songbirds nervously fluttering around, inside.

Before I go on, a word about Zebra Finches: Somehow, Australia―along with Oceania to its north―became the point of origin for a multitude of those exotic birds that constitute a large part of the international pet trade. If you walk up to the average American or European and say the word "Tropical" they will picture a lush jungle in Africa, or South America. Obviously, the green jungles of these equatorial regions are where parrots come from.

Not really. Lots of parrot species come from areas with oak trees (Mexico to Colombia), or grasslands (Africa, Argentina, Australia). Same goes for other Australian birds like Zebra Finches, who, of course, are not parrots, but small, seed eating passerines. Zebra Finches also bear the distinction of being bred in large numbers for biological research. These laboratory Zebra Finches have been bred in captivity over and over again to the point where they have lost most of the coloration of their wild cousins, and along with our two birds, have become white ghosts with bright orange seed-crushing beaks, and a couple of black stripes on their faces. If you ever walk by a research building on a university campus, and wonder what that chirping, honking sound is coming from somewhere inside, chances are it's the sound of a couple hundred Zebra Finches, bleating with excitement at the idea of escaping the nerds in white lab coats who will eventually decapitate them, and slice their brains into microscope slides in order to trace some neuronal pathway. No such fate awaited our new, uninvited guests.

So, now we had an oversized cage in our living room. Great. One more piece of clutter. As it is, my wife and I have too much stuff, and our small house constantly looks like if we had just moved in, and hadn't decided where to put things, yet. So the Zebra Finches now lived in the same living room that held six large book cases, two vaccum cleaners (an old-fashioned Hoover held together with a bungee cord, and the new, bagless Hoover that is the first bagless vaccum cleaner that we actually kept, after taking back the Bissel and some other piece-of-crap bagless vacuum cleaner that didn't pick up the dog hair), one female Basset Hound (usually found snoring on her Costco doggy bed), one suicidal analog TV (the top of the screen is slowly degenerating into parallel white lines that will eventually invade the entire screen, at which point I will be forced to drive over to Best Buy, and get the biggest flat screen that I can afford), one desk top home PC, a Persian rug, a sofa, two bicycles (can't keep them on the patio: they will rust), a 1910 Singer sewing machine, and a bunch of Christmas tree decorations that my wife really needs to put back into the storage shed.

Well, okay, the sewing machine was the other uninvited guest. Apparently, it was owned by somebody's grandmother (We're not sure who this person was, or how we're related to her, so we can't throw it out. Ironically, the wood used to make this broken sewing machine came from the Singer Tract in Louisiana, where they chopped down an entire forest for the wood to make sewing machines―wiping out the last stronghold of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, pushing it into extinction.

So, of course, we put the over-sized cage on top of the unwanted 1910 Singer, and over the course of time a pile of feather dust and seed shells began to accumulate on the floor, where it joined the dog hair.


I grew tired of the dust and spit-out seed shells, so one day I evicted the Zebra Finches. My wife would love to evict the dog, but the Basset Hound has telepathic powers, and knows exactly when she needs to pad up to you, nudge you with her wet, black nose, and work her magical eyebrows into a facial expression that says, "I love you, and I need you to love me, too."

So now the Zebra Finches lived on our patio. No problem for most of the year in southern California, where even at our house at the base of a 10,000 foot mountain, it only drops down to freezing temperatures 2 weeks a year. I figured that when we have our annual Christmas-to-New-Years period of freezing temperatures, I'll bring them back inside.

Then I realized something: They actually have freezing temperatures―and believe it or not, snow―in certain parts of Australia, so these hardy little guys can probably tolerate short periods of cold.

To liven up their otherwise boring lives (Imagine being locked in a cage for years with your spouse, unable to escape), I hung one of the hummingbird feeders right next to their cage, and fairly quickly the Zebras began to announce whenever an Anna's Hummingbird visited our patio.

Life was good. We sorta had our living room back, and the birds were fine "outdoors". One fine summer evening I came home from work, and after executing my husbandly duty of picking up the dog poop & hosing down the patio, I noticed that only one of the Zebra Finches was fluttering about in their usual panic induced by the presence of humans.

Mrs. Zebra Finch was dead.

Sorry, Mr. Zebra Finch, we're not getting you a new wife. You'll just have to live out your days as a lonely widower, conversing with the occasional hummingbird or goldfinch that stops by to visit. Maybe in the spring a Hooded Oriole or an Orange-crowned Warbler will stop by.

Now you'll know how I felt when I was divorced, and living alone.

Anyways, so summer turned into fall, and next thing you know, Santa brought the kids newer, more expensive video games, and the big freeze was colder and longer than usual. Mr. Zebra Finch did fine. I actually tried to keep him warm by offering him handfuls of lint from the clothes dryer, and a milk carton that I hoped he would use as a bird box. Zebra Finches must be nest weavers, because he insisted on staying in a used margarine container full of dryer lint, eschewing the warmth and shelter of the milk carton.

The freeze ended, leaving all the banana trees in our neighborhood dead, including the one in a pot on our patio. Hoping for the best, I supplemented the banana plant's nitrogen supply with the occasional dose of liquid urea, and kept watering it. I noticed last week that it has new green leaves climbing past the dead, brown leaves.

Excellent. Wounded, but not dead.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Mr. Zebra Finch.

I got home from work, last night, and was immediately informed that he was dead, dead, dead, at the bottom of the cage.


I threw myself at my wife's mercy, and confessed my sin: I hadn't checked his food supply in several days. I may have starved him to death. A real possibility in this weather. Small birds can survive the cold as long as they can get their hands (or beaks) onto enough calories to keep warm. Just ask your local Hoary Redpoll, or McKay's Bunting. I have no way of knowing for sure if that killed the bird, or it was just his time. He probably died of old age. If I really wanted to know, I could have taken his little corpse out of the cage, and palpated his breasts. If there was a sufficent layer of muscle and fat, then no, he didn't use up his fuel supplies, he just grew tired of living in Claremont.

I informed the wife that I was going to throw out the cage with the bird in it. Straight into the dumpster. No birdy funeral in the dirt of the patio, just gone, vanished, like an American spy in Moscow. Poof. Never existed. She said, "No, don't throw out the cage." Methinks the lady doth protest too much. The ugly truth is this: she can't stand our relative who foisted the bird and the sewing machine on us. Here's where it gets really weird: It turned out that the birds weren't even hers', but her ex-husband's, who she broke up with in a nasty divorce that amazingly didn't make the front page of People Magazine. I gasped, "Those were his birds?"

"Oh yeah, she hates birds. Always has. She's been afraid of them since she was a little kid. Some incident where a bird attacked her."

"Wait a second! We've been keeping her ex-husband's birds, even though she hates birds, and she curses the ground he walks on?"


Somebody shoot me.

Before I left for work, this morning, I stopped and fed Mr. Fish. I stared at him through the glass walls of his tank, and asked him to stay around for a while. Not answering, he non-committally tore a chunk out of a flake of fish food, as it floated by.


Side note: My daughter wants a turtle for her birthday. I said, "Yes."

Now my wife wants to kill me.