Posted by: ktzefr | August 18, 2010

It’s all about the birds…

“Stray birds of summer come to my window/to sing and fly away.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Macaw, Peru

I once had a cockateil named Oscar.  He was smoky gray with a lemon yellow face and splashes of orange on his cheeks.  The bird was given to me by a neighbor, an old lady who had a house full of birds that would sing and chirp and flit about for visitors.  I was surprised when she offered to let me take the cockateil home with me.  It didn’t take long, however, to figure out why she was so willing and even eager to part with Oscar.  I had to wear thick gloves when I cleaned his cage and didn’t dare rearrange anything inside it.  He was a vicious, nasty bird who didn’t think twice about biting the hand that fed him.

At first we thought he simply didn’t know us and was probably frightened.  Years later, he still didn’t know us.  I wondered if maybe he’d had a bad experience sometime in his life.  In psychology class we’d learned how those first years (in a bird’s life perhaps the first weeks) determined who a person (or a bird?) would become.  Either way, Oscar was Oscar, take him or leave him.  I kept him, fed him, talked to him in a soft voice even as he paced the cage and gave me the evil eye, and I kept hoping he’d eventually warm up to us.  He didn’t.  Eventually, he died.  We kept the cage and bought a turquoise parakeet at the dime store.  We named him Charley Bird after my dad.  He danced in front of a mirror, was allowed to fly free in the house, learned to talk.  He was every bit as sweet as Oscar had been mean.


These days I prefer wild birds.  I enjoy the many birds that come daily to my feeders, as well as the robins that search the back yard for worms and the blue jays that call from the trees every morning for their peanuts.  I keep binoculars handy by the kitchen table to get a close-up of the blue jays swooping down to get the peanuts and then back up into the sweet gum tree.  A bird will place the nut between its feet and peck until the shell is gone and then throw back its head and swallow the nut the way one might down an aspirin.  They’re fun to watch.

It’s not all fun and games in a bird’s world, however.  All that freedom to fly comes with a price.  Life can be tough.  As of late the birds have been emptying my feeders practically overnight.  I suspect some of them are getting ready for the long migration south.  I’ve heard that some species start overeating as early as end of July in preparation for the big flight.  Thousands of them die every year enroute to someplace else.  Lighthouses, tall buildings, and storms at sea take their toll.  In the DC area the Washington Monument has caused the death of many a wild bird, sometimes hundreds in a single night.  The Monument, towering above 550 feet, is illuminated at night on all four sides.  Birds, especially during foggy nights and storms, can be lured to the light, caught in a strong wind, and bashed into the stone.


SIWOK birds, Argentina

I am also a collector of fake birds.  Paintings, pottery, rugs, mobiles.  Wood, glass, tile, paper.  I’m a sucker for street art (i.e. cheap trinkets sold by vendors in places far and near).  My “house birds” have almost no value other than the fact that I like to look at them…

The Siwok birds (at right) were made by the Wichi Indian people in Argentina.  The woodpecker is the Siwok.  Legend has it that a man named Siwok wanted to catch Lewo (the rainbow) a serpent that lived in a deep lagoon. Siwok, however, was suddenly swallowed by the serpent.   Ifwala (the sun) was looking down at what happened and immediately dried up the lagoon to save Siwok.   Lewo disappeared with the sun’s heat, but Siwok’s spirit was left behind.  When a beautiful woodpecker came flying over the lagoon Siwok’s spirit slipped away to live inside the bird.


Two toucans…not high art, by any stretch, but they do mimic the unreal colors of the real bird.  And that huge beak!

Toucan in the window

Toucan, Costa Rica

Nicaraguan pottery often depicts birds.  The white-and-black-bird vase below was made by Juan Paulino Martinez who started his working life as a shoemaker.  His wife, who had always worked with pottery, talked him into trying his hand at it.  Now they are known throughout San Juan de Oriente for their fine craftsmanship.

Another artist from San Juan de Oriente is Roger Calero.  He is an international award-winning potter who mixes traditional pre-Columbian designs with more modern geometric figures.  All of his pieces are made using a foot-powered wheel and fired in a hand-made kiln.  Making and selling pottery has enabled both of these families to live better lives, to have running water in their homes, as well as television.

Pottery, Juan Paulino Martinez, Nicaragua

Pottery by Calero, Nicaragua

I love herons and cranes and loons and all those water birds with long legs…

Bird in the reeds mirror, St. John, US Virgin Islands

St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Above my desk and on the floor…

...a hummer from the beach

...a rug from Otavalo, Ecuador

And last, but not least, my son’s rendering of the Phoenix…

Oh, I collect frogs, too…and elephants…and creches…and vases…and, most of all, WORDS!

***Not all cockateils are antisocial like Oscar, and some are rather talented…click HERE to hear Cheeky the bird sing the Andy Griffith theme song.***



  1. Katie, I became quite the bird watcher living in ATL. I had my “aviary” outside a huge window in our “lodge” room….I kept track of the birds I spotted. Mary Alice even had a term in science in high school in ornithology. Now in Maine, I am learning about the woodland birds. We see and hear loons regularly. For a while we had a pileated woodpecker, and owls make their way known by leaving behind their half-eaten prey. I do miss my southern birds, though. My next door neighbor has a cockateil and an African gray. They can be noisy!! I love all the art you posted. Thanks!! Love, Molly

    • Molly…I was so excited back in the spring as I saw two pileated woodpeckers sitting on our neighbor’s fence early one morning. Two minutes and they were gone. First and last time they’ve been around. Beautiful birds. I have a friend who is an ornithologist and always has some bird tale or insight or info that amazes me.

  2. Katie–
    I loved your Oscar tale. I have my own cockateil story:
    My eldest daughter had a cinnamon one, Hopo. It was very tame, would sit on your shoulder and we let its wings grow out so it could fly around the house.
    One day as I was doing laundry, I left the door to the garage propped open (in Hawaii most w/d’s are in the garage) and my youngest opened the bird cage to play with Hopo. That bird must have had an escaped route planned out. It launched off from its cage nonstop, flew through the family room, turned right through the living room, down the hallway, through the garage door, another right turn out the side door and another turn straight over the back yard.
    I chase after it, waving my arms and yelling to my husband who had been working in the yard.
    “Catch it, Hopo, hurry!’
    So my hubby hurries over and shuts the garden gate. I just stood and looked at him dumbfounded as Hopo flew over his head and became a gray speck over the Waianae mountain range.

    Remind me to tell you about the parrots of Pearl City sometime.


    • Ha! Great story, Beth. At least in Hawaii Hopo could survive; he didn’t have to worry about snow and cold, ugly weather. Sounds like he was just waiting for the opportunity to bolt!

  3. We have that exact same parrot! And there’s actually a long story about him that dates back 25 years…. I lived in Brasilia in 1985-1986 and my dad and I would often walk down to the flea market on Sundays (called Conjunto Internacional). I bought a stuffed parrot not quite like this and named him Guido (after the character in Risky Business which was a big hit at the time). He ended up at my mom’s house in Grand Forks, and in 1997 when the flood came I asked her if Guido was OK. She said she left him hanging from the ceiling so he should be fine. Well, the waters went right up to the ceiling and Guido was toast. I was grief stricken but my dad bought me a new Guido after he moved back to Brazil. Then, forgetting he had done so, he got me another one. So now I have two Guidos, and one is very similar to yours.

    Two stuffed birds from Brazil

    • Love these parrot (real and stuffed) stories! And the names — Guido and Hopo. Ours used to hang from the ceiling in our son’s bedroom when he was little, but I don’t think he ever gave it a name. Perhaps we ought to do that…

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