By Keith Michael
As Millie and I round the corner onto Washington Street, we flush a nursery school of sparrows scrounging for breakfast. Rather than straining at her leash to chase them, Millie seems to step back, looking up in amazement, from her corgi-point-of-view, that there are so many.
The sparrow party explodes only to the next fenced in street tree. As I’m thinking that I should pay more attention to these entertaining every day birds, rather than scanning for the rarer species that might be gracing the neighborhood, there, right in the middle of that dun-colored flock, is a bird definitely not like the others—an electric flash of green, blue and yellow—a parakeet!
Instinctively, knowing he is someone’s escaped pet, I hold out my finger as a perch and coo, “Pretty bird. Pretty bird.” Hoping that he might have been trained to sit on “his person’s” finger, I hadn’t thought about what I would do next if he sat on mine. Perhaps in response to Millie’s less than welcoming sidewalk manner, the parakeet, and his rabblerousing tribe of sparrows, take off for the other side of the street. Up, up and away.
Usually I say that my newfound interest in birds began only around ten years ago (okay, not so newfound any more), but that’s not entirely true. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I stared out the window, counting the birds in our yard. I had a Peterson’s field guide, and copied my own quivering, outlined and Crayola-ed drawings from Roger Tory’s colorful plates of Cardinals, Goldfinches, Bluebirds and Evening Grosbeaks. Then, when I was eight, I pleaded with my parents for a pet parakeet—for a parakeet that looked exactly like this flashy escapee on Washington Street. I reminisce.
Petey was picked out of dozens of budgerigars (their native Australian moniker) from a walk-in aviary behind a-mysterious-man-in-another-town-who-bred-parakeets’ backyard shed. Opening the wire-mesh door, he walked into that fluttery cloud; I did not. I watched. Both saucer-eyed and slightly worried, I probably said, “Yes, that one please.”
Even at eight, I knew to pick a young bird because I’d read that they were supposed to be easier to train. For months I’d studied a slim “Everything You Need to Know About Parakeets” book, learning that young birds still had a black-striped forehead, which would become progressively bald-yellow as they aged (sound familiar?) and that males have a blue cere (the patch of bare skin above their beaks around their nostrils) while the females have a tan one. Even though parakeets could be many different colors—light green, dark green, blue, yellow, even white or violet—I knew that I wanted the “classic” wild bird version: rich lime green with a blue tail, yellow and jet black scallops on the wings, and stripes on the nape of the neck (and forehead). “Yes, that one please, if you can.” I don’t remember why I named him Petey.
I already had a cage for him in the backseat of the car: swinging perch, cuttlebone clipped to the side, millet spray treat, food cup, toys with bells, the bottom of the cage lined with the Boyertown Mercury, water to be added later so that it wouldn’t spill on the way home. I had a parakeet!
Though I tried, I never was able to teach Petey to repeat, “Pretty bird.” I did try (in between my piano and French horn lessons, mowing the lawn, and making marionettes). He did learn to step from finger to finger like climbing a ladder, and to sit (and poop) on my head and shoulders. Happily, he shredded playing cards (Can we still play Crazy Eights if the Queen of Hearts is missing?) and contentedly perforated the corners of my homework. There is only one photograph of him: I’m smiling from my bottom bunk bed with Petey perched on my head.
One sunny afternoon just a few years later, when I was ten or eleven, after coming home from school (I fretted over Petey’s cloistered days in a cage), as was my routine, I let him out of his barred cell to fly around the outback of my room. He wasn’t supposed to explore the savannah of the rest of the house, only my room. But I had opened his cage door before closing my bedroom door. In that indelible instant when I propelled the door to the hallway shut—the door, the doorjamb, and Petey—all met. Even well into my college years, I woke up from nightmares about that unintentionally tragic shutting of the door.
A small marble headstone used as a doorstop, for some reason having migrated with my family’s many moves, ended up above Petey’s flannel-wrapped resting place under a dogwood tree: At Rest.
Ah, this small brilliant Pretty Bird on Washington Street. I hope he finds his way home. Or to a new home. The chill of fall is in the air.
Keith Michael’s NEW book Let’s Go Out! will be available this fall! For more information about books, nature walks, and photographs, visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.