When No One Was Looking

 When no one was looking I took an egg from the nest,

My Dad was at work, my mom having a rest.

When no one was looking I sat on the egg

I thought I could hatch it, yolk splattered my leg

When no one was looking I cried and I cried

Heart broken in half, fix it, I tried.

When no one was looking I hid the shell

Said I don’t know what happened, maybe it fell!

When no one was looking I let my brother take the blame

Hiding my guilt, hiding my shame.

When no one was looking my life changed that day

Heart filled with sadness, nothing to say.

Please do not judge me, for what I did before,

I didn’t know any better I was only four!

           The above poem is based on a true story written by twelve year old me as requested by my teacher for a poetry assignment. As a result of the incident, my relationship with birds became extremely complicated. As you will see, the love hate relationship between birds and myself has played an intricate part of my life and is an indication of a bigger truth; Birds are meant to be wild and should be left alone.

To set the scene I would just like to say that I grew up with Zebra finches. My father is from Australia and took care of a pair as they reminded him of home. Being a self proclaimed “finch expert”, he often talked about how Zebra finches are “the most common estrildid finch of Central Australia”[i] and that their staccato chirps transport him back to his childhood. His elation over an egg being laid by this pair was a source of much excitement in the house. This excitement moved to grave disappointment when the egg went missing.. .

On a warm sunny day in June, I had just turned four, when one of our Zebra finches lay an egg. My dad is ecstatic. I remember the local chicken farmer explaining that hens, like all birds, sit on their eggs to keep them warm and allow them to grow and hatch. I notice that sometimes my finches leave it alone. Puzzled by this action and armed with the knowledge about chickens, I make the decision to be helpful. Since they keep leaving the egg, I take the responsibility upon myself to keep it warm. My stubby little fingers unlock the cold prickly wire of the cage. The smell of the wicker nest tickles my nose as I reach in to ‘borrow’ the tiny gift. I place the smooth little present between two pillows, thinking this is the most gentle of ways, and sit down. I wait for what feels like forever, so about five seconds, and then steal peek. What I see can only be described as a murder scene. The little white egg had cracked, split and squished into the pillow. My dad is going to be so angry. I quickly hide the pillow in my bothers’ room and deny any knowledge of the event. This is the beginning of my terrible luck with birds.

 A few years fly by after this traumatic experience and I realize that humans have no business sitting on eggs. Instead, if there is an egg left alone or abandoned, a special light or incubator can be used to replace the warmth. Lucky for me, my father found a baby Robin and I was able to learn more about birds.

Baby birds are a lot of work. When my dad found a bird he explained that he knew it was a baby robin as it had a freckled chest with a little splash of orange on its sides. He told me that Robin’s are actually Thrush songbirds and that this particular bird is a ‘fledgling’ meaning it has flight feathers but is not at the stage where it can fly. He said Roo, our feline hunter who left the bird as a food donation, most likely captured the bird as it was hopping around on the ground or in branches testing out its wings. Being as the bird is helpless, and we have no idea where its parents are, we opt to keep it for observation in our spare bathroom. Under the direction of my dad I get a shoebox to fill with newspaper and straw. Then, after washing his hands, my dad gently placed the bird in the box and put it in the bathroom. Next, he goes out to dig for worms explaining that the Robin will need to be fed often in order to get strong enough to fly. Over the next two days my dad goes into the bathroom every twenty minutes to feed the bird until it was full. At the end of the two days put our feathered friend into the backyard where it eventually flew away.

Spending time with the red chested bird allowed me to romanticize about my relationship with the feathered race. Armed with knowledge passed down from my father, I viewed them as friends and dreamed of my Disney moment full of playful flutter and harmonic song. This thought would be forever changed, however, after an unfortunate encounter with a group of Canada Geese who lacked the reciprocating feelings of love.

A few years have flown by and I am now seven years old and on vacation in Peachland. It is a ridiculously hot day and I am enjoying the cool splash of the waters edge when my hat blew off. Not wanting to get into trouble for loosing another hat, I chase it down the shoreline. My hat summersaults along the rocky shore finally resting in the middle of a group of Canada Geese and their goslings. Thinking back to my Disney fantasy, I tiptoe toward the geese whistling and smiling. The adults stand motionless like statues. Their distinctive black heads glistening under the sun. With each creep forward I can see the strain of their long black necks, as they follow my movement with piercing eyes. I stop for a moment, admiring their strong proud chests and dignified stance as they guard over their babies. Time stands still as I step forward to retrieve my hat. This is my moment. Unfortunately I could not have been more wrong. All I hear is a squawking battle cry as wings and beaks come thrusting towards me. Terrified I run in retreat but the army persists and I fall. My knees slice open on the jagged edge of the rocky shore and tears stain my face. I search for mercy amongst the sea of white and black faces and they stop. Satisfied by the chase and my pitiful pain, the geese saunter away in victory; my hat is lost forever.

While this was my first experience with Canada geese it would not be my last. Glide forward another eleven years and you will see me in situation with the same species of bird and another reminder of why birds should be left alone.

 I am doing some landscape work at a complex in Walnutgrove, down on the coast, when I hear a great commotion. I am nosy so I have to check it out. I observe a petrified Canada goose circled by four city workers. I sprint over to investigate, as I do not like to see any animal in distress. The workers tell me the poor goose is not able to fly and was on the busy street before they chased it into the complex. Worried it would get hit by a car; they called the wildlife center that asked them to bring the goose in. None of them knew how to get the terrified bird into the car let alone to the wildlife center. Somehow I know what to do. I take off my hoodie and gently scoop up the bird, wrapping my hoodie around his body. This prevents him from flapping his wings and potentially hurting himself. I then attempt to pass the bird to one of the guys but they all refuse, scared. Knowing we had to get the bird to the center I hop into the back of one of the workers trucks, bird in my lap, and off we go.

The first five minutes of the fifteen-minute drive are fine. We blast classical music, in an effort to keep everyone calm, and take backloads to avoid lights. When we hit the six-minute mark the poor goose gets a burst of energy and tries to get free of my grasp. After a few minutes of battling he starts to move his head from side to side like a cobra. Confused on what he is doing, and stuck with him in my lap I watch helplessly. The goose turns his head to the side, sizing me up with a crazy eye and then lunges at my face. His flat bill opens and then snaps shut on my bottom lip. It feels like a dozen barbed Velcro pieces are scraping against my lip as they try to loosen his grasp. We tug of war, lip against beak until the truck finally stops, arriving at the center.

According to the wildlife center the Goose was a male and unable to fly as he still had Juvenal plumage. The center shows us how the goose, we have now named Snappy, had lower contrast markings and obscure pale edges on his back feathers.

They also point out how Snappy’s feathers tips were narrow and rounded which was different from an adult whose feather tips are broader and more square or flat-tipped. Snappy’s neck was not quite dark black and it blended into the paler white of his breast. This is also different from an adult whose black neck has a very distinct edge with no blending to pale breast .[ii]

After being educated on Snappy I ask about my lip wound, which is now the size of the golf ball. The worker laughs at my pain and informs me that I will not die and should feel honoured to have had such an amazing experience. I tell him all I feel is the pulse of my heart beating in my lip and the knowledge that birds should be left alone.

I wish I had listened to my own lesson of leaving birds alone. But a few more years glide by and while I stayed away from birds in the wild, I felt a little safer when dealing with birds in captivity. After all they are raised by people and depend on humans to feed, bath and love them. My finches seemed happy enough and I have seen endless cute videos of bird pets on the Internet. So what happened next was another cold dose of realty.

A few Christmases ago, I find myself visiting family in Hay-on-Wye in the district of Brecknockshire in Wales. The house I am staying in is home to two parakeets, one cockatoo, and a green-cheeked mini Macaw named Kermit. Kermit comes from a home where they did not know how to take care of him. Because of this he is known to be touchy with new people but for some reason we bond immediately. It is love at first chirp and we spend a week getting to know each other. I am told he does not like to land on people or be in too much contact and yet every time he is out of his cage he comes to me and preens my hair or nuzzles my cheek. These behaviors in the wild are how Macaws show affection for each other and show acceptance. I bask in the attention and put aside all ill feelings from past bird experiences. He is a beautiful vibrant green with splashes of red and blue. This love affair lasts a few short weeks and then everything goes wrong. Kermit is preening my hair, like he always does, when he leans over my forehead and begins staring at me eye to eye. It reminds me of the Canada goose in the truck but I push through the uneasy feeling remembering our bond. Suddenly he lunges forward and bites into my nose. Kermit’s beak, like all mini Macaws, is curved and sharp, designed to crack hard nuts my nose does not have a fighting chance. I let out a terrible scream, which only makes him hold on tighter. I can feel the blood trickle down my face as I desperately try to release his grip. I have to force my finger into his hard sharp beak and flick him to the floor. He lets out a cackle and flies back to his cage. Heartbroken, shocked and embarrassed I run upstairs to see what damage he had done. My right nostril is sliced open. Relationship over. I will never trust a bird again.

 The owner of Kermit later informed me,, that Macaws who have suffered neglect have learned the only way to get attention is to bite their human owners. In the wild they are able to fly free and socialize as they wish. Macaws are known to be social creatures so the neglect is torture. Kermit, she also states, was over stimulated with all the attention he had received and the only way he could react was to bite.[iii]

My journey with birds has been an emotional one. Joyful moments mixed with bizarre events. While I am not happy about my attacks, I am not alone in the experience. A quick Internet search bring up endless stories from around the world of attacks and even deaths suffered at the wings of a bird. The things I have learned through these experiences have challenged me to understand the human impact on them. These incidents are not unprovoked as these occurrences happen as a reaction to something. As our population grows we steal the habitat of our feathered friends forcing them into the unknown. Forcing them to live in closer proximity to us. Forcing them to adapt or to die. For this reason alone I can understand why humans are attacked, pooped on, chased and in rare cases, killed. Until we sit back and fully comprehend and change our impact on nature, we deserve it.

[i] Quoted from my father, Graham Ross Cooper, who always seems to know a lot about everything! I can only assume it is because of the fact he has hundreds of books all of which he has read and he has a photographic memory.

[ii] David Sibley, “Ageing Canada Geese”, October 20, 2009, retrieved from http://www.sibleyguides.com/2009/10/ageing-canada-geese/

[iii] This is quoted from Sarah Nicholls, the owner of Kermit. She has a degree in animal behavior from Harper Adams University College in Telford, United Kingdom and takes on troubled animals that have been mistreated.