Today, my nanday conure Ninguable died, surviving his mate Sophie by just under thirteen months. He died in my hands. It was the last act in a relationship that had lasted twenty-eight years.
He had been listless for the past couple of days, but yesterday evening he had seemed to rally. However, the improvement didn’t last, and this morning he was lying on his back when I opened his cage. I thought him dead, and although he roused feebly, I knew he wouldn’t last out the day.
I had no means to euthanize him, and taking him to the vet would only make his last hours uncomfortable, so I sat with him through the day. He seemed to have suffered a stroke, because he struggled to move his left leg, growing testy at times.. Sometimes, he yawned with his beak tilted up. He didn’t show any signs of pain, just frustration. I was just putting him on to a towel in his cage bottom, so I could use the computer with one hand while stroking him with the other, when he collapsed beak first and twisted sideways.
For a moment, I swear I saw a light in his brown eyes. Then he was gone. I waited a few moments, but I knew what was left was no longer him. The time was shortly before 2PM.
Ning was our first parrot, and responsible for most of the others coming into our lives. We had been fascinated by a friend’s dwarf macaw, and had spent over a month looking for our own small parrot. We briefly considered a blue-crowned conure at the Lougheed Mall pet store, but debated if it was quite right. Then we saw Ning at the store in Kingsgate Mall, and immediately knew he was right for us.
Had we known what we knew a few years later, we probably wouldn’t have bought him. He was missing a nail on one foot, and part of a toe on another – a likely sign that he was wild caught, and had had his feet tangled in a net. Plus the store owner swore he was eighteen months old when by his markings he was under a year. Later, we realized he had probably been smuggled into the country, an abusive practice that we wouldn’t have wanted to support.
But he was so feisty among all the much larger birds in the room, hanging from the bars of his cage and trying to attract the attention of the red lory who was the only bird of his size. We put a deposit on him, and stopped on our way to the Vancouver Folk Festival to feed him cherries and grapes, all of which he greedily devoured.
On Trish’s birthday, we brought him home. We left him to acclimatize while we went out to dinner, but we were both so excited that we could hardly eat. We named him Ningauble, after the ever-curious wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series.
In the next few weeks, I worked with several times a day in the spare room, teaching him to climb up on a presented perch, then on a finger, feeding him and praising him loudly as a reward.
In the evenings, I would take him out and herd him on to my shoulder, where he would sit nervously before starting off. He couldn’t fly much, because we had clipped his wings, but that didn’t slow him much. He would glide as far as he could, and resolutely trudge along the floor and up the furniture until he reached his cage.
One evening, we were sitting reading when he reached over and gently preened my hair. Between my nervousness that he would bite my ear and my delight at this sign of trust, I hardly dared to move. But the next evening, he preened one side of my hair followed by the back, careful not to miss a spot, before giving up.
He seemed relieved to realize finally that he wasn’t responsible for all my hair, and after a few more evenings, settled down to a token preen in return for having his ear holes and neck scratched. He would sit and preen me for a couple of hours, then waddle down the couch to Trish to give her a couple of hours of attention.
I was in grad school at the time, and used to work in the spare room we had converted into a library. For a while, I used to take Ning into the library, since he would scream for me if I left him in the living room. Unfortunately, he would not only wander the shelves flinging books off, but also produce what our local used bookseller called parroted editions that had been thoroughly chewed to the point where they were unsellable.
After a couple of years, we decided he needed a mate, so we brought home Sophie, a malnourished, abused bird. Our plans to quarantine her for a month were immediately overturned when the only way to keep them from calling from room to room was to introduce them. Under our anxious eye, Ning jumped into Sophie’s cage and immediately started regurgitating to her.
If Sophie could talk, I swear she would have said, “Excuse me, sir? Have we been introduced?” but they immediately became inseparable, eventually going on to produce six chicks, one of whom is still with me, and one who returned to us before dying at a young age from the second hand smoke in a home where he briefly lived.
Ning wasn’t that skilled at feeding babies. But he kept Sophie fed while she was brooding, and delighted in teaching them the basics when they left the nest. At that point, Sophie was glad to pass along the responsibility, and Ning always pined when the babies went to other homes.
Because of the trouble and heartbreak of finding new homes for the babies, we eventually stopped allowing eggs to hatch. But Ning and Sophie didn’t seem unduly troubled. They continued in happy monogamy, with Ning in the adventurous lead and Sophie chirping nervously behind, but following him – on to the floor, or up on my shoulder, where they would sit preening each other and occasionally me while I worked on the computer.
In between, Ning would have territorial wars with the other male birds housed in the living room, always with the psychological edge. Although not particularly large for a nanday, his electric blue and green feathers showed he was the epitome of health. And, anyway, he was the cock with the hen.
He also showed an uncanny ability to find what unsettled his rivals the most at the least risk to him – for instance, sitting just inside another male’s territory on the floor, in a spot where he couldn’t be dive bombed.
And so things went on, the living room full of bird calls, affection and avian macho, until I got into the habit of thinking they might go on forever. But Trish sickened and died, and, five months later, Sophie died. Ning responded by a fit of macho, rampaging around the dining table until it was clear that this previously neutral ground was now his. He was also inclined to mope unless he spent as much time as possible with me – something I didn’t mind in the least, considering we were widowers together.
In the mornings, when I came to open the curtains, he would greet the sound of my voice with a liquid trill that would continue for up to a minute — one of the most beautiful sounds I ever heard, and one I wish now that I had got around to recording.
Despite his increasing age, Ning showed few signs of slowing down until the last four months of his life. One day, waddling over the carpet, he stopped and began biting furiously at his right wing. When I picked him up, I could find no damage, but he never flew far again. Instead, he would call anxiously to me, squirming until I picked him up and carried him to where he wanted to be. By this time, I could guess his destination with almost total accuracy.
I had seen similar signs in Sophie, but, considering Ning’s better health, I had hopes that his senior years would be prolonged. Until a few days ago, I even had hopes that with therapy he might fly freely again, since several times he managed short flights when frustrated.
As I write, it’s six hours after his death. I’ve taken his body to be cremated, and removed his cage from the living room – and I still keep looking for him as I type. He’s the one who taught me that parrots had sentience and limited planning abilities. He’s the one who kept me amused with his unabashed enthusiasm, and supported me with a preen and by hanging out when I was discouraged or grieving. He’s the one who taught me that parrots can purr.
Given all this, what could I do but sit with him in his final hours? I talked to him about our years together, sang him his favorite silly songs, and repeated my pet names for him. I cried over the inevitable before it happened and I hoped for a miracle, knowing I wouldn’t get one.
And you know what? I’m not ashamed of any of it. Because those are the sort of things you do for a friend. The only shame would have been to leave him to die alone, and my only comfort is that I did for him what I could.