March 4, 2012
Flight of the Canary
Years ago, my mother bought me a canary. My mother liked feathered creatures as intensely as she disliked any creature with fur. So, once, while we were at the mall when she was visiting, she bought me a canary and a cage. I don't know what particular type of canary, only that it was male and a bright yellow. I named him Thistle for the Celtic music program "The Thistle and Shamrock" which I loved to listen to.
The cage she bought was a good size cage. Besides the two wood perches it came with, it eventually ended up with a bird house, a bird bath that attached to a door, a swing, a mirror with beads and a number of toys that I would switch out for variety. So it was as much of a cage as the vast majority of canaries ever get in their confined lives. But, though I had kept birds in cages before (a parakeet when I was a child, two finches given to me from my mother's birds in college), I began uncaging my pets when I had my own place. The last pet I had that had been caged full time was a fish.
So after my mother ended her visit, I opened the door of the cage and let Thistle fly free. Thistle flew out into the living room, then flew across the open expanse. I saw him frantically trying to turn as he approached the far wall, but, instead he flew smack into the wall with a distinct thud. I thought for a moment that I had killed him, but he was fine. I put Thistle back in the cage.
Then I sat down to ponder the problem. With the 20-20 clarity of hindsight, I realized that Thistle had never been in anything where he needed to maneuver. Probably he'd been kept in a tiny song cage his entire life. Odds were, his new cage was the biggest cage he'd ever been in. And all he could do in it was flutter from perch to perch, down to the floor or onto the sides of the cage. No maneuvering required.
I couldn't let him out of the cage into a room space again or else I'd risk him hurting himself. I thought about the problem for a while. In fact, I racked my brains. I needed a space big enough for him to fly in and large enough that he could learn to turn and maneuver, but a space that would prevent him from harming himself. No room in the apartment was small enough and my closets were full and, even if I emptied one, the closet was too dark for flying. Finally, I thought of the two collapsible cages I had bought for traveling. As I recalled, each cage was about three feet by two feet by two and a half feet. I dug one out and set it up. If I put the two of them together end-to-end, that would be plenty of room for practicing. The bars of the cages were too far apart. They weren't spaced to contain anything as tiny as a canary. So I thought if I covered them with a sheet, the sheet would stop Thistle from getting out, but the sheet wouldn't hurt him if he flew into it. It seemed worth a try. But I wasn't going to give him the full space to begin with. I'd try it with a single cage.
I took Thistle out of his cage and put him into his practice space. At first he just hopped around on the bottom, his nails making a scratching sound on the metal tray that was a little too close to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard for my comfort. But soon, he started to fly. He fluttered from one end of the cage to the other, always landing on the floor. Fairly soon his coordination improved to the point he'd fly up from the floor to land on the bars of the cage. He wasn't flying laps yet, but he was curving his flight in the corner of the cage. During the day and at night, Thistle would go back into his cage. But in the evenings when I was home to keep an eye on him or, more accurately, an ear on him (I couldn't see past the sheet), I would put him in his "flight" cage for two or three hours of practice.
After a week or so, I brought out the second cage and put both of the open ends together. Initially, Thistle didn't know what to make of this expanded space. He would fly up to the door of the first cage and land on the bars at the end, but he wouldn't go into the second cage --- a fact that had me irritated as I had given over a good chunk of the floor space in my small living room to him and he wasn't using it. Eventually, he got past his trepidation and went into the second cage. Though, at first, he would never fly into it. He would go to the end of cage #1, land on the floor, then hop and flutter over the lip into cage #2, land on its floor, then fly around cage #2. Only to repeat the process to go back into cage #1. Finally, he started flying the entire distance across both cages. He would take off from the bars of cage #1 and fly to the end of cage #2 and land on the bars there.
By then his coordination improved to the point he could maneuver and circle, so he started flying laps. He would circle both cages before he landed. It was then I realized the second problem of a canary who had never had the freedom to fly...........he had no stamina. Lapping the cages would leave him out of breath. When I would check on him, I would see him perched on a bar, beak open in a pant, his tiny chest heaving.
But he wasn't giving up, my little Thistle. He loved to fly. And he was determined to learn how to fly as much as he wanted to.
I recall seeing a show about an island somewhere off the East Coast that has no natural predators. The birds on the island had nothing there that would threaten them. Many of the birds had stopped flying. They still had the ability to fly, but would do so only if needed. Watching that show reminded me of when I'm out in the yard, how when I go by a bird, they wait for as long as possible before they take to the wing. You can tell they don't really want to fly. I guess flying is a pretty high energy activity. So since the birds on this island didn't need to fly................they didn't. They walked most of the time.
Now Thistle had no need to fly. He didn't need to search out his food. His food was delivered to his cage. There were no predators to chase after him. So Thistle had no need to fly. He wanted to fly strictly for the pure joy of flying.
So every evening I would put him in his flight cage set-up and every evening I could hear the whir of his wings as he flew back and forth, back and forth, circling the cages. When he flew close to the sides, I could see the sheet moving from the wind of his passing. I would lift the sheet to look at him, and there he would be, perched on the bars, staring back at me unafraid with his bright, black eyes. If I put a finger up to his beak, sometimes he would nibble on the nail. At the end of the evening he would quietly let me grab him and put him back in his home cage for the night.
While Thistle was building his flight skills, I was researching what to do next. I couldn't keep the cages up in my living room indefinitely. I looked in bird magazines, but the only large bird cages I could find were for parrots and larger birds. Finally, I wrote to a company and was told that there were no flight cages for small birds. Finding that out left me stuck. There was no way I could keep Thistle locked in his tiny cage and take flying away from him.
So I ended up with a free flying canary.
Which surprised the hell out of my mother. All the years I had uncaged my pets and it never crossed her mind that I would uncage a bird too. Well, to be honest, it hadn't crossed my mind either when we were standing in the pet store. It wasn't until I brought Thistle home that I realized I couldn't keep him in that cage.
So I took a yellow plastic garbage tie, the kind with the plastic teeth that fit through a slot, and used it to hold one of the cage door's open. That way Thistle could come and go as he pleased, and I could close the door when I needed to. Living in an apartment, I kept Thistle in the cage when I wasn't home as I was wary about someone else coming in and Thistle getting out.
Once I moved into a house, Thistle was free to fly all day. In the morning, I would open the cage door and leave it fastened open for the day. Thistle would usually start his morning with breakfast and a bath, then he would dry himself off and preen his feathers. Finally, prepared for the day, he would take off.
And take off he would. He adored flying around the house! Sometimes he would fly laps around the living room, a yellow dart whizzing through the air. I put plate mirror on the bedroom doors. The edge of the mirror is beveled to only 1/8 inch. I would marvel how this bird that once managed to crash into a wall while trying to avoid it, could fly straight at the mirror full speed, pull up, backwing and land on that 1/8 inch without hitting the door. It was a remarkable display of precision flying that Thistle did often and did it like it was nothing, just routine.
Most of the time Thistle would fly from spot to spot. At each spot he would land and peck at whatever caught his attention. He loved the glass plates on the dining room light, and I could hear them tinkle as he swung them together while I sat there thinking, "I hope those don't break." Or he would land on the fireplace pokers and peck at his distorted reflection in a brass handle. I would hear the tapping of his claws and that sound would let me know where he was at: on top of a bookcase, hopping on the mantel. He enjoyed exploring the house and when he was hungry or tired, he would go back to his cage.
The one part of the house he never liked was the screened porch. I had thought he would have liked being able to fly outside, but he would only go there if I put him there and only stay if I locked him there. He was content to fly around inside the house. He had his favorite spots, but he could go to any open spot in the house that a canary could fit and, believe me, a canary can fit into a lot of spaces. (The one space he was never interested in was the Christmas tree. The only way I could get him to perch in the tree was when I placed him in it, and he would fly out of it as soon as I pulled back my hand.)
I would sit there in the evenings watching Thistle fly. I felt a proprietary joy in his flight. I had given him this gift. Thistle and I were never close. He would never perch on my finger. The closest he ever came to landing on me was, once in a blue moon, he would land on the back of the chair, and I would feel a gentle tugging as he would pick at my hair. He would still nibble on my fingernails and usually let me grab him without a fuss. He trusted me; he just didn't bond to me. I was fine with that as I took my pleasure in Thistle from watching him fly. He flew every day and never got bored with it. As I said earlier, he had no need to fly. He could have just stayed in his cage and all his needs would have been met. But he wanted to fly. Maybe it was serving a need for physical activity. But I tend to think of the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull as I think of Thistle gripping the bars on the side of his makeshift practice cage, panting his little chest out from the exertion of flying one lap of the cages, and the way he determinedly kept flying like a marathon runner, training until he could fly lap after lap.......until he could fly for as long as he wanted. As I would watch Thistle flying laps around the living room, I found it hard to witness that kind of drive and put it solely down to physical-survival need.
I never regretted letting Thistle fly free. But I did curse about it a lot. You can't toilet train a canary. Wherever they land, they poop. The only good thing I can say about canary poop is it's little, but one canary sure can make a lot of it. I learned to place papertowels below Thistle's favorite spots and that helped some. But that 1/8 inch beveled mirror would end up streaked in poo. And Thistle explored all over the house. I know because I would find the poo. I also regretted not being able to use my ceiling fans. I would have like to, but I was terrified that Thistle would fly into the moving blades, and he'd be killed instantly. The truth about Thistle flying was I would have done it again in a heartbeat, but I would never do it again in the future. After Thistle, birds were struck off my list of pets.
And that had a downside for Thistle. I think he would have been happier in a busier household. I think he would have been happier if he'd had a bird companion, a female companion. But I wasn't going to have two birds flying around my house pooping everywhere............and then what about when they had eggs? His only daytime companion was my beloved pet rabbit, and rabbits are crepuscular; this one spent most of the day sleeping under my bed. Still it was funny to see Thistle on the floor hopping along behind the rabbit, occasionally getting close enough to nibble one lop ear. But the rabbit wasn't sufficient company for Thistle. So it wasn't a perfect life for Thistle, but it was a much better life than most canaries have.
The other downside to having a free flying canary is there's a reason those tiny cages are called song cages. I know why the caged bird sings. He sings because he's bored out of his mind. He sings because he has nothing else he can do. A canary that's free to fly will not sing as much as one that's confined to a cage. And I loved to hear Thistle's song. His throat would swell and, at its highest point, the sweetest, most piercingly clear tones would burst out of him. Typical of a canary, he had a long, elaborate song, and I loved when he would perform the entirity. But I could never have locked him up just to hear him sing more. He had his freedom, as much freedom as he wanted. (He never, not once, tried to go out of the door. Though I would confine him to the bedroom if the house were open, I would have to open the front door from time to time when he was in the living room. He never took those opportunities to make a dash for the outside. Not once did he ever get out of the house.) So Thistle would sing when he would choose to sing, and I would count myself lucky to hear such a beautiful song. One Christmas, I went into the bedroom singing "Angels We Have Heard on High," and when I got to the Gloria section, Thistle joined his voice to mine, his notes soaring octaves above me. I was stunned, but I didn't stop singing. It was the nicest compliment my singing had ever been paid..........either that or I was so off-key Thistle was trying to drown me out. Either way it was a moment I've never forgotten.
As I've never forgotten Thistle. Thistle lived with me for eight or nine years. Then one day I got home and walked in to the bedroom to find him lying dead on the bottom of his cage. I buried him in the garden. His bright wings stilled at last.
But, for me, he flies forever as I hope Thistle now flies for you as you think of the canary who was determined to fly.
Read about my current pet, Trilby Kitty, the cat who found his home:
"In the Mind of a Sleeping Cat"
"His Person's Voice or A Cat Who Will Come When Called"
"The Devotion of a Cat"
If you have a cat or dog, then "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food" is a must read.
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