LOVE TOOK WING WHEN GERTIE MET MR. RIGHT

April 29, 1990

In my family, we take our bird feeding seriously. We buy seed in 20-pound bags to supply the year-round stream of avian callers in our backyard in northern California. Depending on the season, we regularly see towhees, sparrows, robins, chickadees and various-hued finches, as well as an occasional mockingbird or California scrub jay. There's nothing especially exotic, but we get considerable enjoyment out of being able to look through the sliding glass doors at virtually any time of the day and see our feathered company pecking and hopping about the large plate containing its rations.

Our two big dogs, who will enthusiastically chase any bird in an open field, have never made a move to molest our winged guests. The dogs also serve as a deterrent to neighborhood cats who might otherwise be attracted to our yard by the profusion of easy prey.

Two years ago a friend who lives across town dropped by and, seeing the bird activity at our place, mentioned that for the past few years two white cockatoos had visited his backyard several times a day. He invited us to come by and see the exotic pair. The next weekend, as my wife, Marti, and I were sitting in his backyard, our attention was directed to a parrotlike chattering, and presently the two cockatoos came swooping in, alighting at the top of an almond tree.

Cockatoos are native to the Australia-South Pacific region, and this pair—no doubt former house pets—has apparently adapted well to the generally benign Sacramento Valley climate. We watched them for 10 or 15 minutes. They sat in the upper branches of the tree, chattering and shifting about, and they carried themselves with a kind of regal arrogance.

After seeing those crested beauties, I found myself wishing that something rarer than sparrows and chickadees might pay us a call.

No more than a week later Marti and I were eating breakfast with our then nine-year-old son, Ben, when a flash of white sailed by the glass doors in the direction of the bird dish. "What was that?" I said, jumping up from the table and crossing the room to get a closer look.

There in the dish, among the sparrows, was a strikingly pretty parakeet: Its breast, collar and back were sky blue; the back of its head and upper halves of the wings were barred black and white; and its forehead, tail and lower halves of the wings were snow-white.

Marti and Ben joined me at the door, and we watched the bird eat. After a time, something spooked the sparrows, and they flew off in a bunch, the parakeet with them.

We consulted our bird books. Having had a pet parakeet as a kid, I knew that the correct name for these birds is budgerigar. From our reading we learned that they are native to Australia, nomadic, travel in large flocks...and "have been known—upon escape from captivity—to attach themselves to a flock of sparrows."

This last item gave us cause to expect that the budgie would return. Sure enough, late that afternoon, when the midday heat had let up, the bird arrived with its adopted flock for an evening meal.

The other piece of information about budgies that I retained from my childhood was how to tell the sexes apart: The featherless area around the nostrils is brown in females, blue in males. This bird was female.

All the birds ate. But this time when something scared the flock and it took flight, the budgie stayed behind, calmly continuing her dinner. When one of us stepped a little closer to the feeding plate, she showed no concern, and when the dogs came sniffing, she wasn't bothered at all. No question but that this was a domesticated creature. When she had eaten her fill, she flew off to rejoin the flock—queen of the sparrows.

During the next few days we learned the budgie's habits. About 8 a.m. and again at 5 p.m., the queen and her court would fly in to feed. She usually came with an escort but, being less skittish than her companions, often stayed longer than the sparrows.

The sparrows messily scattered seeds; the budgie ate neatly. The sparrows hopped on two legs, quickly and nervously; the budgie walked, slowly, deliberately and pigeon-toed, her head bobbing with each step. Her gait lent her the aspect of a little old lady, and we decided to name her Gertrude.

We tested her tameness. She would let us get within a couple of feet, but if anyone tried to touch her, she flew away. This bird had spent sufficient time in captivity to know that the touch of a human hand could lead to a cage. While Gertrude, or Gertie, as we began to call her, didn't mind being admired at close range, she obviously had no intention of surrendering her freedom. We gave up trying to touch her and simply enjoyed her presence. We considered ourselves fortunate to have her in the family.

After a couple of weeks I began to imagine that Gertie would like a companion of her own kind. Perhaps I was indulging in anthropomorphism, but I couldn't help thinking that Gertie would be a happier bird if she had another budgie for company.

We presented our idea to the owner of a pet store, who said that there were no guarantees that any two budgies would get along, but that it was possible. She told us how to proceed: Put the male's cage out near the bird dish. After several days the female—if she was interested—would approach the cage and begin talking to the male. The two would then go on to share food and exhibit other intimate behavior. After about a week of that, release the male when the female came to the yard. She would then show him what he needed to know in order to survive on his own in the world. The shop owner also said that, in her opinion, budgies could indeed become acclimatized to the mild California winters.

We chose a green male for his contrasting color and named him Stanley. When Gertie arrived with her entourage that evening, we were disappointed. Several of the sparrows showed interest in the newcomer, landing on his cage and checking him out, but Gertie gave him not so much as a sideways glance.

Four or five days later we were still waiting for some action. Gertie, in her aloof way, had not approached the cage. When we were about to give up hope, the process jumped forward, exactly as predicted. One morning, without any previous indication, Gertie hopped onto Stanley's cage and started chattering. Stanley, who hadn't paid much attention to the sparrows that had been landing on his cage for almost a week, began leaping from perch to perch.

After a few minutes the sparrows flew off, and Gertie left with them. Stanley was extremely agitated, vaulting about and racing back and forth across the bottom of the cage, chirping wildly. Quite soon, Gertie came back, and the two birds held an extended discussion. This time when Gertie left, Stanley was calm, and set about preening his feathers. He began a repeated, one-note warble and, from a distance, we could hear a very musical, liquid answer. Back and forth they chirped until Gertie moved on.

That evening's visit went much the same way, and the next morning the two took another step forward, sharing food and rubbing beaks and heads through the bars. As instructed by the pet shop owner, we let the birds develop this phase of their courtship for about a week, and then, one morning when Gertie and her retinue arrived for breakfast, we took the top off Stanley's cage. He sat where he was, at first not realizing that he was free to leave. But after several minutes he took a short trial flight, landing in a birch tree near the one in which Gertie sat.

Moments later, she took wing, and he followed. Together they soared and dived, Stanley experiencing for the first time the true function of his wings. Too soon, they flew out of sight, with Gertie in the lead.

But that evening and again the next morning, they returned together, and we pronounced our project a success.

How I would love to report that Gertie and Stanley built a nest in a nearby tree and populated the neighborhood with wild budgies, but such is not the case.

Stanley vanished three days after his release from captivity. I suppose he was either captured as a pet or nabbed by a cat. Gertie returned faithfully each day until late in December, when the Sacramento Valley was hit by an uncharacteristic cold snap, one that included a freak snowstorm two days after Christmas. Whether she froze to death or simply moved south until the warm weather returned, I couldn't say, but we haven't seen Gertie since then. I still entertain the hope that one day she will be back.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSALEXA GRACE

Jay Feldman lives in Winters, Calif., and has written a number of stories for SI.

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