When I entered Tani’s bird room, my eyes fell immediately upon Gracie. A female Red-lored Amazon, she sat on a table in a small parakeet cage with a single perch. Tani was a breeder from whom I purchased pellets for my own birds. Gracie had been relinquished to her that morning by a stranger who could no longer keep her.
A Pathetic Sight
She was a pathetic sight. Deformed toes worked hard to balance on the ¼-inch perch. Cholesterol deposits impaired her vision. Her plumage could only be described as “scruffy” at best, indicative of a seed diet and lack of bathing opportunities. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with her,” Tani lamented. My heart overrode my brain and in a split second I said that I would give her a home. That was a decision I never regretted.
Her story was even worse than her appearance. Gracie had begun to bite the owner in her first home and was thrown against the wall, after which she began to have seizures. She was taken to a veterinary clinic to be euthanized. Instead, one of the receptionists agreed to adopt her. Fearful that Gracie might have a seizure that would cause her injury, this well-meaning woman kept her in that 12-inch parakeet cage for several years.
Once home with me, it took some time before Gracie regained enough strength to be able to live in an appropriately sized cage. We gradually moved her up from one cage to another, each larger than the last. She never did try to interact with enrichment much, but she converted easily to a diet of pellets, whole grains, vegetables and a bit of fruit.
Finding a Friend
After several years she and Harpo, my Double-yellow Headed Amazon, formed a strong pair bond. I placed their cages next to each other in my bedroom. Harpo was fully flighted; Gracie never chose to fly despite having full wings. Harpo had the ability to fly anywhere he wanted, but he rarely left Gracie’s side. They seemed happy to sit side by side, cocooned in their affection for each other.
Signs of Illness
A few years ago, Gracie developed symptoms of an upper respiratory infection. Her inability to use her feet with much coordination made it impossible for me to medicate her by mouth with antibiotics. She could not step up and any attempt to place a towel over her caused her to launch herself off her cage in a panic. I medicated her in her drinking water, the only option open to me.
She had several bouts with similar symptoms and would appear to improve with antibiotics. However, the “infection” always came back. Eventually, her breathing became visibly more difficult. During the nights, I would wake to hear her breathing and I observed more tail bobbing, a symptom of labored breathing. My heart grew heavier and my anxiety for both her and Harpo deepened.
What else could be done for her? What if I couldn’t save her? What would Harpo do if he lost her? Would I need to adopt another female Amazon? Was the stress of getting her into a carrier for yet another vet visit worth it?
The Only Option
One night recently, she became dramatically worse, despite the fact that she had been drinking water with Baytril for a few weeks. In the early morning, she fell off of her cage because she was so weak. That decided me.
We took radiographs, which revealed many cloudy “nodules” in her chest. A phone call to the local pathologist was very discouraging. Her suggested rule-outs were either aspergillosis or tuberculosis, neither of which would have been possible to treat, given the limitations Gracie herself posed.
I could only remember the words of a veterinarian with whom I once worked, who had declared the inability to breathe freely as the worst form of suffering. Gracie was euthanized that day, gently and humanely.
Harpo Learns the Truth
I wanted to give Harpo a chance to understand what had happened, so I brought her body home with me that evening. He first viewed her remains from a few feet away. He regarded her with eyes pinning, then came to sit by her body for a couple of minutes. After that, he then moved back to his own cage and never approached her again.
Knowing it was the right thing to do, I had a necropsy performed. To our surprise, Gracie’s struggles to breathe were caused by a large tumor on her thyroid gland.
Three Lessons for Us All: Lesson One
I write this account because losses like this often bring with them some very important lessons. Gracie’s passing has gifted us with three of them. The first concerns the value of necropsy, both to parrot owners and to the veterinary profession. I have always had a necropsy performed on any parrot who dies in my care.
I consider this as critically important for the future health of the other birds in my flock. Should the necropsy reveal a potentially infectious disease, I would have information that could allow me to better protect my existing birds. Further, it could impact future decisions regarding the adoption of others.
There is also value to the veterinary profession. Avian veterinary medicine is still a relatively young discipline and there is much we don’t know about disease processes in parrots. The well-known and invaluable reference “Avian Medicine: Principles and Application” reports that “Thyroid neoplasia (cancer) is rare in birds.” Were we all to embrace the need to contribute to the knowledge we have by committing to necropsy when losses occur, our body of knowledge could grow much more quickly.
In addition to the value of the medical information we receive, necropsy has the potential also to contribute to our own emotional healing. I don’t know what’s worse, losing a parrot suddenly or making the decision to euthanize. We suffer and we grieve in a manner that only one who has also lost a bird can understand.
And, we feel guilty. We torture ourselves with the idea that perhaps it was somehow our fault. In Gracie’s case, her diagnosis came as a huge relief. There was nothing I could have done to save her and I prevented her further suffering by making the courageous decision to end it. I was able to take myself off the “guilty hook.” My sense of loss was enough to deal with.
Gracie’s second lesson for us is critical to our social relationships with our parrots. Too many times we assume that we know what our parrots are feeling and experiencing. We observe behavior and interpret this in most cases by seizing upon the first explanation that occurs to us. In fact, most of the consultations I do for behavior problems have as an element the very wrong assumptions the owners have made about their bird.
I had assumed that Harpo would be completely lost without Gracie. He would now live as a single Amazon in a household full of African Greys. How would he manage? Would they bully him now that he as alone? How could I keep him happy, now that he would be mostly alone in the bedroom. I considered looking for another Amazon to keep him company, even though I don’t really want to add another parrot to my household.
Harpo’s behavior since Gracie’s passing has been eye-opening. He never spends time in the bedroom anymore. He flies frequently, exploring the environment and interacting with enrichment. He talks more often. He gets along with the greys well.
Had Gracie been cramping his style? Did his loyalty to her keep him tied to his cage in the bedroom when he really wished to be hanging out in the living room? We will never know and it doesn’t really matter.
The important lesson here is that we should never be sure that we understand what our parrots want or need. We should never believe that we know how they feel. The most we can do is to observe their body language carefully and do our best to make informed decisions based upon what they tell us. Harpo has shown me clearly that another Amazon isn’t necessary at this time.
Gracie’s last lesson has to do with resilience. The dictionary definition of resilience is, “The ability to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Both Gracie and Harpo fit that description and I believe that most parrots do. Despite Gracie’s early difficulties, she recovered to the extent that she was able and lived a full, happy life. She was approximately 25 years old when she died.
Harpo now has the chance to expand his own horizons. He’s getting a lot more exercise and is now able to visit the outdoor aviary for sunshine and fresh air. He was previously reluctant to do so because it required leaving Gracie’s side. Harpo is tough and he will be just fine as he relies upon his own resources to make sense of his new reality and opportunity.