My bird tried to fly away last week.
JJ lives inside a cage inside a house, and I feel bad for him and his wings because it must get a bit cramped behind the iron bars. So I often stand at the screen door with him on my shoulder, and we look outside and listen to the wild birds. My bird starts to chirp. Shyly. Quietly. He doesn’t know how to talk to robins and sparrows.
“Pretty bird,” he says.
He picked up foreign languages when he was younger. He says “pretty bird” on repeat, manages a messy “how are you?”, and can imitate a crying dog and her squeaker toy. When he’s frustrated and feeling ignored, he’ll scream. The scream sounds eerily like my name.
JJ taught me that Pavlov’s classical conditioning works on birds almost as well as on dogs: without giving much thought to it, I said “Hi JJ” whenever I walked into the room, and then one day I walked into the house, and he looked at me and said: “Hi JJ.”
If I let him outside in West Michigan, everyone assumes he’d die when he couldn’t find his innate bird sense or strength to fly somewhere warm. But that’s not true. It’s summer. He’d meet his end long before temperatures and leaves started to fall. He’d walk up to a dog or a cat or a hawk, say “Hi JJ!”, and that’d be the end.
Anatomically, JJ is Nymphicus hollandiscus, a cockatiel; psychologically, I’m not so sure. He believes dogs are his soulmates, inanimate objects are his best friends, and me? Well, we grew up together. I stuck my fifth-grade hand in the cockatiel cage at VI Pets, and he was the only cockatiel that didn’t run away. He stood his ground and hissed at me, which is something I wasn’t aware birds could do. My mom went and got the salesperson, and she looked at the bird I was pointing to: where I saw a silver-feathered bird with a sunflower yellow face and white-tipped wings, she saw a blackened-eyed, beaked monster. “Are you sure you want that one?” she asked. I paid for him in all ones. I still have the receipt.
Death Cab For Cutie has a song called “Talking Bird”, and it’s one of those songs I listen to and feel a wrench in my gut because I’m sure it’s not about a bird:
And you’re kept in an open cage
So you’re free to leave or stay.
Sometimes you get confused
Like there’s a hint I’m trying to give you.
The longer you think, the less you know what to do.
It’s hard to see your way out
When you live in a house in a house
Cause you don’t realize
That the windows were open the whole time
When I stood by the screen door with my bird last week, and he tried to fly away when he felt the breeze and heard the robins and sparrows calling to one another, he hit the screen. And then he flew around in panic and hit the blinds. And then he flew around in panic some more and barely made the landing on his cage.
So after I set him and his pounding little heart back in his cage, I tried to explain to him that I was sorry. For so many things. I was sorry that my fifth-grade self didn’t know what she was doing when she wanted a pet bird. And that even though he watches me walk out that door every day, I kind of understand how he’s feeling. That sometimes I feel as though I’m in a cage in which I do not belong. That sometimes I feel as though circumstances have made me into some weird hybrid of a character I can’t quite figure out.
I tell him I feel how he looks when I first take him out of his cage—when he leans forward and lifts his wings, preparing to take off. Because his wings have been glued to his back all day, and he’s restless. And a talking bird is not who he really is. And he’s so ready to go.
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.