Friday, April 20, 2018

Buddy: the specialist bird

Buddy & me, August 2017
I usually don’t post personal stuff here, but my dear friend Buddy recently passed away on March 6, 2018. If you’ve enjoyed anything I've written over the past thirteen-plus years, Buddy was most likely perched on my shoulder for some or all of the time that I wrote it. This post commemorates her life and our time together...

The last time I wrote a post like this was way back in August 2005, when my Jenday conure Coby unexpectedly passed away—you can read all about her story via that link. I had never been so close to an animal companion before. Her passing devastated me.

My partner at the time suggested that we honor Coby (who was a rescue bird with a difficult past) by adopting another bird with a similar backstory. Along those lines, she mentioned a parrot that was up for adoption at the bird store she was working at. That bird’s name was Buddy.

Buddy perched on a laptop
circa 2007
From what we were told, Buddy was found along the side of a road by some family. She’s a Nanday conure, which are related to Jendays and not indigenous to North America. The family must have realized this, because they rescued her. Buddy’s backstory prior to that remains a complete mystery—all we know is that she was already about 10–15 years old (based on our vet’s estimate) when she came into our lives, and that she was a feather-picker (although for some reason, she never picked her upper torso, leaving her with a distinctive “crop top” of feathers). Presumably, she either escaped or was released by her previous people. Given Buddy’s nature (she loved company and was not especially adventurous), the latter seems far more likely. Sadly, it’s not all that uncommon for people to release parrots into the wild if they get tired of them—this is generally a death sentence for the bird, as parrots are flock animals and easy prey if left by themselves in the wild.

But thankfully, this family took Buddy in. Apparently, one of the kids named her Buddy, and they took care of her for a few months before dropping her off at the bird store for someone else to hopefully adopt.

one of the first ever pictures
of Buddy and me together
On August 28, 2005, we went to the store so that I could meet Buddy. I’ll never forget that day. She stepped right up onto my finger. I put her on my shoulder, and walked around the store, all the while sobbing. I kept telling myself that Coby could never be replaced (which was true). But Buddy was so sweet, and adopting another bird with a history similar to Coby’s made a lot of sense. So we ended up taking her home with us.

Buddy spent her first few days with us in the back of our apartment before introducing her to our other birds (who lived out front). I was in the early stages of writing Whipping Girl at the time, so I would get up super-early each day to write before going into my day job. I remember opening up Buddy’s cage and inviting her to join me. Many parrots are (understandably) hesitant or scared upon suddenly being moved to a new home. But Buddy was so easy-going and friendly right from the start. And that’s when our long friendship together began, during those early morning writing sessions.

Buddy fiddling with my (then)
new glasses, 2008
Buddy was the absolute sweetest entity that I have ever known in all my years. I’ve had lots of amazing animal companions and people in my life, so I do not make such a claim lightly. All she wanted was to be on my (or someone else’s) shoulder, preen their skin (especially my freckles), and perhaps pick at their teeth (my current partner jokingly referred to her as “dentist bird”). While she was content hanging out on my shoulder during the day as I worked on the computer, she would become excited in the evening when I made my way to the couch to relax, because she knew extra attention, scritches, and petting were in store. If we had guests over, Buddy would usually be the first of my birds to try to make friends with them. As her visits to our vet became more frequent in her later years, everyone who worked there came to love her because of how outgoing and friendly she was. It was simply a treat to be in her presence.

My time with Coby was relatively brief: only a little bit over a year, although it seemed like much longer. But Buddy was a fixture in my life for over thirteen-and-a-half years, until she passed last month. I couldn’t possibly sum up her entire life here. But what follows is a collection of random memories and pertinent moments that are important to me, and that I wish to chronicle here.

Muttonchop (left) & Buddy, early 2006
Buddy tended to favor human companions to bird companions. But the one exception was our cockatiel Muttonchop. The two of them used to hang out all the time in Buddy’s cage—we called it the “dorm room” because of the way they would casually “chill out” together there. (Sadly, Muttonchop would pass away about a year later). In the photo, Buddy is grasping her “Buddy ball”—she particularly liked the white one, and she would often whisper while holding it, as if she were telling it secrets.

Nanday’s have very croaky voices, so Buddy didn’t really speak human words all that much, other than the occasional “step up,” “thank you,” and mimicking human laughter (especially while we were watching the old Jon Stewart Daily Show episodes, where she would often laugh right on cue, as if she got the joke).

Macbeth (left), me & Buddy, 2009
Despite her lack of vocal acumen, Buddy was super-smart. Her sister Macbeth (another rescue bird) often yells for no apparent reason, and when she does, I often make the “Ssssshhhh” sound, which Buddy began imitating (although when she did it, it sounded more like radio static). Sometimes I’d put all the birds in their cages and retreat to the bedroom; they’d eventually forget I was even in the apartment. And I would overhear Macbeth begin her usual yelling routine, and sometimes Buddy would intervene (without any prompting from me) by making her radio-static “Ssssshhhh” sound, as if to tell Macbeth to shut up. It was hilarious! Until one day—a rare occasion when Buddy was upset and started to make the standard conure “CAW CAW CAW!” alarm-sound—I told Buddy to be quiet, and she responded with her radio-static “Ssssshhhh,” as if to tell me to shut up!

Like I said, Buddy very rarely yelled because she was upset. If she was annoyed by what I was doing, she’d sometimes make a particular croak-like sound to let me know (and if I persisted, she’d lightly bite my ear). But usually when she screamed, it was because she was happy. Sometimes, when she was especially ecstatic, she would make a distinctive “Whoop!” “Whoop!” sound, often punctuating it with a jubilant “Rip-Wee-Guk!” at the end. Often, she did an indescribable neck dance while making her "Whoop!" sounds, as shown in the video below.

Over time, her sisters Tengu and Tallulah (who, as caiques, are amazing vocal imitators) picked up on Buddy’s “Whoop! Whoop! Rip-Wee-Guk!” and began using it to express joy and excitement themselves.

Buddy & Tengu (on head) shortly
after my skin cancer surgery
I mentioned earlier that Buddy would often preen the freckles on my shoulders and face. Well, during the summer of 2006, she became obsessed with what I thought was just a pimple on my cheek. I assumed it would go away, but Buddy kept dwelling on it. It turns out that it was skin cancer that she had brought to my attention (a story I’ve told elsewhere). I would sometimes tell Buddy that she saved my life, although it wasn’t literally true (as the tumor wasn’t malignant). But she probably saved me from losing even more of my face than I did.

In July 2012, Buddy’s left foot—which for her (as with most parrots) was her dominant foot that she used for eating—suddenly stopped working. I remember coming home from work one day and finding her stumbling on the bottom of her cage, apparently unable to climb her way back up. Yet she made all her usual happy sounds to greet me. While I was panicking that evening, she spent the night figuring out alternative ways to get around and eat her pellets. When I took her to the vet, they couldn’t explain it at first—they thought maybe she had had a stroke. But over the years, as her use of that leg slowly deteriorated further, one of the doctors brought up the possibility that it could be due to a kidney problem, as parrots’ sciatic nerves (which control the leg) actually run through the kidney. They did x-rays and ultrasounds, but could not find any evidence of kidney damage. (Although, as will soon become clear, this was most likely the cause.)

Buddy & me working from home
in 2016
Later in 2012, upon being laid off from my day job, I became a writer and speaker full-time. This meant working from home (with occasional out of town speaking/performing trips), so Buddy and I got to spend even more time together—up to sixteen hours or more on some days. While she always enjoyed perching on me, she became a bit more reliant on me due to her inability to get around as well as she used to, plus also because her sisters (i.e., my other birds) started to pick on her more because they sensed her vulnerability (not just because of her leg; she was also getting up there in years). Since Buddy and I were practically connected at the shoulder, she would give me all these little signals to let me know when she wanted to step down for some food and water, when she needed to poop, when she wanted scritches, and so on. And she could tell when I was happy, or frustrated, or sad, and so on, and she’d often offer me extra attention or affection accordingly. We became even more intimately connected to one another from then on forward.

the day of Buddy's surgery -
a double rainbow at UC Riverside
In early 2016, Buddy developed another health problem, this time with her cloaca. The doctor thought it might be due to cancer and wanted to do a biopsy, which would involve putting her under. Birds are very sensitive to anesthesia, and sometimes never wake up from surgery, so I was scared. I was about to go on tour with Sister Spit, so we scheduled the procedure to take place while I was away, and while Buddy was being boarded at the vet. The day of her surgery, we (Sister Spit) were at UC Riverside, and it was pouring rain outside as I awaited their call. Upon receiving it, I was relieved to hear that Buddy survived the procedure and was doing well—immediately after that call, I went outside and saw this double rainbow, which took to be a positive omen. It turned out that it wasn’t cancer after all, and over the next few months we figured out how to resolve her cloaca problem.

these are not the medications
you are looking for...
From then on, Buddy was on a number of medications, which she hated, especially because I would have to towel her first. But she eventually got used to it—it became a part of our daily routine, plus she was always happy to get a walnut (her favorite food) when the ordeal was over. Given her medications and increasing health conditions, whenever I would go out of town for more than a day, I would drop her off at the vet for boarding plus observation. I don’t own a car, so during this hectic time period, several friends lent me theirs—Buddy and I could not thank them enough for their generosity!

I had two out of town trips during the summer of 2017. During the first one in June, the vet discovered that Buddy had a heart murmur. It was a new development, so they wanted to do x-rays and possibly other tests on her the following month while she would be boarding there during my second trip. It was then (on August 5th, specifically) that I got the news that they found a large mass in her abdomen that was not there during her previous x-rays in 2015. Given its location, and the fact that her uric acid levels were higher than normal, they feared it was her kidney.

at the vet, anxiously awaiting
Buddy's test results...
They wanted to do exploratory surgery to see what was actually going on inside her; we scheduled that for August 14th. The photo to the right is of me and Buddy at the vet the Friday beforehand (the 11th), as we waited for the results of her uric acid levels. If they were too high, she’d have to spend the weekend there, receiving fluids pre-surgery. Thankfully, her levels were low enough that she was able to spend the weekend at home. That week, I gave her all her favorite foods, we did all her favorite things, and I took lots of pictures and videos of us while we hung out (including the photo below of Buddy eating corn on the cob, and the numerous videos at the end of this post). I was worried that it might be our last few days together.

The following Monday, I was (once again) grateful to learn Buddy survived the surgery. The vet informed me that the mass was indeed kidney tissue—it was not malignant, but it was inoperable, as removing it would kill her. But they did manage to drain lots of fluid from cysts on the kidney mass, which considerably reduced its size. But unfortunately, that was all they could do.

Buddy loved eating
corn off the cob
The game plan moving forward was to do regular checks on her uric acid levels, and keep an eye on the size of the mass via ultrasound. We did that over the subsequent months, and each time the results came back promising. We knew the mass would likely eventually take her life, but for the time being she was relatively healthy and happy. I tried my best not to take any moment we shared for granted during the interim.

In early March, I had my first out of town speaking event of 2018. It was near Columbus, Ohio, so I got the chance to stay with my previous partner (with whom I originally adopted Buddy) and her current family, including Tengu and Tallulah—the two caiques who still make Buddy’s “Whoop! Whoop! Rip-Wee-Guk!” happy noises from time to time.

Anyway, I dropped Buddy off at the vet on March 5th, much like I had done numerous times before over the previous two years. On the ride there, Buddy was nonchalant, preening herself in her carrier as I drove—going to the vet was old hat to her by this point. My vet planned to run the usual tests while she stayed with them. That night, I got a call from them: Buddy’s uric acid levels were higher than they should be. Not alarmingly high, but enough so that they planned to give her fluids the following day. I was concerned, of course, but they said she was otherwise fine, so I tried to put it out of my mind.

Tengu & Tallulah, with whom Buddy's
“Whoop! Whoop! Rip-Wee-Guk!”
happy noises live on...
The next day, I flew out to Columbus. That evening, I was having dinner with my previous partner and her family, and just as I was asked how Buddy was doing, my phone rang. It was the vet. I answered, expecting the usual “Buddy is doing well, just wanted to give you an update” call. But it wasn’t the usual update—they were calling to inform me that Buddy unexpectedly passed away. She was fine the previous morning when I dropped her off, and fine all day at the vet, when she suddenly collapsed. They tried to resuscitate her, but she didn’t respond.

It felt like all the blood immediately drained from my body upon hearing the news. I was in complete shock. I understood the information I had just taken in, but it all felt like a dream. The idea of being without Buddy was simply unfathomable, even though I had been preparing for this eventuality over the last few years. I shared the sad news. I couldn’t cry at first, but eventually the tears came. We spent the night telling Buddy stories, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying. Normally, when I go on out-of-town speaking trips, I spend the night alone in a hotel room—I couldn’t imagine receiving such devastating news under those circumstances. So it was reassuring and cathartic (not to mention an unbelievable coincidence) that I spent that sad night with close friends who had lived with Buddy and knew her as well as anyone.

Buddy napping on my leg, March 2017
I would later learn that the cause of death was apparently a heart embolism—so Buddy passed quickly and without much pain. The post-mortem also revealed that her kidney mass had grown significantly larger since her previous surgery six months earlier. Given the circumstances, it was probably for the best that she passed the way she did, without her having to endure too much pain, and without me having to make the gut-wrenching decision to finally put her down. Nevertheless, it still hurts that I never got to say a final good-bye to her.

But we loved one another. And I gave her the best life that I possibly could. I’m pretty sure she already understood that.

When I got back from my Ohio trip, I wanted to sit down and write this retrospective then, much like I wrote my tribute to Coby just after her passing. But I couldn’t. The grief was just way too intense. I spent much of the last month just trying to get through each day, plus taking care of previous commitments and other out-of-town speaking engagements. My entire life had been structured around Buddy, and I'm only now starting to get used to living without her.

I didn't know it at the time, but
this would be the last picture I ever
took of Buddy, February 2018
I am doing a bit better this month, but it still hurts to think about Buddy: to think about all of the small things that I miss about her, and will never experience again.

I used to sing a song to Buddy in the shower and when we would cuddle. It was a cute little improvised song she seemed to enjoy. The lyrics have taken on new meanings to me since her passing:

I’m in love with Buddy bird
She’s an angel haven’t you heard
And I love Buddy all the way
Because she’s so fey
And she makes me gay

Here's me singing that song to Buddy in August 2017 - one of the numerous videos I took of her just before her surgery:

Here's another song I used to sing to her: "I love the Buddy, the special little Buddy, a b-b-b-b-b-b-Buddy...". I choke up at the end this time...

Like I said, I recorded a whole bunch of videos of Buddy, often doing mundane things, right before her August surgery. Here she is taking a bath:

Buddy always hated when I did this...

But she loved chasing the cursor on my computer!

every morning, Buddy (& the other birds) would get a few sunflower seeds as a morning treat...

while I was working, Buddy would take little snack breaks. She enjoyed dipping her bird pellets in the water (to soften them up) before eating them...

And Buddy loved dinner time, especially when it was pasta!

after a good meal, Buddy liked to fly over to the couch (where the people were). Here she is, on top of the couch, preening her feathers...

Finally, here's Buddy on my lap, with some singing, scritches, and petting. I love my Buddy and miss her oh so much...

That's it for now. I may add a few more videos of Buddy in the coming days...

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