Friday, March 27, 2015


"I always wanted a pair of finches," my dad told me on the long drive home from the pet store in the city. Two tiny tiger finches were in a little cardboard box; they were going to be my "Small Pets" 4-H project for the year. A drab light-brown female, and a dusky gray male with burnished copper cheeks, white breast, and a strip of copper speckles dividing his white front from gray back. Both finches had pumpkin-orange beaks and feet. Neither of them ever had names.

They were tiny bundles of energy, hopping ceaselessly back and forth from one perch to the other. They only stopped their nasal finch-beep calls when they were dozing, and the male would lustily sing his shrill melody as often as he could. Their cage sat on top of the record player, just to the left of the TV. Whenever they heard a tiger roar on the TV, they would both raise their voices in alarm, warning everyone who cared to listen of the nearby danger.

In the evening they would lean against each other, grooming themselves and taking turns preening each other's faces. At night they roosted snuggled side by side, their tiny beaks silent and tucked behind their wings. I covered their cage with a lightweight cotton baby blanket adorned with images of zoo animals. They would stay quiet until the blanket was removed in the morning, and daylight refilled them with energy and song.

One evening in their first year, the male escaped the cage and flapped terrified around the house, descending the staircase and losing his way completely until he came to a frightened perch in the pitch dark family room. I found him tucked in a bookshelf, his little talons clinging to the books. The first thing that became apparent was that he was all but blind in the dark, which made him easy enough to catch. His tiny body felt massless in my fist, and his little heart thumped furiously against my fingers until I deposited him back into the cage.

They began in a smallish cage, but soon inherited a two-storey rig cobbled together from smaller cages, with multiple entries and nooks. In one of the doors I attached an enclosed addon bath that they used to enthusiastically splash the entire vicinity, until I filled it with shredded kleenex for them to use as a nest instead.

They tried diligently to raise a nest of eggs, but the chicks would inevitably die days after hatching and be unceremoniously pushed onto the cage floor. The female was always sickly, and died at age two. She sat on the floor of the cage for the final day or two; one morning I found her lying on her back with her little orange feet gently curled toward the sky, while her partner sat quietly on the highest perch possible.

One day I forgot to close the cage door after refilling his food dish, and noticed with some alarm that he was perched on the open door looking out at the room for a long time. Eventually he turned and hopped back inside, and I quickly latched the door behind him.

But before long we began to keep the door open for him to come and go as he pleased. Most of the time he sat in the plant stand in front of the large living room window, peering out at the trees and wildlife and picking at the houseplant leaves. Once in a while he would stretch his wings and fly a lap around the wall segment dividing the living room from the kitchen/dining room before returning to his perch and singing at the world outside the window. When he was hungry, thirsty, or night was falling, he would return to his cage. After he had settled into his nest for the night, I would close the door and cover the cage with his animal print blanket. He had learned from his first frightening brush with freedom, and kept to the open upstairs rooms in his vicinity, scrutinizing his surroundings before embarking on any flight path.

The summer he was four was the summer my parents' new house was being completed across the yard. My eldest brother and his young family had moved in with us in the house my siblings and I were raised in. I was finishing up grade 11, and would move with my parents to the new house for my final year of high school while my brother's family assumed the old house. My brother would farm in partnership with my dad, while my sister-in-law—who had previously run a daycare—began to provide childcare on the farm for a handful of children.

On fine days we hung the finch cage on the deck near the goldfinch feeder, so he could feel the breeze and talk to his wild comrades. Given his free reign of the house, it was probably inevitable that one time he would find himself out on the deck with his cage door inadvertently open. I came home from school one day to learn that dad had put the finch's cage outside to distance him from the exuberant children that were there that day, not realizing that the cage door was open.

A tiny exotic bird did not stand a chance in the enormous expanse of lawns, gardens, orchard, shelterbelts, dugout, and buildings that formed our yard. Any number of bird or mammalian predators would find him; he would become hopelessly lost in the enormity of the outside world; he would freeze overnight or in the cold prairie rain. Most of all he would be frightened and alone, and in any case he would never be back.

Nevertheless, I traipsed helplessly around the yard as far as the orchard, carrying the cage on the slimmest of hopes that maybe he had had enough exploring and was ready for some familiarity. After my fruitless search, I hung the cage back on the deck and ignored my family's assurances that they'd buy me a replacement bird. I don't want a replacement. I want my little buddy.

In the morning, I walked into the dining room and sighed as I looked out at the forlorn cage on the deck. Then I blinked. My finch was inside, gustily pecking at his food dish. I slid out into the deck and closed the cage door in disbelief, then brought him inside to his spot on the record player by the TV.

The little finch made the move across the yard with us to the new house once it was ready for habitation. But he was five years old now—the lower end of his species' life expectancy—and gray feathers pocked his copper cheeks. Over the year he increasingly slowed down, until one winter morning his little feet reached up to the sky like his partner's had years before.

His body was even lighter in my hand than I remembered, as I carried him out to a bank overlooking the tiny lake and island my dad had painstakingly built. I dug through the snow and into the cold ground beneath, and placed my little wrapped bundle in a shallow hole beneath a willow. I covered it back up and placed a stone on top. Goodbye, little friend.

1 comment:

  1. Aww! What nice little birds. Heepy and Cheepy. I'm glad your little buddy came back. ^.^