She was on sale for $180. She was a red-bellied parrot worth $600 at a time when I had set my sights on breeding poicephalus parrots, Senegals, red-bellieds and maybe, just maybe, a pair of Rüppell’s if I made enough money.
The female red-bellieds are plain parrots, grey and petite with a shock of teal. The males have the bright red bellies of their name. Her brother had been purchased, but she had lived in the pet shop for a year and the new owners wanted to off load her. No one wanted to buy her. I bought her because she was a good deal.
She lived in my home with the “chosen” parrots, the grey and the Senegal who were my companions. She came with her name, “Bali” a shorthand for “Red-bellied” which became “Bellied” and then “Bali”. I kept her name, too lazy to give her another. While Ty, the grey was the commentator and Loki, the Senegal was the trouble-maker, Bali was the quiet one. She was the sweetest of the three, she was the bird that would let anyone pick her up and then say “hi” to new friends in her civil and chirpy pet shop voice. She was the one you loved quietly and without a fuss.
My grandparents raised me and it was my grandfather who nurtured my love of birds. I came home from UC Davis and finished my last year at UC Riverside in 1992. I had meant to come home to be with my grandmother, to keep vigil, but I wasn’t home soon enough and she passed away before I could get there. I was only 21 and had no idea how to consume this loss, make it my legacy. I pretended she was just away for a while.
I think my grandfather did too and in the meantime we talked birds. I bought my first parrot, a Senegal and then a six-week old grey in 1994. I found Bali that same year. I was smitten and I began to look for pairs to breed. I wanted a world full of parrots and I wanted to share it. Living in an apartment, breeding parrots wasn’t ideal, so I set the pairs up at my grandfather’s house. He built me cages in his workshop from the diagrams I gave him and I came to feed them every day. I visited with my wild-caught and taciturn parrots and my grandfather and I kept talking birds.
I bought a boot-shaped nest box from Magnolia Bird Farm for my first pair of Senegals. My grandfather scoffed at the price and its construction. He could build something better. My grandfather, my dad and I suffered (and still suffer) from the same malady. With a little bit of knowledge, we are shortly convinced that we have a better design for everything. So my grandfather built me a nest box that a month later split at its seams and my first pair of parrots escaped.
I was furious at first, but it became a joke between us. It had been me, after all, who had opened the cage door for a favorite parakeet sunning on the back porch. I was six years-old and uncertain why it was wrong for me to set him free and then expect him to come back. My grandfather had clenched his jaw and then laughed.
My grandfather promised to build me a better nest box for when I bought a male for my red-bellied parrot. And he would have, but a year later he was too ill to build nest boxes with his frail hands and then he too passed away.
I got up every morning, gave Bali fresh water and food, changed her papers, scratched her head and thanked her for never biting, never seeking the destruction beloved of all parrots and for being the good bird. She and the other two parrots came with me to Florida to train birds at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and back to California. She met more people and shared more spaces than most humans I know. And she was a constant for seventeen years, perky and dependable until two days ago when I got up and saw she was ill.
I know birds in a way I sometimes cannot explain anymore. I could see she was dying and that she wanted nothing more than to be comfortable. So I carefully set her up to doze and dream of old friends and the places we had been. My mom found me crying in the kitchen, tipped her head in a way that said she loved me and then turned away, trusting my instincts and my grief. She didn’t ask any questions and make suggestions. My mother just followed my lead and kept vigil with me for the next 12 hours.
My grandfather was in the hospital the last morning I saw him. We talked about the canary I had bought him, a canary guaranteed to sing. He had told me stories about the canary he had as a child and how his mother let it bath in lettuce leaves and how much she loved to hear him sing while she prepared the family dinner.
So I bought him a canary just like the one he remembered, but I had to return it when my grandfather insisted that it refused to sing. The next canary was just as stubborn. At least, this is what my grandfather told me the day I heard the bird trilling in the living room. It whistled a sweet buoyant song in an octave too high for my grandfather to hear.
“I’m not taking this one back. Turn up your hearing aid,” I said. He clenched his jaw and then he laughed.
“Don’t give up your birds,” he told me that final morning and it was one of the last things he said. He passed away the next day.
At 3AM I wrapped Bali in a favorite t-shirt, soft and worn and as familiar as the least-favorite parrot. I worried that I wouldn’t cry, that somehow I wouldn’t mourn her enough, that I hadn’t given her enough and wouldn’t in the end either. Yet, I’ve barely stopped crying for two days.
It turns out she wasn’t the least-favorite parrot. Turns out she was the most important parrot; she was the glue, the memory keeper, the temperance of the triad.
There were always three parrots and I understand now that there always will be.