Like a bird on a wire: Sharing a wild creature’s tragedy

We were walking down the alley Sunday evening when my companion looked up at the electrical wires running between the utility poles.

“What’s that?” he said, nodding his head at something stuck on the wires.

What looked like a piece of unidentifiable debris turned out to be, on closer inspection, a dead parrot. We later found out that the poor bird had bitten through the insulation covering a wire and died of electrocution.

My friend isn’t hyperactive in animal advocacy and rescue like just about everyone else I know here, but he’s at least as softhearted. “It has to be a parrot—this is awful,” he moaned.

Of course, it would’ve been sad if it had been a crow, or a starling, or a chickadee. Any encounter that an animal, wild or domestic, has with the practical applications of technology is tragic. But this was a Southern California wild conure— intelligent, playful, impish and iconic. We’re familiar with their domesticated cousins who live among us as companion animals. They’ve been talked about and squawked over and written about extensively—the Long Beach Post’s Kelly Puente wrote about Belmont Shore’s “love/hate relationship” with them when she was a reporter at another publication. Their genesis as wild animals is wrapped in urban legend—a truckload of them escaped when the vehicle went off the road, a bunch of them escaped a house fire, their owners released them into the wild so that they could escape a brushfire. Peacock sightings, like Elvis sightings, may spark interest, but these noisy little flockers are our parrots.

“They’re a bunch of little rebels who know they’re not supposed to be here, but they come anyway,” my friend Sharon said.

We’ve had a couple of them in our attic, whom we named Chuck Conure and Hilda Greenfeather-Conure. We thought the whole thing was cute until one of them chewed through a telephone wire. We had to wait until their hatchlings were of age and had flown the coop before we disinfected the space and boarded up the windows. They came cussing and yelling at us the next day.

Seeing one of these upstarts hanging lifeless on the wire—for all we knew, it was one of our erstwhile tenants—saddened our hearts. That was nothing compared to the next morning, though, when we were walking back from breakfast and saw the widow or widower pacing back and forth on the wire next to the deceased mate, seemingly trying to make sense of the whole thing. We knew the feeling. I never wanted to use the word poignant in any way in anything I wrote, but there’s no other feeling to describe it.

My friend moaned again, which brought out a neighbor. “He’s been doing that all morning,” he said of the surviving parrot.

We worried about the mate, but we discovered that, like some humans, they mourn for a while, and then they pair off with another bird.

“One to two breeding cycles later, the biological urge makes them, for lack of a better term, shack up again,” said Sarah Mansfield, operations manager for SoCal Parrots, a wild-parrot conservation group.

Dennis Anderson, a fixture in Belmont Shore with a parrot on his bare shoulder and a huge Newfoundland at his side, said that he’d rescued a surviving parrot when his mate died. The parrot fell madly in love with Anderson’s cockatiel and would sleep with her wrapped in his wing.

We wanted to ease the mate’s confusion and maybe get the grief process going. (For anyone who pish-poshes at that, I’m not whimsically transferring human feelings—many of us know that animals do grieve.) When we got home, we called Southern California Edison. The worker who brought the dead bird down from the wire didn’t look all business about it, either. It wasn’t his first retrieval of a dead animal, but he was visibly saddened.

“This sucks,” he said. I asked if I could quote him.

“Yes,” he said. “Because it does suck.”

Lone green parrot on a wire, against a blue sky

And this morning…

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Kate Karp is the Pets Columnist for the Long Beach Post covering the world of animal activism, pet adoptions and lots of cute cats. She’s called Long Beach home since 1994 and has written for the Post for about 10 years. Kate’s day job is as a copyeditor, which she discovered a love for during her 30-year tenure as a teacher. She describes the job as “like taking the rough edges off a beautiful sculpture.”
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