Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Tale of the Hawk and the Sun Conure

I've wanted birds since I was a little kid.  "A Bird" was the top-requested item on every Christmas list I'd ever made from the inception of my writing ability to the end of my high school career.  I don't know what it was about birds that fascinated me so much.   They're awesome and everything, don't get me wrong.  There are very few animals I DON'T find awesome and wonderful*.  But we've all got our favorite species of animals, right?  I remember clearly the overwhelming feeling of awe when I saw my first dolphin show in Chicago at the Shedd Aquarium.   I remember thinking, "I want to know everything there is to know about these animals" (but I actually said, "DOLPHINNNNSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!").  

My first actual training job was with birds!

I had the same feeling when I saw a red-tailed hawk up close for the first time.  My fifth grade class took a field trip to a local nature center located on a forest preserve.  They had a few native Illinois animals who were unreleasable due to a variety of human-caused injuries.   The ranger who showed our class around spent a lot of time telling us about the red-tailed hawk, but I can't remember why she was there because I completely spaced out when I saw her amazing eyes.  That and she kept looking up at another red-tailed hawk who was flying high above her.  I wondered what she was thinking, and had the same "I need to know everything there is to know about birds" feeling.  

Little did I know that the type of bird that sparked my new interest would be the cause of one of the scariest days of my life.

My fifth grade teacher Mrs. Harris snapped me out of my daze and said, "Wow, Cat!  Maybe dolphins aren't your favorite after all!"

Well, I don't see why I need to have just one family of animals as my favorite.  I can have as many favorites as I like.  For example, I like all the donuts except the ones with stuff inside.  I've liked every type of macaroni and cheese I've ever eaten.  My favorite people are, well, people.  Not just one person.  


While I wound up working with dolphins, I still cultivated my interest in birds.  As soon as I got my first paid job in Miami, I adopted two adorable little budgies I named Coconut and Mango.   They weren't hand-reared but they eventually didn't have a heart attack when I changed their food and water every morning.  

Coconut (C-Nut, for short) hanging out in a Christmas tree.

My love of birds was common knowledge among my coworkers, and this led to another bird adoption.  A colleague could no longer care for her sun conure, and so I wound up with her.

 Are bird ladies weirder than cat ladies?

The story of Cher and me is by itself another Middle Flipper entry or two.  So let's just say after a rough start, Cher the sun conure and I became good buddies.

Behold: The Cher

I moved to Northeastern Florida not long after that.  I lived in an apartment complex that was one of those sprawling, town-housey type places.  My one-bedroom apartment sat feet away from a retention pond that was home to some wading birds, some turtles, and a couple of little alligators.   

And because I was (and still am) a poor dolphin trainer, I didn't have a washer or dryer.  This required me to walk about 30 feet to the clubhouse to use their laundry room.  

The scene of the crime.  Cher and I lived on the apartment on the far bottom right.

Cher and I did not like to be separated from one another, so I kept her with me all the time.  She'd hang out in my shirt, using it like a little hidey-hole the way conures do.   When I left to do laundry, she'd scream and scream and scream when I left her in the apartment, so I started teaching her that if she was calm and quiet when it was obvious I was leaving, I'd take her with me.

Cher spent our fifteen second walk in my shirt, in a harness, or in both of my hands depending on the situation.  For the same reason she seemed to like being in my shirt, she appeared comfortable when I'd hold her like a potato with both of my hands, her head the only part of her body sticking out.  She never struggled, and sometimes she'd solicit this method of handling. 

This is NOT how I potato-held Cher.

She wasn't flighted, either, so I wasn't worried about her getting away.  My biggest fear was her tumbling into the pond and ending up in the gut of one of the alligators, so I held onto her very securely.

Alas, the harness was ripped to shreds by Cher one day broke.  I potato-grabbed Cher and walked outside.  Immediately, she went on alert.  I looked around, expecting to see some turkey vultures flying overhead which always set off Cher's alarm bells.  There were a few, but as I scanned the horizon I identified the source of her fear:  a Cooper's hawk, sitting about 500 feet away on the tennis court chain link fence.

The foe!

I brought Cher in close to my chest and actually said, "Don't worry Cher-Bear, that hawk can't get you."

I started walking towards the clubhouse.  I don't know what went through Cher's tiny brain then, but it was probably something like,


She used that magnificently horrifying sun conure beak to crush the most perfect location on one of my finger joints.   Within three-tenths of a second, Cher mauled my finger enough to free herself from my grasp and was flying away from me…..towards the pond.

My blood ran cold (and also, down my mangled hand) as I watched the little orange bird beat her wings at a rate that would put a hummingbird to shame towards what I knew would be her watery grave.  I ran after her, wondering what I was actually going to do if she went into the retention pond.  Would I go in after her?  Would I get stuck in the silt at the bottom and drown like so many others?  Would an alligator eat her?  Would we both die and I'd have to spend an eternity in the afterlife together apologizing to Cher for being so stupid? 

Our hero, in deep trouble!

Cher had enough of her flight feathers to maintain a long glide, but no lift.  She hovered above the water like a pelican riding the surf.  I ran and hyperventilated.  She was halfway across the pond and still going strong.  I ran and hyperventilated.  Now she was three-quarters of the way across.  I felt a small glimmer of hope in between the running and they hyperventilating.  Oh my god, she's going to make it across!!!!!!

And then, as Cher closed in on her landing space on the bank of the pond, I saw a brown blur race across the water.  

The Cooper's hawk.

 I thought.  Amid the black, grey, and brown songbirds of Florida, Cher was  the brightest-colored bird this Cooper's hawk probably ever saw in his or her life.  I imagine the Cooper's hawk had the following thought:

"Just sitting here on the tennis courts.  La la la la la.  Maybe I'll eat a mouse, or a rat, or maybe a - WTF IS THAT DELICIOUS ORANGE THING FLYING OVER THERE?"

The Cooper's hawk couldn't believe his good fortune.  "I can't lose with this one," the hawk probably thought.

I screamed as I ran, hoping perhaps to startle the hawk away from Cher.  Of course, the hawk was probably so focused on how ridiculously incredible this opportunity was that he'd have never left his prize.  

"That's it," I thought.  "Cher's dead.  I'm going to watch her get taken away by this hawk.  I'm so stupid.  How could I be so stupid?! I'LL NEVER FORGIVE MYSELF!"

I heard Cher's last scream, and I knew it was over in that instant.  I stopped running and collapsed onto the grass.  I wanted to look away, but I couldn't.  

Poor Cher!

Suddenly, the hawk rolled backwards, flapping its wings in a panic.  He scrambled and righted himself, and shot up to the nearest apartment roof.   I looked back at Cher, who waddled as fast as her little parrot legs could take her into the decorative shrubbery around the base of the building the hawk was now on.

I ran again, wondering how badly injured Cher was; there was no way she came out of that tangle unscathed.  

Cher sat underneath a bush, puffed up and heaving.  She made a little growling sound when she saw me, but I couldn't see any injuries.  She bit the %*#% out of my finger when I went to pick her up (the punishment I deserved in that moment) and then allowed me to pick her up and put her into my shirt, where I secured her with both of my hands so even if she did try to break my finger again, she'd at least be in my shirt and couldn't escape.

Poor, scared Cher.

I peered up at the roof.  The Cooper's hawk looked down at me, cocking his head. 

"What the HELL was that thing?" he seemed to ask.

I rushed Cher back to the house, where I inspected every part of her.  I was terrified.  Even one tiny scratch from a hawk's talon could cause massive infection.  But she was completely untouched.    I called the my bird vet (the closest one was 90 minutes away), and they told me if she didn't have any marks on her, she was going to be fine and I should just keep her quiet.  I quadruple checked through all of her feathers, nooks and crannies.  Nothing.  The hawk had left not a mark on her.

How was that possible?

I thought back to the incident.  And this is what I believe happened:  Just as the Cooper's hawk descended onto my poor sun conure, wondering how he could've deserved a meal so easy, Cher did what she did best.  She probably bit some part of the hawk's body as hard as she could (and from personal experience, probably multiple times in rapid-fire succession).   While I can't know for sure if the Cooper's hawk had ever encountered a parrot in his predatory life, I like to think that he had zero experience with a bird with a bite pressure like a sun conure, and he probably did not take a lot of precaution in his final takedown.   Hence, the scramble ensued and Cher scared a terrifying predator away from her and saved her own life.

I fought a hawk off with my bare hands.

I look back on this story with nothing but regret and embarrassment for myself, and endless awe for Cher.  I made a series of very dumb decisions, despite good intentions and attempts at making a risky situation safe.  I've since never taken my birds into the open unless they are securely in an appropriate travel carrier or in a harness.  In fact, the more research I did on having birds outside, the more I learned of stories of hawks slamming their way through screened-in porches to get to parrots.  Yikes!

Cher is just as sassy and healthy as she's been since the hawk attack seven years ago.  She is a normal sun conure who enjoys screaming really loudly and throwing food on the floor, destroying wood, and taking baths in her water dish.

As I reflect on this experience, I often wish I could've transcended the linguistic barrier between man and animal the moment I looked up and saw the perplexed hawk look down on me.

"What the HELL was that thing?" he seemed to ask.

"That," I'd say.  "Is a Cher."

* Fire antssssssssssssss

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