Our Animal Friends Know What’s Up

Sometimes all it takes is a small token to boost your mood.

I’m currently dealing with the distance from home being magnified by the current inaccessibility to travel. Even as I gradually get better, that longing for close friends and family doesn’t really subside.

I feel it when I’m at the beach, desperate to soak in the beauty of my surroundings with someone who will experience just as much awe. I feel it on the street, missing that explosion of excitement you get when you run into someone (or even the rush of annoyance when it’s someone you’d rather not see).

On afternoons and evenings, I watch the sunset turn the sky to candy colors and fantasize about clinking a glass and sharing a good, deep, loud laugh with my best friends.

As much as that yearning sticks to me like white on rice, the truth is that acceptance is the only way forward. Acceptance that shit is real right now in the world, least of all for me, and with patience, I’ll return to the warm embraces, smiles, and stories of the people dear to me.

In the meantime, I look to my winged friends.

Meeting Lori and Keith

Lori and Keith pretty much came with the apartment. Perhaps the last tenants gave them the friendly treatment as well, because they knew exactly what to ask for from the start.

They’d jump on the door handle or click-clack their claws down the windowsill until someone came out with a snack. And I was more than happy to oblige these flying rainbow rats.

It’s been over a year now of more or less daily visits from them, and in truth, they have partial credit for keeping me sane. I knew I could count on them to show up daily, at dawn, then dusk, and sometimes in between.

When the world said SEE NO ONE, GO NOWHERE, this pair of rainbow lorikeets were steady friends, above the law, who continued to come check in on me.

Through daily visits and chit-chats, I got to really know them. I would watch their behaviors and assess the spots on their backs to tell them apart. Soon, I graduated to knowing the difference based on personality traits alone. As we got more comfortable, they’d begin to hang out even after the food was gone. I learned to anticipate their actions and to sit silently as they discussed things with each other. I watched them square up with anyone who tried to encroach on this territory. Sometimes, they’d even grace me with a front-row view of some of their more intimate rituals.

I’d practice mimicking their whistles and try to teach them to recognize my voice. Of course, we’d never really know what each other is saying, but I thought maybe, with practice, we’d have a rudimentary communication.

It did feel like we had established a true understanding and respect between each other: a friendship. At a minimum, I wanted them to feel safe with me.

To that end, I believe I succeeded.

Ruffled Feathers

Once in a while, one of their colorful, thumb-sized feathers would fall out, and I’d scramble to grab it before it blew away. So long as I wasn’t trying to pluck a fresh one, they happily offloaded their scraps. I have a small collection of them now, a few of which are showcased on the back of my clear phone case.

Yesterday, they flew in for their morning meal. A tiny blue feather was loose from Lori’s head. Like a baby tooth that’s just a few wiggles away from tooth-fairy fodder, I could see it wasn’t long before it would detach–and I wanted it.

I tried to con her into keeping her head down so I could pluck it out. She’s way too fast for me. I’m used to her nipping my finger when I attempt to touch. That’s a hard limit for her. As I reached for that blue feather, for the first time ever, she nipped me so hard it broke skin.

I relented.

Palpable tension amidst an eery silence.

It’s normal behavior for Keith to finish eating first, leaving Lori to lick the bowl, and wait, watching out over the neighborhood for… whatever it is lorikeets watch out for. Normally patient and relaxed, he seemed on edge today. His normal upward stance was slumped, like a cat preparing to pounce. The bird community was quiet this afternoon, but Keith stood anxiously on the lookout nonetheless.

That’s when I noticed he also had a few feathers taken from his face, but his cuts were deeper, red, and raw.

That’s when it dawned on me: something’s up. They must have gotten into a fight. Whether or not they won, they were bracing for the fighting to continue.

Lori, usually unphased by anything but her food (#relatable), was also standing at attention, one claw on the dish but keenly aware of her surroundings.

It was the middle of the day, a time when they’re usually out foraging on their own. Seeing how they were clearly battered and on edge, I got them another dish, which they enthusiastically accepted. Then I watched them fly straight home.

“To lick their wounds.”

I’d seen a few brawls break out on the balcony. It was clearly a territorial thing, and they didn’t want anyone else drinking from this abundant well. Surely, this wasn’t the only place that became a battleground.

Sensing just how wounded and rattled they were, I was glad they came to me for help. Earlier that day I was feeling rattled myself when I read the news.

Bad idea.

Headlines read nothing but hopelessness, from the politicized struggle with COVID and vaccines to Afghanistan being overrun by the Taliban. Videos showed hoards of people so desperate for an escape they were chasing planes on the tarmac. Can you imagine that level of despair? It’s chilling, frustrating, horrifying. A shockwave I could feel even isolated in this far-off place.

But when the birds swoop in it seems like this is something I can do. This is a little light in this dark world. Even if they did bring news of their own troubles, being acutely aware of their needs and being able to provide a little humanly assistance was a nice feeling for me. That feeling of selfless friendship is there.

A Token of Gratitude

This morning, like all mornings, they came back. They seemed to be doing a little better, having gotten some rest.

Like yesterday, I thought, let’s get you second helpings to build your strength–something they probably slyly knew and would potentially take advantage of, but hey, I had the stuff to give them so why not share the wealth?

I prepared their little dish and moved some pillows on the couch to join them with breakfast when…

“What’s this?” I said out loud, in that normal way that I speak partially to myself, partially to them.

It seems they had left a gift tucked away for me to find. Their tell-tale vibrant green was joined by a pop of Pantone Color-of-the-Year yellow on a long, elegant wing feather.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. After all this time trying to wrestle them for feathers, collecting scraps of their shedding, this sort of pristine token of their presence was on another level. It felt like they knew what I was asking for and finally thought I’d earned it. It felt very much like a personalized gift, given at the opportune time.

In the midst of feeling slightly helpless, sad, and isolated, I’d received a symbol that transcends this realm.

The symbolism of feathers across almost every culture is likened to spirituality, a connection with a higher being. They are a gift from the divine, believed to be a token of “high honor.”

Did the birds know what they were doing? Had they understood my asking? Even though they can’t tell me, in my heart I know that this was a token of gratitude for being there for them when they were down. And here they were, signaling that they were not only thankful but happy to return the favor.


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