Gregorio’s Mishap and Recovery

When I got home last Sunday night, after unpacking just enough, the birds were all chattering busily as usual, welcoming me, I guess. At some point doing my chores, I stopped for a moment and remembered Gregorio, but before I could say his name he started singing an extra long version of his song, repeating and repeating, “Gregorio, Gregorio, Gregorio…” I could have had no better welcome.

I haven’t dared write about Gregorio’s trials until I was sure of a happy ending.

Backtrack a few weeks before I went to Ohio: on a beautiful Saturday I was out working in the yard. After a couple hours I went back in the house. There, in the kitchen sink, was a fallen moth trap with a bird stuck in it. A zebra finch male, to be exact. I was horrified, and I felt terrible, because I should have known better than to put moth traps in the kitchen. But I had been getting so tired of the Indian flour moths, I stuck a couple traps on top of the crowded little shelves that jut out over the sink, thinking the birds were too busy elsewhere to get into it, or just relaxed with the thought that the birds have lived in the house for so long with few mishaps, I stopped paying attention to the fact that just in the past few days the zebra finches were starting to explore regions they had ignored for ages.

Zebra Finches on top of the kitchen cupboard

I was just too distracted, lackadaisical, thoughtless to make the connection.

and checking out the inside...

So there he was, my little finch, alive but very still, stuck in the trap, having lost a lot of feathers due to struggling with the adhesive. I reached in and pulled him out as gently as possible. A few of his remaining secondary feathers were stuck together so I washed him gently under warm running water and dried him in a towel. What to do with him? I couldn’t release him, because he wouldn’t be able to fly around high enough to reach the middle door of any one of the finch cages, which is essential if a bird is going to eat in this house. The only solution was to incarcerate him temporarily. And he would have to grow some feathers before my trip, because I didn’t want to add yet another cage to the burden for my bird care person. I had no idea how long it would take for him to grow back his feathers. Right now all I could be concerned about was his survival. (By the way, I could not bring myself to take pictures of him in his worst state.)

I put him inside one of the finch cages temporarily and closed the door while I went down to the basement to find the infirmary. It’s a dumb little cage that I picked up years ago for not a lot of money, and whenever I have a bird to isolate from the rest, I use it. I started thinking about preparing an extra little breakfast tray every morning. I found a water dish and a few accoutrements to make the cage as homey as possible. I knew he would hate being confined, but there was no other option.

When I had the cage ready, I stuck my little bald creature inside and started to look for a place to put the cage, out of the way, perhaps, in the dining room. No, no, no! was the reaction I got from my little prisoner. He vehemently objected to being away from the action, hopping up and down and throwing himself against the sides of the cage, so I set him on top of the coffee table in the middle of the living room, where he could see and hear all the other birds and vice versa. Looking back, I realize that was already a good indicator that he was going to fight his predicament and overcome it.

It wasn’t until maybe the middle of the next day that I figured out it was Gregorio, when I had taken inventory of the other male zebra finch’s songs and he was the only one not singing. Poor little Gregorio. I felt even worse: the past week almost every tape I listened to, Gregorio was singing on it, and I thought I had grown tired of hearing him. Now I didn’t know if I’d ever hear him sing again.

The first few days were extremely awkward. A couple times he hopped out of the cage past my hand when the door was open while I was changing this or that other dish, only to flop down to the floor, where I’d catch him easily. Once he was a little harder to catch, underneath the butcher block island in the kitchen, but I scooted him out and picked him up. He finally got the idea that he couldn’t fly and became somewhat resigned to his fate. I was afraid he wasn’t eating well either, seeming to eat only spray millet, and I lectured him about eating better if he wanted to grow back his feathers. Eat your vegetables! I have a feeling spray millet is like dessert for birds, but even if that was all he was eating I didn’t have the resolve to remove it from the cage to force him to eat something else. It must have been comfort food too.

I don’t think it was quite a week when I heard him vocalize for the first time. He wasn’t singing yet but he was calling. That was encouraging. He was growing little fluffy feathers around his head. I couldn’t tell what was happening with his other feathers; he had lost most of his primaries and secondaries on one wing, and I knew he had a lot of contour feathers to grow back as well. Then one afternoon when I was sitting writing on the futon, his cage right next to me on the coffee table, he sang a little. “Gregorio, Gregorio.” I knew he was on the mend!

A few days before I wanted to release him, calculating his release date was going be five days before I left for Ohio, I had his cage perched on the kitchen counter where I took him every morning and evening to clean and refill things, and I explained I wanted to make sure he could fly high enough to get into a finch cage to eat and that was why he was still locked up. As if to challenge my protective caution, he flung himself all the way up to the top of his little cage. Look at me, I can fly this high, I can reach the cage door. Patience, my little man, patience. It’s only a few days, and we’ll let you out.

Gregorio was eating more of his food, and the fuzz on his head was filling in. Saturday came, and I set him up with his breakfast just in case he had to return to the cage. I put the cage on the coffee table and opened the door. Within seconds he was out. He first tried flying all the way up to a curtain rod and fell down to the floor, disgusted he didn’t make it. But as soon as I thought he might be able to break up his flight into stages, he did exactly that, landing on top of a cage, and then eventually making his way to the curtain rod. You know what they say about great minds thinking alike…

Gregorio upon release

It wasn’t until then that I took a few pictures of him.

bald but brave

When I saw him eating spray millet inside a cage, I knew he was going to be all right.

Gregorio inside a regular finch cage

One time I looked up and he was snuggling with a Society Finch. Another time I saw him paired up with another male zebra finch, which is how it’s gotten to be in this house with only one female zebra finch left, so the guys choose partners, not for sex but for companionship, and it’s really a nice thing to see. I hadn’t been worried about the other birds picking on him, but it was yet another reason to incarcerate him until he got back on his wings.

Well here we are now and I barely recognize him. He still looks a little flat-headed and his tail feathers are a little stiff, but he’s zipping around with all the other birds, up to his old mischievous ways, and needless to say I don’t have any moth traps anywhere the birds can get to.

All the while as I was writing this Gregorio was singing his song. He knows I’m writing about him, and I’m sure he’s trying to add his two cents. He just started up again. Gregorio, Gregor, Gregorio, Gregor…



Recording of Mourning Dove and Mozart C Major

Recording of Elvis the Crow from 2001

I was going to write about Music: The Great Communicator, or The Universal Language, but then it started pouring over into What Is It Anyway? Where does music come from? Why is it something we all understand? And of course if I slip into the birds’ perspective, they’ve been doing it longer than we have. But should “music” be the word for only the man-made variety, or does it encompass everything else living and breathing? I tend to think music is everywhere and it exists in places and in forms we don’t yet recognize. Since we’ve created our own brand, or our own way of making music, of course this is what the word “music” describes for us, but I suspect the basis for our musics preceded us all. The creators of the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” perhaps acknowledged this when they had the alien spaceship land playing a musical or “universal” greeting.

My very unscientific theory is this: after the Big Bang there was a Big Chord. Whether it was a chorus of vibrations accompanied by Hollywood visuals (something akin to the aurora borealis) or a series of emanations from the vibrations produced by the Bang that descended into a chord structure and made the first music, I have no idea.

The sounds birds make, the “songbirds,” at least or the passerines, were perhaps the first creatures whose vocalizations we recognized as “songs.” Now we know insects and whales sing, and at the same time we are still perplexed because our closest relatives, the apes, don’t. Maybe that has more to do with our definition of what a “song” is. I accept the idea that birds sing, and that they’ve been communicating with their songs and calls far longer than we have been on the planet.

Right about the time I became interested in all this, I discovered a book which was compiled from presentations at the first international workshop produced by the Institute for Biomusicology in Venice, Italy, May of 1997: The Origins of Music I will return to this in later posts, but I guess I have a chicken-or-egg question: what came first, the flute or the drum? I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to make a connection between the discovery by archeologists of a most ancient flute and a desire to imitate the sounds of birds. But you can’t have music without rhythm, and maybe from the simplest act of tapping on a rock with a stick to producing more complex rhythm instruments with different tonalities that convey messages, percussion instruments evolved.

As I sit here listening to my birds carry on with WFMT in the background, I am reminded of the ceiling fan that used to be in this room which I finally removed, because it was getting to be too hard to clean and I could never turn it on with the birds flying around. There was a pull chain that made a musical sound when it struck against one of the glass light fixtures on the fan. My budgies used to enjoy playing it along with the music. I recall their playing was always in key. 

Attached are a couple excerpts from my past of wild birds singing along with the music. Elvis the crow was accompanied by my first two budgies, to whom I was talking briefly, it’s the Bach E major prelude, first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. And the mourning dove has come in at the end of the first movement of a Mozart C Major sonata (I presently forget which one) and sings off and on through the adagio: note how he waits to come in with his song.