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Green Acre #191: Bird-Watching

HORTENSE WAS sitting on the floor in a corner of the solarium much of yesterday morning. There is nothing to see there, just the grayish-white molding and a scatter of potting soil. She had been sitting on a leaf of the bird of paradise earlier, having winged it to the skylight, realized it was closed, and then settled down. How light she is. The leaf scarcely trembled. 

The day before, she sat in a schefflera and stared at a brick wall for several hours.  

Why, I ask you, would she do that when there are options: to press her nose to the glass that surrounds the room and take in the enormous pink pom-poms of the Kwanzan cherry tree that crushes up against the windows, or to perch among the geraniums on the baker’s rack and talk to the birds flitting about the garden.

She’s just getting used to me.

Hortie, which is her pet name, is a 25-year-old ring-necked dove, which is a very old bird. They usually live 15 years, few make it to 20. She has elegant colors, taupe and buff and beige and a touch of wet sand and that black ring. She has a strange overbite and is a little mangy-looking around the neck, but so am I. Old she may be, but quite healthy, or so I’m told. 

The other day I was eating jelly beans while taking a break from obsessing over Google News by obsessing over the plague statistics for my neighborhood, published on a local listserv. Scrolling along the notices, this one caught my eye: “We’re looking for someone who can take in our office bird while we’re shut down,” the story went. “Hortense . . . has

Hortense still seems to be ignoring the glory of the Kwanzan cherry right outside. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

lived in our offices for the past 12 years. She’s in very good health and is pretty low maintenance—she’s generally free during the day and loves to sunbathe, and is accustomed to spending the night in her cage. The ideal situation would be a sunny spare room, away from other pets . . . ” 

Reading her rather lengthy and detailed bio, it appeared we’re kindred spirits. Besides having similar necks, we both like baths, sitting in the sun and eating. I’m not frightened by the vacuum cleaner either and frequently vocalize. 

Well, golly, I thought, or words to that effect. If not me then who? Not only do we have so much in common, the name Hortense, says Wikipedia, “comes from Latin, meaning gardener.”

If that’s not fate . . . 

For years my little solarium, a space about 10 feet square just off my office, functioned not only as the winter haven for my tropical plants but as an aviary.  There were two, and then four, and then only one parakeet, beautiful shades of yellow and green and a dazzling swimming-pool blue. 

There were several beautiful cages, including a Victorian model made of curlicued wire. These were used (by the birds) chiefly for dining, occasionally for sleeping. Otherwise the birds were free to wing about.

They were loud and messy, fighting and making up. Shredding plants, pooping on the sills. Chasing each other in flashes of color, ruffling the jasmine and lemons. It was lovely. And then, in a series of tragedies, there were none. 

The bird notion was originally a decorative one, like wallpaper, or flower arranging. My view of birds was pretty much the same as my view of our goldfish, which are regularly consumed by the raccoon, like shiny lagniappes. (Their lives may be short and end brutally, but the garden pond is an idyllic place to spend that brief existence—the alternative being someone else buying them to feed to a pet snake.) 

Who’d think I’d become enchanted by, and ridiculously attached to, parakeets? In the process of my daily procrastination I noticed their personalities. I grew to know their individual voices, their moods. Vinnie, who turned out be a girl (you can’t tell until they are some months old) was most irritating and rather ugly and so I loved her most. Shakira, a handsome male, was named for the singer (he went wild when he heard “Hips Don’t Lie”). Those two made out a lot. Blue was gorgeous, and knew it, preening and snappish. Yellow and Boychick liked playing with string.

When they all passed I decided I was done with pets. I’d already sworn off dogs when my beagle, Bagel, died at 17. The sorrow is too much, and you know when you take in an animal it will most likely pass on well before you do.

Covid-19 (and what happened to Covid-18, might I ask?) changes everything, doesn’t it? While she’s only supposed to be in residence until the plague abates, Hortie might outlive me. Bring her on, I said.

It’s too early to move the indoor plants out, but we did it anyway, trusting the forecast, which says the mild temperatures will continue. An alarming number of plants are toxic to birds, so the hibiscus, philodendrons and jasmines were moved to the back porch, where the brick walls absorb the day’s warmth. 

On Monday morning I opened the front door to two women in masks and gloves, toting Hortense in her little carrier bag, a large cage, and a shopping bag with her food, vitamins, bathing dish and copies of the Washington Diplomat, a newspaper I once wrote for and no longer do, for reasons we won’t get into. That the paper was for cage liner seemed appropriate. 

While we’re prickly about social distancing, it seemed only right to show them Hortense’s new home, which seemed to please them. 

This morning, she seems to be getting used to me, though not yet singing or cooing or whatever doves do. In time, I expect, I’ll wish she’d shut up. She splashed around a bit in the Pyrex dish that serves as her bathtub, and is now on a perch in her cage examining her neck in the mirror, stretching this way and that, looking for her best angle, I suppose.  

Reminds me of . . . me.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” has room in her plant-filled heart for feathered creatures as well.

10 thoughts on “Green Acre #191: Bird-Watching

  1. Jean Gordon says:

    This one is a dilly…loved reading it….A DOVE? dove means peace?
    Waiting to hear more stories about this she dove.
    May your dove bring peace to all of us and return us to normal….probably a new normal.

  2. Jill Finsen says:

    So sweet that you have Hortense. I am envious.

  3. Erin — the goal is to keep Hortie in the present-tense. Her age terrifies me — but she’s been cooing today– several different sounds, makes me laugh, and laughter is hard won these days.

  4. Bonnie Mitchell says:

    Yes! Keep the humor coming. We’re sorely in need of it. Can’t wait til Hortie coos – soon I hope. My baby who was produced last year (or maybe it’s her mother – starting a new family) has dropped by to look for a suitable nesting spot. I cobbled together something but am still awaiting her return. Enjoy your birdie! And keep us cheered with your charming and inimitable thoughts.

  5. Maggie Hall says:

    Of course! How could I have missed the coincidental link to My Little Bird…..

  6. Erin says:

    Hortense was also my old office mate! She used to perch on my computer screen and coo at me, usually to my delight. We had lots of fun nicknames for her: Hor-chill, Hor-relax, (because why is she so ‘tense’?), Birb, of course Hortie. She is a sweet thing and I’m so glad she’s in good hands for the time being. Thank you for taking her in!

  7. Thank you Maggie — And let us not forget the name of this website, not that’s serendipity!!

  8. And thank you Naomi (and company) for giving me an easy piece for this week – I was hunting and pecking for something. She’s just started cooing, a rather elderly sound, but then…so I assume she’s content.

  9. Naomi says:

    Wonderful to hear Hortense is settling in! I was her officemate for a while (I actually evicted her from her original office space when I came to the organization – but the trade-off for her was, she got more company because my original office was all her own space, with no one in it, but she moved to the next door office space, which had two people in it and she seemed to like that better). She sometimes would fly through the connecting door into my office (which after all used to be all hers!) and sit on my computer or filing cabinet. Then I moved upstairs and only saw her when I’d come down to the big kitchen. Anyway, I’m thrilled to hear she has this lovely space and you to keep her company during the pandemic. THANK YOU!

  10. Maggie Hall says:

    Serendipity! To be caring for a dove whose name links to your main subject – gardening. You’re going to hate to let her go – which hopefully will be before Covid-20 strikes (never thought of the number until you mentioned it). But one thing you can’t let go is your humour. It’s the brightest of sparks in these glum weeks.

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