The final heartbeat

My pet budgie died in my hands early Saturday morning. Caatinga, a male, had been my companion for close to ten years.

One week before I left for Orlando on Thursday 17 July, I noticed that Caatinga was not sitting properly. When budgies (often called parakeets in the USA) sit, the tail rests on the flat surface. When the bird perches, its tail hangs below the perch. Caatinga was not sitting like this. Whenever he flew to the top of the TV wall unit, his tail would be lifted off the surface. Likewise whenever he perched, his tail would not descend at such a steep angle.

This was not normal sitting or perching behaviour, so I scheduled an appointment at The Links Road Animal and Bird Clinic in North York. I have always taken my birds there since the veterinarians are specialists in avifauna. I brought Caatinga in my specially-made “budgie box”, a carrying device I created whenever I have to make such a visit. I saw Dr. Rick Axelson, Jr. His father is a well-respected bird vet and author. Rick took over the clinic after his father retired and thus the Axelson level of bird care continues.

During my own examination of Caatinga I noticed a fleshy yellow mass, hidden on his stomach by feathers. I thought it was a tumour. Dr. Axelson said that what Caatinga had was a xanthoma. It looked like an egg underneath the surface of the skin. Caatinga could not be suffering from egg-binding (when an egg is trapped inside the bird and could prove fatal if she is not able to pass it) because Caatinga is a male. And there is no mistaking Caatinga’s sex: I have witnessed Caatinga in flagrante delicto with two of my female birds; both females later laid eggs.

The xanthoma was causing Caatinga to tire out and wheeze after flying. It was also affecting the bird’s ability to sit or perch normally. Dr. Axelson said that all I could do right now is monitor the situation, as an X-ray would show nothing other than a mass, and a biopsy would prove too traumatic (perhaps even be fatal) for the bird.

I dreaded coming home from Orlando, as I feared that Caatinga’s situation would have sharply deteriorated or, worse, the he would have died. There was no change in Caatinga’s health after my week away, but in this past week, his condition worsened dramatically.

Caatinga stopped eating and would not fly with the other two budgies I have, Kelly and Kakapo. He would sit on top of the cage and not move. Caatinga’s tail would rise straight up. Pretend that you were pulling the bird’s long tail, trying to lift him off the top of the birdcage, meanwhile the bird itself had its claws wrapped tightly around the bars. That is how Caatinga held his tail, straight up.

After I would come home from work, I would grab Caatinga and hold him for an hour. I didn’t make myself dinner, I didn’t change out of my wet clothes after being stuck in the rain. I had to hold the bird and keep him warm. I knew that Caatinga would not pull through.

I dreaded what I might find after I came home from work. On Friday, my heart sank as I climbed the stairs from the basement entrance. I did not see Caatinga on the cage or perched inside. Caatinga was sitting on the bottom of the cage. I thought he had died. Then his head moved. Caatinga had gone to the bottom of the cage since he could no longer grasp the perch anymore with his feet. This was heartbreaking. I held him a while, then positioned him on the top of the cage and placed some birdseed directly in front of him, but he did not eat it. Later on that evening, he did peck at the seed a few times, but I don’t think he ate it. All I saw was pecking motions.

My mother came by that night to drop off a train pass. We were going to go to the Canadian National Exhibition the following day, and she wanted to drop off the pass so that I could use it to get a reduced bus fare en route to the train station. My mother looked after the birds while I was in Orlando and I asked her to take some photos of them for me. We looked at these photos that night.

I was still awake at 3 a.m. Saturday morning and saw that Caatinga’s condition was deteriorating. I lifted him off the top of the cage. His legs had stiffened and they could not move. The bird was paralysed. I put Caatinga on the pillow next to mine and tried to sleep, but couldn’t. Then suddenly Caatinga made a go for it, and scrambled off the pillow, fluttering to the floor. He had attempted to fly, but couldn’t. I held him in bed. Caatinga moved his little head around, big black eyes against the creamy white head feathers. He fluttered his wings some more, then stopped. I felt a narrow wiry pulse race up his stomach then down, then nothing.

I had felt Caatinga’s final heartbeat. For a second I thought maybe Caatinga was still alive. Maybe he had just stopped moving his head. Maybe he was going to surprise me as he had done when I got home from work that day, when he was sitting on the bottom of the cage, yet still moving.

But my little Caatinga, my little baby, had died in my hands at 3.25 a.m. Saturday.

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