Fiddler and Cordelia
The grey-and-white bird with red ear patches and a yellow head flew through the window of an ice-cream truck on a summer day in Kalamazoo, perched first on the driver’s head, then his shoulder, and refused to move. This was in spite of the children buying ice cream making repeated attempts to catch him, either by trying to hold him in their hands or crooking their fingers in the hope he would move from his chosen place. For the next three hours, he remained in place, regarding the driver with the strangely happy and curious look that cockatiels develop, occasionally whistling the theme song from the old Broadway musical Fiddler On The Roof. That was how he got his name.
We never did find out how old Fiddler was, why his wings weren’t trimmed, thus allowing his adventure in the ice cream truck to take place, or what led to his great escape. Nor did we ever know who his original “pet human” had been, the person from whom he had learned the only song he seemed to know. Classified ads were placed, signs were posted around the Western Michigan University campus, a notice was even displayed on the side of the ice cream truck … but whoever it was never did come forward. Maybe something tragic had happened; for the rest of his life Fiddler was terrified of the sound of sirens.
This was unfortunate since, when my brother-in-law sent him to live with us in Cincinnati, we were about ¼ mile from a police station. That had no impact on neighborhood safety. Sirens tended to wail day and night, but for the most part, Fiddler seemed to like his new home. We had gone to the public library and acquired every book on cockatiels they had since we knew nothing about birds. We found him surprisingly intelligent, belying the “bird brain” epithet often uttered against his kind. The apartment had a single wall-mounted air conditioning unit for the two bedrooms, covered by a drywall enclosure intended to distribute air between both rooms. Fiddler quickly learned how to navigate between rooms, ensuring that we would be early risers (like him). He also mastered the art of whistling for attention, especially when “bed time” (when we put him in his cage for the night) came a bit too soon for his liking. He would say words he enjoyed saying – efforts to teach him “hello” went nowhere fast, but “pretty birdie” was his catch-phrase.
Not long after I got what seemed like secure, gainful employment, we wondered what it would be like for Fiddler to have a mate. One late September Saturday, we visited a pet shop in a mall and returned home with a lutino. The pet shop manager said he was “pretty sure” that the two lutinos he had in one enclosure were female since they were not inclined to whistle much.
That was the day Fiddler met Cordelia. She was named after the long-suffering daughter in Shakespeare’s King Lear because she seemed loving but rather put-upon – especially since about 10 seconds after we lifted her out of the cardboard carrier and Fiddler saw her, he began mating with her. Love at first sight may not exist in the avian world, but lust at first sight? Most definitely.
That night, Fiddler whistled to her off and on: we heard him at 12:00 am and again at 2:00 am. The next time I heard him was around 6:00 am, when the first signs of dawn were appearing – followed by a series of loud squawks from his new bride, as if to say, “Will you shut up? I’m trying to sleep here!” He didn’t make another sound until 10:00 am. Cordelia’s life in the mall – where the lights came on at 10:00 am and went out at 9:00 pm – meant that she would never be a “morning bird.” When I checked on them in the evenings, I would often find Fiddler sound asleep as soon as nightfall came, while Cordelia would be perched on the cage swing, quietly enjoying the rocking motion, until 10:00 or 11:00 pm.
A vet check revealed that Cordelia was a “child bride,” about six months old when we brought her home. Her relative youth explained why she would sit inside the nesting box, patiently rocking back and forth, while Fiddler paced outside the opening, looking inside and occasionally forcing her to retreat inside, as if to say, “You’re not coming out of there until I see some eggs!” We subsequently removed the box for a few months, which gave her some time to mature and seemed to relax Fiddler’s procreation instincts.
Once the obsession with nesting was relieved (at least temporarily), Fiddler became a very attentive mate. Cordelia was apparently born and raised in her pet shop enclosure, seldom moving from the perch where we first saw her. Fiddler would walk with her all over the apartment, flying with her here and there, showing off his “trick” of moving through one room to another through the air-conditioning enclosure, and saying “pretty birdie” ad infinitum. By the time she was ready for the nesting box again, she was much fitter and happier than when she first came home.
One July morning, we heard a loud squawk from the nesting box. Fiddler’s first attempt to go in and investigate was firmly rebuffed. I don’t know if cockatiel “language” includes anything like four-letter words, but Cordelia made it quite clear that she was not to be disturbed – prompting a look from Fiddler that could best be described as, “Isn’t she cute when she’s angry?” Over the next eight days, four more eggs followed.
Cockatiel parents take turns sitting on and turning the eggs. Cordelia didn’t mind an audience as long as no one lifted the nesting box lid or got too close. She would take the night shift and emerge mid-morning, when Fiddler would take over. (We quickly learned to slip a napkin or some newspaper under them as soon as they landed in the living room. They don’t relieve themselves in the nest and would “hold it” until they arrived for some quality time with their humans.) We didn’t get many opportunities to observe him sitting on the eggs unless he had fallen asleep; apparently he didn’t consider egg-sitting “manly” enough for observation, so he would quickly emerge from the box if he sensed any humans were around.
Shortly after Labor Day, we heard Fiddler whistling, sounding like an urgent call. We went to investigate and cautiously raised the nesting box lid. Cordelia was sitting calmly on the remaining four eggs, while Fiddler looked up at us, chattering softly. Between them was their first hatchling. I can only guess that he was so proud of their achievement that he couldn’t wait to show off to the rest of the household.
The other eggs hatched in the same order they were laid. After a week or two, we took the entire family to the vet, where everyone was declared well and Fiddler and Cordelia were good parents. It was only through observation that we found out how good they were.
One of the greatest challenges human parents face is knowing when to protect and when to let go. Cordelia was nothing short of a genius. She had an instinct, knack, talent, or whatever word one might choose, for diligently feeding her chicks when they could not feed themselves, then watching intently from a nearby vantage point as they learned to peck at seeds and vegetables. She would sometimes go over to the younger chicks and, patiently but firmly, model eating while resisting their persistent pecks at her chest, trying to trigger her to regurgitate her food into their waiting beaks. Fiddler seemed less inclined to let the children grow up. We often saw him feeding the chicks even when they were nearly as big as he (at about eight weeks). Cordelia would nudge him away, first gently, then more insistently and vocally, as if to say, “You idiot! They’ll never leave the nest at this rate!”
As they grew bigger and developed their flight feathers, she would also model flying, showing them how to get off the ground. They tended to fly straight up, stretching their spindly legs toward the floor and fluttering uncertainly. She would not let them get too high up at first, waiting until their equilibrium was better developed. Eventually, she would take them up to perch on a curtain rod, and then supervise their awkward landings. Fiddler would join in these early lessons, but seemed to prefer teaching navigation and room orientation – including slipping between the bedrooms through his “secret passage.”
The balance between parenting and smothering is also difficult for humans. Fiddler and Cordelia clearly delighted in their offspring, but weren’t above leaving them alone in one room while they went off to see their humans. It was a way to show them how to fend for themselves while their parents were still nearby – an important lesson in independence for anyone, feathered or not. The chicks eventually ventured out of the room where they had been born and spent the first ten weeks of their lives, showing that they were ready to venture into the wider world.
Eventually, it was time for the chicks to go to new homes. We were fortunate enough to find some co-workers who wanted pet birds. One even decided to try the breeding process for himself, so I like to think Fiddler and Cordelia’s descendants are still charming pet humans somewhere.