The little bird that changed my entire life…

Marden came into the world as Tiny Tim, the smallest of four baby Congo African Greys at the home of his breeder. He was the lone chick produced by one of two pairs owned by the breeder. He was hand-raised and soon became enamored with the hand-feeding formula. He loved to eat it. Even after he was weaned, he would still beg for it from the breeder when we visited the store where he was working.

When we met him, he was not yet weaned, and had not yet flown. We went there specifically looking for a bird. I had rescued cockatiels and had doves years before, and vowed that when the time was right and my life was stable, I wanted another bird in my life. To that end, I had always admonished my husband not to let the cats have any toys with feathers. That was a strict rule in the house. I did not want them thinking feathers were for playing with or chewing on. During the spring semester of 2011, I was going through my OB/pediatric clinical rotation – part of being a nursing student at the local community college. Being unable to have children, it was hard for me to see other women having beautiful new babies without feeling something was sorely missing from my life. My husband felt my pain and one day he mentioned “You wanted a bird. Let’s get you a bird.” Little did we know that this would be the catalyst for a major change in our lives.

As we were spending time with him and bonding at the pet store while he was being weaned and acclimated to being in a cage rather than an open enclosure, my husband began to spend time with and bond with the little female who was the first to hatch from the breeder’s other set of parents. Before it was time to take Mar home, we knew we had to take both. We named her Megan.

Just as some human children are easier to raise than others, Mar was sweet, gentle and inquisitive. He readily took to wearing a diaper – aka a Flight Suit – and his Aviator harness, and would go on outings. He would step up for almost anyone and was often photographed by parents while he was held by their children. He had lunches and afternoon and evening tea (tisanes, of course!) at the Steeping Room in the Domain in Austin. The staff there loved him and was charmed by his sweet personality. He drank bottled water from the bottle and at cream cheese and cucumber tea sandwiches and gladly shared his edamame with the local grackles. When time came to go home, he would sit fidgeting on the perch while I pulled off first his harness, then his diaper, telling him, “Okay, now you are FREE BIRD!”. He’d flap his wings and often fly a circle around the room. Most of the time we’d bring the leftovers and he and Megan would share them on the play top over his cage.

Daddy built us an aviary out of PVC and wire cloth and we often spent afternoons outdoors. The outing was complete with a birdie feast, including lots of food items woven into the grapevine wreaths that hung all over the aviary. The birds loved to forage for their food but they also enjoyed digging in to the large platters and dishes on their table.

Marden playing in the aviary.

I loved him as if he were my own human son. We spent every monent we could together. He had a playstand next to my desk and would often ‘help’ me study. Later, when I graduated, passed the boards, and started working, he would wait for me to get home. Even though the house was pitch dark, he would hear my key in the door and let out an excited shriek! Even if it was two in the morning, they had to get up and spend time with Mommy when she got home from work. Eating a late dinner with them became a ritual we all enjoyed.

Marden had a personality all his own. I often described him as a puppy in a bird’s body. He had no fear of strangers or new things. Every new offering was something to be examined and, he hoped, eaten. He loved to eat.

He also loved to cuddle. He was cuddly with both daddy and with me. He would often crawl under my shirt and nestle in my bosom. I didn’t need to put him in a carrier to take him to the aviary. I just tucked him under my shirt. Toweling him was no problem. He actually liked to be swaddled in a towel.

The more time I spent with him, the more bonded we became. It wasn’t just him bonding to me, it was me bonding to him as well. My world began to revolve around this amazing little creature.

My life centered around being a “mommy” and I began to learn all I could about giving our new babies the best of care. We baked “birdie bread” and cooked foods for them. Our own diets changed as we began to eliminate foods harmful to birds from our own menu choices. Their diets changed, too, as we sought to introduce more healthy and natural choices.

To say they were spoiled would probably be an understatement. Though the “Grey” stereotype holds them to be “one-person” birds, Mar worshipped his daddy. He loved his mama but when daddy was home, I was an afterthought. And daddy loved him. They were our babies, or Greybies, as daddy called them.

In the fall of 2013, we made the move to the Raleigh, NC area. A rental truck, trailer, large SUV and several “pods” later, we were on the way to our new home with lots more room and dedicated rooms for the birds to enjoy.

The birds rode in small cages in the SUV with me. We bought several cages specifically for the move. Two of them were “package” deals, containing a toy, perches, “litter” and a cheap brand of food. The litter was tossed aside as we use packing paper to line cage bottoms. The food was pushed aside but eventually I picked out the peanuts, which we don’t feed the birds, and offered the remainder of the food to some of the birds as a treat.

This mixture contained several things, including dried field corn. Marden seemed to really like that and ate most of it. None of the other birds really cared for it. In hindsight, I will regret that decision for the rest of my life and wish I’d thrown it in the trash instead.

In December, Mar and Megan were hanging upside-down from the “veranda” on her cage and play-fighting. The next day I noticed Mar had a limp and immediately made an appointment for him to see the vet. We all assumed he’d gotten an injury during the rough play and he was prescribed Meloxicam for pain. Other than that, both birds were given physical exams and deemed perfectly healthy. The pain medication seemed to help and things got back to normal for a day or two. But then, Marden’s appetite dropped. This was a particularly ominous sign because Mar was very food-motivated. It wasn’t like him to turn down treats or meals. I began to worry. We stopped the Meloxicam, thinking it was causing GI upset – which is a common side effect. But Marden’s appetite did not improve. At that point, I began to seriously worry.

His weight dropping, we had him tube-fed in an attempt to keep his strength up. From that point, he was in and out of our regular veterinary hospital as well as a local emergency vet hospital. Nothing we did seemed to help. The day he died, he’d been passing blood in his feces. In a blind panic I took him to the ER vet. They fed him, gave him fluids subcutaneously, and in the morning, I picked him up and transported him to our vet.

When we arrived, I realized I’d forgotten his medication and his hand-feeding formula. I was very angry with myself. I left him there in the care of our team of vets, and rushed home. When I got back, I asked if i could spend some time with him. I was ushered into an exam room and he was brought in and I was told to spend as much time as I wanted.

In the back of my mind, thought I didn’t want to acknowledge it, I knew we weren’t going to win this battle. Then my darling son did something that I will never forget as long as I draw breath. He was snuggled up to me on my shoulder. I could tell he was very weak. He reached down and pulled a tiny piece of down, and reached out to me. As I held out my hand, he placed it on my finger. I knew in my heart he was saying good-bye. He was giving me a tiny piece of him to keep as he prepared to leave me for another place.

One of our vet techs, Andi, came in and gave him his feeding. He had his medication and his food, then suddenly, it seemed like he was having some kind of seizure. His breathing went agonal, and then he was just gone. They rushed him to the back and attempted to resuscitate him but it was not meant to be. I remember feeling more pain than I have ever felt in my entire life – a soul-crushing, mind-numbing pain that hit me from all sides and felt as though it might rip my own heart from my chest and shatter it into a million fragments. I wanted to die, to go with him. But then I realized that the others – Megan, Alex, Maks, Auna and my grandbabies were still at home, waiting for me to return.

Megan! How would I tell her that her bonded brother was gone. How would she react?

They brought me my baby, and I held him in my arms and cried like I had never cried before. It was the most profound and painful grief I had ever known up to that point and I felt completely devastated. I knew I had to give him back. I knew they’d have to do a necropsy and find out what killed him, because I had to protect the rest of the flock from this evil, unseen enemy.

Two days later, I was shopping in Wal-mart. A kind stranger stopped to speak to me. I tried my best to keep from bursting in to tears. I was holding my own until my cell phone rang. I excused myself to take the call and heard an unfamiliar voice at the other end of the line. It was the pathologist. He explained the results of the necropsy very factually. A wave of shock hit me as I listened to his words. “Aspergillosis” and “systemic, he had these granulomas in almost every organ, except his lungs.” As he went on to explain the findings, I stumbled through aisles, trying to avoid other people and trying to keep from shattering into a pool of sobbing tears. As I hung up the phone, I broke. The flood came and overwhelmed me with wracking sobs. Another kind stranger stopped and asked if I needed help. All I could mutter was that I’d lost my son. Then my phone rang again. It was Marden’s doctor, checking on me. She was so kind and compassionate and that gave me the strength to make it through the checkout, to the car and home.

The next couple of months passed in a haze of grief and pain. We’d talked about rescuing birds. But now it became more than a passing thought. It became a burning goal. A light at the end of that long, dark tunnel of grief. And so we pushed onwards towards that light, and Marden’s legacy – Marden’s Ark – was born.