Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A life with my feathered family

       Freddie (left, foreground) and partner Ally in one of their weekend outings atop 
       the acacia tree (2002). - MWBuzzpic by ALFREDO P HERNANDEZ, Port Moresby, 
           Paulo trying to amuse himself with the antics of Daddy Freddie (2002).  

(A tribute to Ally, Britney, Xena, Freddie and Paulo)

Batch ’65
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

ELEVEN YEARS AGO, I started raising a small family and called my kids the "Gang of 4 and a Babiest".

Please meet my babies - Ally, Britney, Xena, Paulo and Freddie.
Except for Paulo, the rest were native species of Papua New Guinean parrot known as Red-Sided New Guinea Eclectus. The guys were heaven to be with despite the many troubles they gave me. But they were family so as their dad, I had to cope with them, just like a real dad should.
Living alone in Port Moresby, I welcomed them to my household and to my life with open heart and open mind, although the way they zeroed in on me caught me off-guard.
IN EARLY November of 2000, a hunter from some far-flung village of an outback town known as Kerema happened by our company compound in Port Moresby. The man - Takale Konia - was carrying two young birds in his bilum (hand-woven traditional bag) and they were for sale. About a week old, the two tiny creatures looked awful, very black, spiny and very fragile. 
Obviously, the birds - a female and a male parrot - had traveled long distance on a truck-bus known here as PMV in a very stressful condition. 
The highway from Kerema to Port Moresby was best described as non-existent for lack of maintenance, thus, making the daylong trip an agonizing ritual for any human being. How much more for these two babies?

Lovers Freddie and Ally ...  Flowers for me? (Ally and Freddie  
picture was   taken  during their first outing ever, along with Xena and Britney  in early February 2001. We call this ornamental bush “calachuchi” (well,  that's how we called it back in my hometown in the Philippines. I was concerned because the white sap from this plant could be toxic)

Seeing these two birds, I was upset and appalled. I had to decide whether or not to get them. If I didn't, there's no chance they would be better off in somebody else's hand; or they could die while on their journey to the next potential buyer. I paid for them right away for an equivalent of less than five US dollars.
At home, I deposited them in a bathroom-and-toilet that I seldom used. A computer box I found inside a cabinet served as their first home.
A week later, Konia, this time with two fellow-hunters - Bako Yakham and Kensi Abai - came back with three very young female Eclectus. Konia said the birds were "poached from three different nests".
The news struck me hard but I managed to contain my outrage. I knew the sacred nests of those innocent creatures had been violated again by these men, who obviously found it just normal to do what they had done.
In this country, the village hunters had totally opposite perception about wild birds, or wild birds as pets and companions. For Konia and the rest of the bird poachers, poaching was simply trying to make a living for their hungry families.
I was in a dilemma: If I didn't buy these fragile birds, their lives might be in great peril. If I did, another problem in my hand would go haywire since I was ignorant about parrots. I agonised over this but in the end I decided to rescue them. Now I was stuck with five orphans and didn't know how to deal with them. 

ALLY: Wow this is great ... a real tree  A LIVE TREE (pant! pant!). did you say I was lucky to have climbed a real tree oh for Chrisssake this is no big deal  back in the rainforest, we got lots of this. Hey Ekkies out there are you NOT tired of climbing your dead trees no leaves, no twigs no insects climbing it with you? ask you mommies to buy you a real tree  and have it planted right there in your playroom! Ha! I should really do this regularly just in case a tree-climbing contest.
Then again, the three nest poachers came back a few days later with another two-week old bird. Their coming surprised me. Nevertheless I didn't ask any question. I told them this one would be the last, stressing that they won't have any buyer next time - if ever they brought another. I paid them and took the poor bird home.
A week later, a close friend of mine heard of my babies. He and his wife came to my home to say they would like to have one of the two new babies for their young daughter Joan, a pre-grade school kid. Seeing my flock every time they came to our compound for a weekend dip at the pool, they were encouraged to keep one as pet.
NOW, the "Gang of 4 and a Babiest" had grown a bit. Freddie was now about nine months in his bright green-yellow green feathers; Ally, Xena and Britney about eight months in their bright red-and-blue coats while Paulo a.k.a. PauPau, nine weeks (as of May 20, 2001) in dark green. By the way, the eldest of the batch named Del Torro flew away after growing a good set of wings, leaving me with just five. 

XENA: (fence-sitting) If they call me fence-sitter so be it but I've got no issues to quarrel with them yet. Hmmm sitting here all day is just what I've wanted to do but I think I should go now to my favourite hideaway in the bush
My flock had an attitude. Britney loved to be alone among the bush. Xena, the bully, hated Paulo and would chase him from one branch to another. Freddie and Ally were lovers but once in a while Xena would sneak in close to Freddie if Ally was nowhere in sight. 
Paulo, whom I called the "Babiest", was of the Australian Eclectus (eclectus roratus macgillivrayi) strain and had grown bigger than the rest of the gang. Paulo's original flock populated the Cape York Peninsula, in Australia and migrated to southern PNG one summer day long time ago by hopping from one island to the next across the Torres Strait.
AT FIRST, I had kept my babies in a small cage of 1.5m x 1m. Having clipped their wings, I allowed them to go out of their cage so they could exercise their wing muscles and claws by playing in the bush and climbing the palm and acacia trees that stood in front of my house. In the afternoon they would come down from their favorite perches to go back to the cage.
Raising five Eclectus babies was a hassle. They're like kids that never grew up, which meant I had to look after them forever. It was also worrisome since there was no avian doctor in Port Moresby to look after their health.
I always had problems making them eat the food I served. At first, they preferred sunflower seeds to the food I cooked for them daily. But thanks to an Internet community of Eclectus lovers - The Eclectus Connection (TEC), I received guidance I badly needed on how to cook for my birds.

BRITNEY still at it ... is that a bug ?... Daddy Freddie said i should not pick anything which he didn't certify as food... hmmm that's bad... he's imposing his human instinct on Ekkies like me.

.On weekends I allowed them complete freedom by encouraging each one to climb the trees and stay on their perches for as long as they liked during the day. At first, I decided to keep them indoors - that is, in my bedroom - for most of the week. But on weekends when they were out, they had a grand time nipping leaves and chewing twigs atop their favorite palm and acacia trees or bushes.
In my bedroom, I installed a huge branch I cut from a mango tree in my compound. Along with this, I assembled a sort of playground made of toys that I ordered from Australia. I called this "dangling fun-place" because of the colorful ropes and rings and other paraphernalia that hanged from the ceiling. Here, my birds really loved to climb and play.
Lately, I noticed that my babies rarely stayed long in the dangling fun-place. Instead, they spent most of their time perched on my bedroom's window jalousies and curtain bar hanger while looking out to the trees outside whose leaves invitingly brushed against the window sill.
For most of the day, they chewed on the plastic hooks of my drapes and feasted on the keys of my PC keyboard. I had pondered on this scene for days. Then one day, I decided that they should really stay outdoors.
Having done this, I felt I made the right decision. They were much happier now as they screamed and played among the branches and leaves of the palm and acacia trees, just like they would in the rainforests had they not been snatched from their natural home.
Just before nightfall, my birds would climb to the food station on my porch to eat the meal I prepared before I went to work at noon. Having finished with it, they would march to the bush just in front of the house to roost for the night. 
I did not have a chance to father my only child, Juan Paulo, now 27, who spent most of his growing years in California. So when my five birds came, I treated them like they were my kids. 
XENA: Hmmm this place is great… no one would see me here .. you know how Eclectus girls are they love to disappear among the leaves and that's exactly what I am doing now … this is cool really cool my mom used to tell me we can easily blend with our surroundings when enemies are just lurking somewhere readying us for their lunch. Did I not see a cat around the compound a while ago? Hey! I just heard Daddy Freddie calling for me because he said it gonna rain soon? So what?
On weekends when they were out there in the bush or shooting the breeze, I would drop what I was doing from time to time to call out their names, as in a classroom roll call, making sure no-one was missing.
Hearing their names called, my babies would simply respond with a faint, high-pitched "hmmmmm" and went about their birdie business. With this, I felt better.
Occasionally, just before noon, I would give them a nice ala-rainforest shower from the garden hose while they're atop the tree and watched them flapped their wings and ruffled their feathers as they went aga-ga over the cool bath. It was great fun to watch them in their wild-like character!
And just like a real dad, I blew my top in more ways than one when not one of them touched the food I cooked for lunch or dinner. And when they wouldn't come down from the tree-top at sundown despite my desperate pleas, I would be forced to collect them from their high perches.
Paulo, the youngest of the flock (nearing 10 weeks) had rapidly grown into a young adult Eclectus. He used to stay in the cage for most of the time since he was just a baby, although I allowed him to walk the grassy lawn to get some tan once in a while.
One late afternoon after dinner, he got out of his cage, made a soft, impressive tumble on the floor and glided down the porch's stairs. From the bottom step, he sprung himself and landed on the grassy lawn, and trotted straight to the foot of a low-lying bush. Then he clawed on the small trunk of the leafy bush and pulled himself up until he reached the branch where the other birds were roosting for the night.
This was his first time to roost overnight with the older birds under the blue Papuan skies. From then on, he had been sleeping with the Gang of 4 every night and there seemed to be no problem at all. 

 What a show-off, this bloke Freddie, trying to impress Ally.

Paulo's first sun outing among the bush ... hmmm... it's really cool out here... no-one to bother me... and i don't mind being away from them (referring to Freddy, Ally, Xena and Britney) ... they are all trouble ... - All pictures by AP HERNANDEZ
During nights when I was relaxed and free, I collected my babies from their perches and took them to my bedroom. There, I hummed to each one some melody while enclosed in my arms. As I had noticed, Paulo had related much more to the tune he was hearing than the rest. As he sat on my chest, he would half-shut his eyes in concentration as the stream of the lullaby flowed on. What I would do then was stroke the back of his head gently till he drowsed. Then we would call it a night.

ONE DAY after two years of sharing my life with Ally, Britney, Xena, Freddie and Paulo, I decided that it was time for them to move on. With their full-grown and strong wings, I believed they could now manage to find their way back to the wild where they belonged. I wept over this, but I had to be firm.
So, one sunny Saturday, I kissed my babies good bye, wished them luck and, one after the other, tossed them into the breeze. And off they eagerly winged to freedom.
ONE EARLY afternoon a few days later, I got a call while at work from our compound security guard to tell me that two birds - a green one and a red-blue one - were strutting on the rail of my porch as they shrieked. It took me five minutes to drive home just to find lovers Freddie and Ally.
Instantly, I collected and hugged them, asking: "Are you guys hungry?" Then, I rushed some lunch. Stroking them as they picked the food, my heart cracked.
Xena, Britney and Paulo came back a few times, too - for lunch - and to say "Hello, Dad …" So, I saw to it there was fresh food always in their old feeding tray. It was just like the old days.
A few more days of this "re-reunion" followed, each time brightening up my life - and theirs. Finally, the inevitable came and my babies were gone for good.
I wanted to cry.
 (To see the "Gang of 4 and a Babiest" in one of their weekend outings, click here.)

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