Leo the Cockatiel

Leo came to live with us twenty-one years ago plus. A birthday gift for Adam, he named him Leonardo, like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Leonardo, but we always called him Leo. A young cockatiel, his coloring was mostly grey, and we didn’t know if he was male or female. Over time, he took on the typical grey body with white stripes on his wings and yellow head with bright orange dots on his cheeks of the male bird. His vocalizations also confirmed him as male: he always had something to “say.”

For the first few years we had Leo, Adam spent more time with him, but the cage was always in a commons area where he could interact with the family. As Adam grew and his interests took him away from home more, Leo spent more time with Chuck, my husband at the time, and me. Cage-cleaning duty ended up mine more often than not, and there were many years when his cage wasn’t cleaned as regularly as it should have been. We occasionally let him out of the cage, including letting him crawl on us and fly around the house, but we had to watch him closely so he didn’t fly into a window and crash to the ground or land in an open toilet. As he grew older, he ventured out less and less, and over the last 10 or so years, we would open the cage, and he would climb out and investigate the cage only to return minutes later to the comfort of the known.

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Leo was a cantankerous bird, and few people held him. I held him the most because I was responsible for cleaning his cage and because I talked to him the most. He tolerated my attention, but he always squawked and struggled to get away. Once calmed down, he would snuggle into me and peck at my skin or clothes, just tasting really. He never became a physically affectionate bird, but he had some very quirky ways of showing us that he was part of the family.

One of Leo’s quirky behaviors was his always-raucous welcome home. When we were away, he would go into a verbal scolding when we returned, and it seemed to be more vigorous the longer we’d been away. He tweeted loudly and repeatedly, making sure we knew that we had been missed. When we’d been away a long time, I always felt bad for having left him. It was easy to provide enough food and water for days, but the company and interaction was something he missed, and I knew it. If we were going to be gone for more than a couple days, I’d always ask a friend or neighbor to come look in on him. “Check his water,” I’d ask, “and his food? And…would you talk to him?” I would get a look of bewilderment at first and then incredulousness, like “you’re serious??” I felt more guilty about leaving him for days than I felt embarrassed about asking my neighbors to come talk to my bird; I had that, at least, going for me.

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In addition to welcome home, he would tweet when we rose in the mornings and at other random times of the day. Early on, he learned to wolf –whistle, and that was one of his favorite tweets. It charmed visitors and lifted my spirits on days when I was feeling less-than-attractive. At some point early on, he took up an unusual behavior: he would position himself on a perch or on the side of the cage, turn himself upside down, spread his wings wide and flap furiously. We were delighted with it and called him “beautiful.” Eventually, it was a trick he would perform on command, and it was one of our favorite things he did up until about four or five years ago. That was when age began taking its toll.

Leo also had a lover…a small mirror attached to the side of his cage. He pecked at it, fed it food, preened, talked, and became agitated if I removed the mirror to clean it. It made me happy he had a friend, and one day, I noticed his strange gyrations and vocalizations as he sat in front of his mirror. Turns out his “friend” was one with benefits. I’m not sure where it came from, but we explained it to our friends as “Leo masticates.” Well, yeah, it’s a thing; ask a vet.

After we built our new house in Clyde Park, we noticed that Leo and Basco, our Chihuahua, had some kind of secret communication: when people would come to visit, Leo somehow knew before anyone else did, and he would start squawking. Basco recognized the sound as “someone’s here!” and he would run to the door barking. We were mystified how he knew when we didn’t even know; was he psychic? One day, I was in the office with him when he began his alarm, and I noticed a reflection in the glass of a cabinet directly across the room from him, which perfectly reflected the window from the breakfast bar that looked out to our backyard. Basco joined him in the fray, and sure enough, someone was walking to the door: mystery solved. That became something they shared; they always announced visitors, our own “green” alarm system.

Adam went to college in 2005, and Leo became my permanent pal. A couple years ago, Chuck and I divorced, and my beloved dogs, Rosie and Lance, left with him. It was Leo and me. Every day, without fail, he welcomed me in the morning and when I returned at the end of the day. When I left each day, I’d remind him to be a good bird, give him a Ritz cracker, and tell him what time I expected to be home. I’d leave a radio on for company. When I’d return, he’d make a fuss, a lovely welcome home. At night before bed, I’d cover his cage and say, “Goodnight, Leo. See us in the mornin’ mornin'” and in the morning uncover him and say, “Good morning, Leo.”

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When I told people how old Leo was, they were surprised. He was twenty-two, and he hadn’t been “beautiful” in years. Neither had I seen him “masticate” for a long time although he still had his longtime lover. I knew his days were numbered, but knowing something and living it are two different things.

Mark helped me bury him and let me cry on his shoulder. He brought me flowers, which sit in the gaping hole where Leo’s “house” used to be. My mornings are very quiet, and my homecomings are silent, a very loud silent. Once again, I’m reminded that the price of love is great.

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