One thing I usuallly don't talk about is the fact that I occasionally find dead wild parrots on my frequent journeys through their habitats in the Northeast.
I usually try to avoid this subject: if I see a dead parrot on one of my tours, and there are kids in tow (as there frequently are), I usually mutter that "death is a part of life" and try to move on as quickly as I can to where I want the focus to be: on the big wide fields where there's lots of life, light, and green-winged flight.
I don't like Death, but that doesn't stop it from happening. On Sunday, I went out to Edgewater, New Jersey, because I wanted to see the big flock of New Jersey parrots
that never fails to cheer me up.
Of course, Death had other plans, because I was only there a few hours before Death showed up and forced me to make a choice. Death came in the form of a lovely little wild parrot who came down with the big flock into Parrot Park. I noticed that one of his little feet was stiff: I'd seen this before in Edgewater, which does not lack for environmental hazards (there's at least one large EPA Superfund in Edgewater and environmental problems are well-documented in its neighboring towns).
Whenever you see a wild parrot flopping around with a stiff foot, it's a surefire sign of lead poisoning. Lead is an invisible killer, and there seems to be enough lead in the environment in Edgewater to kill plenty of birds (this is the third wild parrot I've run across in Edgewater with obvious signs of lead poisoning).
I could have just walked away and that would have been it. Another dead parrot had been seen earlier in Parrot Park and it was plain that something bad was happening in Edgewater. But I decided to do what I could, so I easily captured this little guy and Mike Trachtenberg, of Edgewater's 07020.com
, who happened along earlier, produced a small shoe box in which we placed him. It's illegal to bring any wild parrot to a vet in New Jersey so I persuaded Mike to drive me to the ferry at Point Imperial to take him across the Hudson River to Brooklyn.
I didn't have the financial resources to bring my ailing friend to The Animal Medical Center, in Manhattan, which charges $1,000 before its staff will even see a sick animal. Instead, I wanted to bring him home to Brooklyn, and do what I could to make his last hours more pleasant than they would have been in New Jersey, where he would have probably been nailed by a hawk before sunset.
We floated across the river together on the ferry, traversed 42nd Street, and then descended to the BMT N train. I checked him every five minutes and he looked OK. We heard music from the Andes that musicians played at the Times Square station and then I started to cry, because I knew that he was likely hearing this kind of music -- the sweet flute music of his homeland -- for the first and last time.
We crossed the Manhattan B
ridge above the sparkling waters of the harbor. My sick friend made a few hopeful Quaker sounds as we passed under Brooklyn, home of his grandparents, site of his species' initial appearance in North America. We made it back to Bay Ridge and I finally unboxed him. He wanted to climb up the walls but I dissuaded him from this idea: he was just too weak. I made a place for him on the carpet using a cardboard box with a towel inside. I put out food and Gatorade in the top of the shoe box. He really wanted to sleep, but I stroked his head, hoping that he'd somehow perk up. He did rouse, once or twice, but his eyes wanted to close, and I didn't push it.
Lots of people happened to call me during these hours, and I mentioned that I had on my hands a very sick bird. My mother reported that my sister, who suffered a second nervous breakdown last week, might be doing better. I heard from my ex-wife, who is unable to convince my daughter, who is suffering a mysterious chronic cough, to see a doctor. I called my daughter, and made her promise to me that she would go to a clinic, even though she has no insurance coverage. I promised to pay for whatever it would take to get her well, even though I have no money myself to pay for this. Finally, I went to bed, but not before checking on my sick wild parrot.
He was still alive, sitting on the carpet in the little nook I had built for him, head turned around and buried in his wings, as if in sleep. I stroked his head and his eyes opened. I told him "It's OK if you die, but I hope that you live, because I need a friend. As long as you need me, I'll heal you, and if you get better, I'll bring you back to Edgewater, and you'll be free again."
I went to sleep early, around nine, and turned out the lights. Around 10:30, I woke up, and looked for him. He had crawled from his nook over to my sleeping bag, as if he wanted to say goodbye, but I could tell that he was gone. His little body was still warm but it was clear that Death had won. I placed him back in the little nook that I had built for him and stroked his head.
There was nothing more that I could do. I could curse the town of Edgewater, which doesn't seem to care that lead and other poisons are leaching through its every mortgaged pore. I could curse the whole damned system, which makes it illegal to help a wild parrot in New Jersey, or the chemical companies, which just don't care that they're poisoning the planet, or the real estate barons building New Jersey's "Gold Coast" on deadly, poisoned land. But the only thing I did was stroke my friend's head one last time, saying five times over, "I'm sorry," before collapsing in tears.
Tomorrow, this long night will end, the sun will rise, and the parrots will flock again. I will bear myself off in a series of antiseptic steel tubes to my job on Long Island, and I'll probably not think of what happened today much. But here, right now, in the middle of the night, it's all I can think of. If my wild little green friend had lived, my life would have been a little brighter, and I would have seen this miracle as a sign from God that all would be redeemed.
But things don't work out this way, at least, most of the time. The poisons that we place in our world will last for centuries. The species that we are extincting won't come back. Humans will eventually wake up to the fact that lead, and uncountable other poisons in the air and water, are slowly and silently killing us. This will only occur once people begin to topple and fall, palsied, like my little green friend, unable to even raise themselves to eat.
My little green departed friend was one of those "canaries in the coal mine" and I really hoped he would make it. His death will only be marked here. Nobody, including the media, and especially the politicians, whose livelihoods are supported by the commercial poisoners, will make a peep about it. He will have died in vain, as so many of us do.
Maybe that's what I'm really crying about.
Epilogue 9/24/08: When I re-read this account almost a year after writing it, I am struck by how it seems that the death of my little green friend was a harbinger of great tragedies that would soon tear my life apart. Three months after this incident, my mother committed suicide; three months after her death, my long-suffering sister did the same.
My family is gone now but I still visit the wild parrots whenever I can. It will take me years to make sense of these losses but there is something about the parrots' improbable existence here that gives me hope, and hope is exactly what I need to weather the long storm of grief before me.
Labels: Edgewater, New Jersey Parrots, Wild Parrots