I had just finished the turkey post when I turned to start the morning ritual of changing cage papers and preparing a nice hot breakfast for Charlie the macaw and Ora Lee, the orchard oriole. Ora Lee was brought to me by a nice young woman who couldn't keep her cat inside. She brought me, in rapid succession, an injured catbird, which I raised and eventually released, Ora Lee, who was permanently disabled by a bite to her right shoulder, and a baby wood thrush. I dealt with the first two, but by the third patient I had had too much of this tender-hearted but misguided woman and her @$#&$%& cat. I could see that the baby wood thrush was going to die, so I sent her home with it and told her to make it as comfortable as she could. I told her I hoped that witnessing the needless death of the wood thrush would make her realize that her cat, whatever his preference, belonged indoors. She never brought me another bird. I have no way of knowing whether the lesson took. But in the meantime, I was stuck with a catbird to raise, and a recently-fledged orchard oriole, probably in her first week of independent life. The year was 1989.
Ora Lee was badly injured; her right wing was hanging, the humerus broken just below the joint. I took her to have a steel pin inserted, in the hope of making her more comfortable and saving the wing, and committed myself to her lifelong care. What led me to this decision was her powerful will to live. On the way to the vet's office, with her ribcage torn open and her lung exposed, Ora crawled over to her food dish and helped herself to some strawberries. I was so moved by this little bird's fortitude that I decided to keep her for as long as she seemed content in captivity. Little did I know that almost 17 years later I would still be whipping up sweet potato and butternut squash, three cheese ravioli and fresh fruits and vegetables every blessed morning. Ora Lee proved to be the Methuselah of orioles; she's outlived every known orchard oriole on the planet by years.
By December I knew that, if Ora made it to spring, this would be her last. Her breathing had become labored, her appetite faded, and I had to come up with better and better menus to keep her interested. I could have dosed her up with antibiotics, I suppose, but it seemed unfair to prolong her life. I had to let her go sometime.
So I got up from my chair and walked into the aviary, as I have almost every morning since 1989, and found her, silent and still, in the corner of the cage floor. This is how death comes to birds, in the wee hours of the night, just like birth. They slip away when no one is there to notice.
I wasn't good for much today.
My reaction to her loss took me by surprise. I thought I was ready to let her go. I wept a long time for this gallant little bird, who lived as good a life as I could give her, for so very long.