It was an autumn day in '89. The 'phone rang -- that tasteless, strange-shade-of-yellow telephone I had at the Swindon house -- and the friendly caller explained that he'd like me to take back the two budgies he'd bought from me the year before. The reason was nothing to do with the birds, he said, it was just that he was going on holiday so often that it was unfair on them. He had bought the birds for his retirement, imagining that he would be taking life quietly from now on, but he'd found himself caught up in a whirlwind life style!
So, back they came; I couldn't turn the little darlings away, could I? They were renamed to fit in with my flower and herb theme: Daisy and Basil. Immediately they were in the roomy, garden aviary, they parted and went their separate ways, never taking much notice of each other again. Daisy - 'Lazy Daisy' - fell for Basil's brother Parsley, and they remained faithful for as long as they both lived; Basil turned to Tiny, a frail little hen whom he loved tenderly from that time onwards. (This first photo' is of Basil).
The pair bond of Basil and Tiny was remarkable and moving. Tiny was -- as the name suggests -- miniaturized and stunted, and by this time could no longer fly. She had rickets in her legs, and couldn't jump as other budgies jump. When she had fledged, I had never expected her to survive, which is why, being a stingy so-and-so, I hadn't lavished one of my plant names on her.
There had been something very wrong in Tiny's nest. Despite the exceptional care provided by her parents Apple and Ivy, the eldest chick had been unable to fledge, going to the wall (literally) and fading out when she should have been peeping through the nest hole and launching herself. The youngest of the three chicks fared best, and it was thanks to this little sister - later named Jasmine - that Tiny, the middle one, made it through. Jasmine fed Tiny for weeks after they left the nest and moved out into the aviary, responding to her knife edge vulnerability in a life saving way. Tiny held on to life, then and for a long time after, and her nickname stuck.
Tiny had been through a difficult time just before Basil came into her life. She had been dropped by her previous mate, Woods, around the time she had lost the power of flight. One day, terribly frustrated at her disability, she had suddenly turned on herself and begun furiously ripping her feathers out. All I could do was to slap one of those vet's plastic collars on her to forcibly stop the plucking. This is a drastic measure as it is horrendous for the bird initially, but thankfully, in Tiny's case it did the trick, and was only needed for a week.
Basil was soon utterly devoted to Tiny, a fact which 'gave her a life'. She was now living in an open-top, perspex-sided box cage within the aviary shelter. This arrangement allowed all the other birds to 'visit' her while keeping her in and safe from harm. I kitted it out with a deep layer of wood shavings for soft landings, enough food to share with visitors and only low perches. Though Basil had the freedom of the aviary with its 18 foot flight, he popped in to see his sweetheart in her perspex cage throughout the day. - The photo' shows the two of them in Tiny's special cage.
Unfortunately, the combination of the cosy wood shavings and Basil's amorous attentions, resulted from time to time in Tiny coming on to lay. She had difficulty being 'pregnant' because of her handicap. She was barely able to hold her swollen abdomen off the perch. The solution was to remove her and her cage from the aviary for a couple of weeks, so that, after one egg, her body would go back to normal without completing the clutch. The pair became used to occasionally being apart for a fortnight, and took it in their stride.
Like his brothers Parsley and Comfrey, Basil was basically a faithful soul (though, occasionally, he enjoyed just a little bit on the side). Their father Spruce -- a wonderful budgie -- had been the same, so the faithfulness was a family trait. Most cock budgies are more free and easy! The family were generally also sweet, tame, friendly birds who were easy to manage.
Tiny took a fall and died in September 1994 when she was nearly 7 years old. I had moved house and left the garden aviary behind, and the perspex cage arrangement didn't work well in the new birdroom. I had been constructing a special area for her when she got out and fell to her death. I wrapped her little body in a tissue as is my usual custom, and went to bury her in the border by the birdroom. For a second, I lifted the paper tissue to take one last look at my little friend, but an excited call from inside the birdroom seemed to tell me that Basil had seen her, so I quickly covered her up and finished the burial.
Basil coped well with the loss - for two weeks. This he was used to: two weeks without Tiny was normal.
But after the two weeks were up his health started to suffer, and he seemed sad. He developed a slight nasal discharge, and by the following March he was distinctly unwell. His notes read "Found in slight distress - a bit fluffed, head under wing or preening out of sync." (When a budgie's preening activities are not synchronized with those of the rest of the flock, it is a sign that he or she is unwell.) Basil was treated with warmth and a probiotic, but in June I wrote "Has never regained his glow since loss of mate." He was taken to the vet and received an antibiotic.
For a couple of years, Basil's life was uneventful. His favourite perch in the birdroom flight was right by the window, and he spent a lot of time relaxing and singing there. In my more sentimental moments, I used to wonder if he had chosen the spot because it was the nearest point to where he had last seen Tiny - when I was burying her. He stayed single and lonesome. He continued to need to sneeze a couple of times a day to clear his nostrils, but I got used to that.
In '97, better antibiotics became available for birds, so the vet tried him on a course to see if the nasal congestion would clear up. It didn't really, and to this day he still sneezes, but never mind!
Then, in '99, when he was 11 years old, my lonely Basil got a lucky break. That spring, I bred some youngsters for the first time in years -- not that Basil seemed interested. His two brothers surprised me by taking an intense interest in the development of the chicks, coming to the wires excitedly each day when they were being handled, even wanting to touch and feed them - though they had never been fathers themselves - but Basil was too tired to bother.
However, one of the young birds later struck up a lovely friendship with the old boy, and they have remained pals ever since! Basil has a whole new lease of life. This young cock (pictured) is called Larch, and he's not much to look at, being an untidily marked pied, but he has a really lovely personality. He doesn't stop at giving friendship to Basil and feeding him, he also plays a protective role, putting himself between the doddery old boy and anyone who might want to bully him! (Mind you, he doesn't hesitate to push him aside if he's in the way at greens time!) It is as if life has come full circle: once Basil gave patient tenderness and care to his handicapped mate; now he receives the same from a bird a fraction of his age. One shouldn't underestimate budgies!
It is hard to imagine what life would have been like without Basil and Daisy. I sold the two of them as babies, but I am glad that fate brought them back to me. Their lives have enriched mine.
On the 4th of December 2002, Basil died at the ripe old age of 14 years 199 days. (The above story was first written about 2001). However, I must tell you about the TLC lavished on him by his equally elderly brother in his last days -- this was very touching to see and it astonished me.
Basil was by now caged with his brother Comfrey because both of them were frail. Comfrey had been unable to hold his head up properly or sing since that spring, when he had suffered several mild strokes. He normally spent most of his time just sitting quietly.
When I first entered the birdroom on the morning of December 2nd, Basil was in obvious trouble . He was on the cage floor, unable to move his legs. His brother tenderly encouraged him, even though they didn't normally 'speak', and I actually heard Comfrey singing very softly -- a sweet little sub-song! Though Basil didn't improve, he was kept cheerful by Comfrey's frequent attentions and nibbled food throughout the day. The vet said Basil too had suffered a stroke, and that he had a chance and should receive medication.
Sadly, the next day, Basil had no further interest in food, and was giving up. Nursing him in the hospital cage was doing him no good at all, so I put him back with Comfrey to see if he could cheer him up. -- Well, Comfrey certainly tried! He went down to him and tapped him affectionately, trying to get his attention. When Basil failed to respond, Comfrey walked round to the other side of him and tried again there. He was like a mother fussing over a sick child.
As I say, I was deeply touched.
© Helen Day 2003.