Saturday, March 07, 2009

Even more birds for my big bird cage

The pet store is only about 500 meters from my house. Divine and I made a quick trip to it two days after picking up the squawky awkward (squawkward?) cockatiels after deciding that we wanted to add to our little menagerie.

We squeezed into a trike and five minutes later arrived at the open air store to do some bird shopping. Right off the bat I spotted a cage full of some lively little yellow ones with reddish head markings. They were "eye candy" and I had to have some. The sales kid said they were African Love Birds, and it turned out he was correct; they are lutinos to be exact. I told the young fellow to net us a male and female, which he carefully did using a small net.

An extra large cage loaded with some orange beaked little feathered creatures caught my eye next. I recognized them to be finches but not the kind I’ve seen in my home state of Michigan. Not nearly as colorful as my new pair of lutinos, the lively little finches weren’t exactly sparrow-drab either. Actually, they showed a lot of variety, everything from off white, to tan and salt-and-pepper. They were mostly lighter on the bottom, darker on the top and head; some having bands of black and white on the tail and other areas, along with some showing off speckles around their heads and on the neck. On close examination, no two are exactly alike.

Aside from their appearance, I particularly loved the chirpy little finches' apparently friendly and curious attitude. Even better than chirpy, they were cheap, less than half the cost of the other more colorful and larger fowl. I bought 8 figuring their small size would more easily allow my big cage to accommodate that many.

I brought them home, keeping the two kinds of birds segregated in different carrying cages. Placing the cages on the ground inside the big cage I opened the tiny sliding doors. Once again it didn’t seem to occur to any of the birds to try to exit their little jail cells.

I didn’t wait this time and just stuck my hand inside with them to force them out. That mostly did the trick. The two yellow Africans immediately made good their escape, while all but three of the finches also decided to get away from “Mr. Hand.” I was easily able to catch two of the last three cage-bound finches and promptly let them fly up to the top beams with their fellow finch buddies. The last one I left alone and it came out a few minutes later; I would bet that it had never been that alone since the moment it was hatched.

For days I could not get enough of watching the interplay of the three bird types in my little aviary. In doing so I began to learn a few things about bird keeping. Lesson one: be careful how you mix bird types, even in a cage as big as what I have.

With their bright plumage the yellow African love birds were pretty to look at; nevertheless, I soon developed a distinct distaste for them. I relabeled them my little a$$hole birds. Basically, I saw them as thugs. They strutted around the cage bullying every single other bird in there; even the much larger cockatiels were victimized by the much smaller yet more brazen lutinos.

For instance, if one of the lutinos happened to spot a finch or a cockatiel at one of the feed dishes, evidently depending on how aggressive they felt at the moment, one of these mean-spirited yellow love thugs would fly across the cage at their “offending” fellow cage dweller to drive them away. It was obvious that the “love” in their name only applied to the affinity they felt for their mate, if that.

Another immediate problem caused by both the cockatiels and lutinos was their destructiveness when it comes to foliage. Within hours they began to buzz saw through my beautiful pair of potted palms. This was especially true of the Africans. They would alight on a long frond and chew away until it bent in half before moving on to the next. They chewed and chewed until there was almost nothing left. I went through five different plants before finally giving up on having palms in the cage.

Less than a week after acquiring the birds I had lost three of them. Two of the finches were able to flit through the open bamboo cage door in the split second I had it open, although I only actually saw this happen once. I have to assume the other got out the same way when I wasn’t watching.

As for the third escapee, it was one of the love birds. One afternoon it appeared on the outside of the cage as if by magic. Thinking I must be seeing things I noticed this little yellow Houdini sitting on the mesh roof next to its mate still on the inside, which caused me no end of worry for about 30 minutes until I found the one 6 inch area of netting that was not entirely secure.

I used thumbtacks to close up the loose netting but the veritable horse was out of the barn with no real way to get it back in. I tried leaving out an open cage containing bird seed and water hoping that I could recatch the wayward lutino, but by day two of it's escape it was no longer hanging around. I suppose the so-called love it felt for its new mate was not all that strong after all. Truthfully, I didn’t miss the darn thing at all and kind of wished they had both gotten out.

As the days go by I love the sweet little finches more and more while liking less and less the cockatiels and the remaining love bird. My clan of finches is far more interesting than any of the other larger and more colorful birds put together.

Both the love birds and cockatiels got better and better at flying but still mostly get around by flinging themselves into the net which they awkwardly grab onto with their sharp claws. They then pull themselves around on the enclosing mesh by using a combination of beak and claws. It’s really creepy and unnatural to see, especially compared to the amazing flight capabilities of the finches that actually have the ability to hover in mid air, something that I thought only hummingbirds could manage.

So far, I have developed a huge fascination for my low-key yet charming little finches, while developing an equal and opposite dislike for the more conspicuous cockatiels and the African. You know, I can go and on about my family of finches and I think I will in my next post.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Root of all evil is NOT money, It's . . .

I’ve read lots of opinion pieces and blog posts, and have listened to pundits out the ying-yang on how this current economic crisis came about. Actually, it’s not all that hard to explain. It’s quite simple in fact, it comes down to one word: credit.

Kat, a very young up-and-comer, and one of my favorite internet writers, wrote a little piece on the subject a few days ago. She proudly proclaimed that she had just repaired her credit after getting out of a failed faulty marriage. One of her more humorous remarks from that piece was that anyone who pays for major items in full with cash (and not with a credit card) MUST be able to do so because they have “obscene wealth.” I’m still chuckling over that one, because she’s describing ME, at least partly (because I AM obscene (to some)...grin... but MOSTLY because I DO pay for everything with cash).

I know I can’t add anything new to what we’ve all heard are the fallacies of what the current congress and administration is doing to try to stem our economic downturn, but I have to wonder if we are ever going to be able to dig our way out, when in fact, with these spending bills, they are actually shoveling even MORE dirt into this credit hole we find ourselves. Ever hear of the word “counterintuitive?” Well, it applies.

Not that I’m hurting during this crisis; after all, I’m retired and am doing okay so far on pension and disability. The only way I can go into hurting status is if the entire federal government crashes and burns; although I’m fearful that that might just happen with the idiocy called “the stimulus package” now coming out of that loony bin in Washington.

You know, it wasn’t that long ago when credit was a super precious commodity, something that had to be cultivated and earned. No one had credit until they first “proved” themselves, not like today where apparently it has become “a right.” I’m surprised they don’t issue credit cards to babies, along with their social security numbers.

In 1978, I was a 21-year-old newlywed and a sergeant in the marines with more than a year’s time in grade. I had plenty of cash for back then, more than $12,000, money that I had been saving from the time I had started delivering newspapers at the age of 13. Even so, despite the fact that I was relatively cash rich, I had absolutely no credit whatsoever. Today, in the same situation, I would have credit card companies literally throwing their plastic at me.

But back then, it wasn’t so easy to get some plastic in your wallet; and remember, I’m only talking about 30 years ago. Sure, that's seemingly a long time for someone like young Ms Kat, but not all that long relatively speaking.

My “credit story” begins when I proudly brought my new Filipina bride to NAS Alameda, California, after having gone through hell and high water to marry her in Africa (but that’s another story). Besides having my new wife in tow, I came back to the US with literally nothing but a suitcase and a trunk.

So, to get my new life as a married consumer (sans credit) started, I bought my dad’s 3-year-old AMC Pacer for transportation, and similarly wrote checks for all of our new furniture. I had never needed any of that stuff before, having lived frugally, and I might add, quite happily, in the barracks for the first 3 years of my military career as a single man. (Oh, for the good old days!)

Then, I got into my head that I SHOULD have a credit card. I think someone told me that a credit card was a necessity for people who considered themselves grownups, and I took him at his word. I’m pretty sure that whoever it was, he told me that a man without credit was a financially incomplete person. Now, I couldn’t have that, wanting to be a real grown up adult and all; so, acquiring a credit card became a high priority for me.

As soon as I figured out how and where to do so, I sent an application in to VISA, which they immediately denied, stating that I needed to “prove” first that I was able to make payments, having never made a single payment, other than cash in full, for the entire 21 years of my life up to that time. (Can you imagine such a thing happening now?)

So here’s what I had to do to “earn” my first credit card: I went to Sears because I needed a washer & drier. I could have easily paid for it in full, but instead, I told the salesman that in order to establish credit, I wanted to pay for it with installments. Believe it or not, just to show that I was fiscally responsible, I had to forego taking home a washer and drier that I could easily afford immediately. I recall now that the reason I went to Sears in the first place is because they offered an installment plan, which was more like a layaway plan.

I paid it off in with the minimum of installments that would “prove” my credit worthiness, after which Sears was kind enough to issue me a Sears card, mostly based on my hefty savings account and the fact that I was a sergeant in the military, the importance of which is that they knew where to “find” me in case I defaulted perchance. Finally, I was able to parley that card into getting my VISA card. (I think they gave me a whole $500 credit line!) It sounds convoluted and ridiculous, but that’s the way it used to be, and as I said, it was not so long ago.

Flash forward just 17 years later to the late 90s: My three children from that (my first) marriage are graduating from high school. Without ever even having worked a real job yet, credit card companies are mailing them preapproved credit cards! And being kids, within a couple years they had maxed them all out, and I’m pretty sure at least one or two of them filed for bankruptcy. I know their mother certainly did.

And you know what? I don’t fault any of them for it. They were just kids, and their mom had very little financial experience at all before being on her own with the kids before those same reckless companies shoveled credit cards at her as well. What would anyone expect as far as the outcome?

My question is “Why the drastic transformation in credit policy?” In a very short time frame it happened all across the board, it wasn’t just credit cards. Federal and state governments virtually began forcing banks and loan agencies to grant home mortgages to people who had absolutely no business getting them; and while these new home-owning credit-risky people were at it, they went ahead and filled those homes with lots of expensive goodies by using credit cards that they ALSO had no real business having.

Oh, and let’s not forget the people who actually COULD afford their abodes. What did THEY do? Many took out two, even three, new mortgages on their over-inflated homes, another form of easy “crazy credit.” Of course, we all know that these same homes just crashed in value, even while their extra mortgages are STILL owed at the inflated value—just another example of the deadly effects caused by the credit happy society that we turned into.

Luckily for me, I never allowed myself to fall into the “credit trap.” I’m proud to say that “I owe nothing to NO body.” I use my credit card only as a form of cash; I pay off the balance two or three days before each due date. I don’t like buying anything unless I can pay for it in full. The one exception: I bought one new car in my life, and I was in agony until I had that last payment mailed in. I told myself “never again.”

Even when I got fleeced by a con artist between marriages and suddenly found myself thousands of dollars in debt, even then, I DIDN’T file under any of the bankruptcy chapters (what are they, 9 and 11? Another 9/11 coincidence?). I made my support payments, and put the bulk of the rest of my salary into repaying the debt that I had nothing to do with by sleeping on the floor in a friend’s spare bedroom, and basically living a pauper’s life for two years until I had it paid off.

Okay, so I’m beating my chest a little there, but still, there IS a point, and it comes down to my original premise: CREDIT, and the fact that it IS an evil thing. So many people are looking for someone to blame all our current economic woes on. “Who do we pin this on?” we all want to know.

Sure, the credit card companies dumped their plastic on us; and sure, our own government faultily encouraged risky loans, but ultimately, we need to look into our societal mirror. WE put OURSELVES into this mess! And I can tell you this, it ain’t gonna be easy getting out of it! Not with THIS government in charge, and not with THIS constituency STILL not apparently willing to learn it’s hard lesson.

Try this on for size: “If you can’t afford it without going into hock, don’t buy it!” I know, I know, it's a little late for that now, isn't it? After all, the barn door is open, the horse is gone, the barn burned down and it ain't insured. We are well and truly screwed.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

My First Birds, a Pair of Cockatiels

I now had a large cage for birdage and so was keen to fill it thus with flapping chirping creatures covered with tropical plumage, or so I imagined. I asked Divine to stop by the pet shop and pick up a couple of large brightly feathered birds that she thought might be interesting. She returned later that day with a small cage containing two birds that looked like miniature cockatoos. My buddy Pete later told me they are indeed called cockatiels.

I went out to the screened porch and sat for a while in front of the cage containing the two birds with their pointy "feather-do's" where Divine had set them on the coffee table. For a time they simply sat side by side on the center of their perch, but then they came to a consensus that they should start the most God-awful squawking, no, it was more like a plaintive screeching and it went on and on. I was decidedly unimpressed.

Turning to Divine I announced, “If this is all they do all day, make that horrible noise, they will not stay here for long. I’ve never heard uglier sounding birds. Maybe next time we get some smaller ones with chirpier voices?”

She nodded agreement, cringing along with me everytime they made another high pitched birdy complaint every few seconds.

I hoped that the pair was just nervous about their new surroundings and decided to give them a chance. I took them out to their new home hoping for the best.

Placing their 2X2X2 foot cage on the ground I latched open the little sliding door and stepped back. Nothing happened; they just continued to perch, seemingly paying absolutely no attention to the open door. I got bored and left them like that, thinking that they'd figure it out on their own.

I checked every few minutes from the porch but they contentedly stayed right there in their miniature jailhouse. I supposed that they had never experienced anything as expansive as their new home would be, if they ever ventured out, and on top of that, I guessed that they probably had always been caged with at least a dozen or more other birds.

Eventually, I got tired of wating for them to discover the “great outdoors” on their own and after an hour I went back in to help them do some exploring. Squatting in front of the cage they became visibly disturbed at my presence.

“Come on out you two!” I told them impatiently. I put my hand against the cage opposite the open door and immediately the drab gray female made good her escape. She popped out the door and with a great deal of mostly ineffective beating of wings and loose feathers she flopped awkwardly into the air.

It was one of the ugliest (and shortest) bird flights I’ve ever seen. I began to think it was probably the first time she’d ever flown more than a foot in her entire life. Of course, she’s probably only been alive for a few months so that's not such big a deal.

Completely panicked, she crashed into the green net mesh about 4 feet up on the metal gate and stuck to it like a spit wad to a wall. Her wings were still half spread from her body and pressed tightly to the net, feathers all askew.

In spite of myself I had to laugh at her miserable efforts. I hoped that she’d be able to adjust to a point better than what I was now witnessing. In the meantime she was pretty pathetic sight as she desperately clung to the netting while visibly gasping in fear for air, obviously completely out of her known element.

But at least she was out and trying, unlike her terrified mate who still cowered in the safety of his "comfortable" little world of the tiny cage. Seeing how wretched the female looked I decided to leave the male alone. He’d come out when he was ready and eventually he did for the company of the other bird. I doubt seriously that they were mates yet at that point, since they were grabbed randomly based on gender from a cage filled with similar birds.

I really presumed that they would glory in the relatively gigantic space that I had provided for them, but surprisingly it was just the opposite. For days they seemed lost and forlorn in there, but at least they mostly kept their beaks shut. I guess they were too miserable to make any more of those obnoxious screeches.

I hoped that my next bird purchases would provide more satisfying viewing, because I certainly I wasn’t impressed with the two cockatiels at all.