Our Cardinal in the Coal Mine
My mom, Flo, has a very caring heart, the kind of heart that urges her to rescue homeless cats and stray dogs and baby birds fallen (or ejected) from their nests. When we Greene children were growing up, scores of wild baby birds were raised in our home. While not all survived, many were raised, rehabilitated, and happily released back to their natural environment. She rescued a baby squirrel that, for a time, became a beloved member of our family. Junior the Squirrel even had his own bedroom with unscreened windows slightly opened to the outside world. He could come and go as he wished to pursue his tree climbing pleasures. Sort of like doggy-doors, those were squirrel-windows. The story of Junior is an interesting one, but this is the story of Cheepy Cheep, our Cardinal in the Coal Mine.
Cheepy Cheep first came into Flo’s life after my sister Susan discovered his pitiful featherless body lying on the ground beneath one of her oak trees. She contacted Mom the Animal Rescuer who immediately took the unfortunate chick under her wing, so to speak. Before Susan found him, Cheepy was definitely on his way to an extremely abbreviated life. Mom figures that he had just hatched moments before his fall, and had probably been ejected by his parents because he appeared to be unhealthy and deformed. All infant birds are unattractive when they are first born. Most baby birds have few or no feathers at first, and their skins are so thin that you can easily see their internal organs. Mom was accustomed the usual ugly chick syndrome, but this particular baby was extraordinarily homely. One of his eyes had been destroyed, either pecked out or diseased, and his body was curled and rather gnarly. It was impossible to tell what species he was.
Every creature deserves an opportunity at life, in Mom’s caring view. So, on August 8, 1990, she took him home and began a remarkably long relationship that would affect her life, and ours, in many ways. As an experienced former wild chick rescuer, Flo knew a lot about the dietary requirements of infant birds. She fed Cheepy mashed up hard boiled eggs and NO water (years ago, we had unknowingly killed several baby birds by feeding them water droplets). He also got Gerber’s baby rice and Gerber’s pureed baby fruits fed through an eye dropper. When he was able to feed himself, he graduated to fresh fruit and Hartz bird seed.
Cheepy grew to adulthood, but remained the ugliest bird you have ever seen. His empty eye socket was continually oozy and quite gross looking, he was skinny and still a bit gnarly, and he never grew enough feathers to be able to determine if he was a cardinal, a blue jay, or some other unknown species. Of course, he never flew and could never be released, but he had a safe comfortable home in his cage in Flo’s bedroom. Under Mom’s continual care including meals of standard grocery store pet bird food and warm baths once every week, Cheepy lived a marginally healthy life for eight years. As he aged, he gradually started to show signs of poorer physical condition, becoming weak and even less attractive.
Flo took him to a local bird veterinarian who, after performing a complete exam including blood analysis, diagnosed him as having nutritional deficiencies. The doctor prescribed an improved diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, and, (get this:) the “Bits” from the dog food “Kibbles’n’Bits.” Not the Kibbles, mind you, just the Bits. Evidently, the Bits contain high amounts of vitamin A, of which poor Cheepy was very deficient. Now, since Cheepy was not supposed to eat the Kibbles, Mom had to hand pick out the Bits every week and put them aside for Cheepy’s daily vitamin A ration. (Sweetie, Mom’s wonderful dog whom she of course rescued, inherited the Kibbles.) Under this new and improved diet regimen, Cheepy almost immediately showed signs of improvement. He grew a full cover of red feathers, and even sprouted a little crest! It turned out that he really was a cardinal, after all!
Flo’s life with Cheepy continued another six years, with Mom diligently picking Bits, chopping his favorite fresh fruits, including strawberries, and vegetables everyday, and arranging for qualified, specially trained Cheepy sitters (AKA: Bits Pickers) whenever she traveled.
Cheepy turned the ripe old age of fourteen years old. Most of us began to wonder just how long cardinals actually live. When he started to again show signs of declining health, this time losing all of his pretty plumage, Flo thought it was probably old age finally taking its toll. But, just in case he could be helped, she took him to the bird vet again. This time, the vet referred her to a bird specialist. Mom, of course, took Cheepy to the specialist…a well informed professional who changed Mom’s life.
For many years, we had all known that eating organically grown foods is better for us and is better for our environment. We didn’t know that not eating organic foods was probably making us sick, and was poisoning Cheepy Cheep. Dr. Curtis, the bird specialist, informed my mom that the amount of pesticides on one single conventionally grown strawberry is enough to kill a bird. According to Dr. Curtis, it was amazing that Cheepy was alive at all. She prescribed an emergency switch in his diet to 100 percent organic foods, referring Flo to Harrison Foods for the purchase of organic bird mash. Within just one week of the removal the toxins from his diet, Cheepy recovered completely. His plumage regrew and he became actually beautiful for the first time in his life. He pranced and danced around his cage with a full male cardinal’s crest, and began to sing recognizable cardinal songs. It was strange for me when I visited my mom to hear the melodious, familiar tune of a male cardinal coming from INSIDE her house.
At the time of this writing, November of 2007, Cheepy’s diet is still 100% organic. Mom still chops fresh fruits and vegetables for him daily, but nowadays, none are grown with pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Cheepy is more beautiful and healthier than ever, and celebrated his 17th birthday this year with organic strawberries. I’m very pleased to say that my mom has also changed her own diet to include mostly organically grown foods.
Cheepy Cheep is truly our Cardinal in the Coal Mine. Humans are obviously bigger than birds, and, in most cases, more tolerant to the toxins found in conventionally grown foods. But, we should learn a lesson from Cheepy’s life. We truly ARE what we eat. We should be careful to avoid poisoning ourselves whenever we can.
We should all eat organic and live healthier more beautiful lives, like Cheepy Cheep does!
*Update April 21, 2010: Cheepy Cheep is now almost twenty years old, and is appears more healthy than he was in 2007. His plumage is bright red, and his crest is tall and proud. His favorite food de jour is organic blueberries. He dances around his cage happily and sings joyously when his human family brings blueberries to his plate. What a lucky bird!
I wonder what the lifespan of a cardinal is?????