Touched By An Angel

Angel Smiling On You
Angel Smiling On You

She was an angel dressed in pink. She brought pleasure to our hearts and laughter to our house, and she permanently altered our perspective on our connection with pet birds. Inca touched us with love and trust that we will never forget, and he showed us that even tragedies and sadness may have unexpected and joyful outcomes. Many people have shared their thoughts on the pet potential of Major Mitchell’s (Leadbeaters) Cockatoos. There seems to be widespread agreement that they lack some of the characteristics that drew so many of us to these truly remarkable animals. I’ve seen descriptions of them as “nervous and flighty.” Because they are “not as bright” and “not as loving” as some other Cockatoos, they are less appealing as pets. Perhaps our tiny angel was the exception rather than the norm. If that’s the case, we were incredibly privileged to be picked by destiny to care for this extraordinary bird. This is how Inca had an impact on our lives…

I was looking for a mature female Major Mitchell’s for a buddy who owned a breeding male. Even in their native Australia, these gorgeous Cockatoos are rather scarce in captivity, and wild bird capturing is now illegal.
After many phone conversations, I was directed to a South Australian breeder who had a female whose partner had died shortly after a chick had successfully hatched. The necropsy revealed nothing odd, and both the mother and child were in good health. The owner had no intention of attempting to locate a suitable mate for the hen and was overjoyed when someone expressed interest in acquiring her.

When the preparations for transferring the bird to Cairns were finalized, I was asked whether we wanted to keep the youngster. After the male died, it seems that the female stopped feeding the chick on a regular basis, and the owner had been taking the baby bird inside the house 2-3 times a day to spoon feed it before returning it to the aviary. It was now 14 weeks old and, although not violent, could not be classified “hand-raised.”

We had one young bonded pair of Major Mitchells at the time, but no intentions to add any more to our breeding line. After a lengthy conversation with the owner, it became clear that he had no interest in this kid, and we decided to buy it for $300 AUD. My plan was to have our avian vet examine the baby bird, work with it until it was appropriately weaned and socialized, and then put it in a good home.

When the birds arrived at the airport, they both seemed exhausted after the trip, which included a 2-hour drive to Adelaide, a flight to Sydney, a long stopover, and finally the flight to northern Australia. We promptly gave the female to our buddy, then drove the last 45 minutes home with the gorgeous pink infant in the carrier hissing loudly. That’s when I came up with the name Inca. Her show with her wings expanded and her spectacular crest of bright and vivid orange reminded me of old Inca Indian artwork.

When we got home, we pulled her out and noticed she was covered with lice. After removing the unwanted visitors, we examined her beak, toes, eyes, nose, and so forth before placing her in a quarantine cage.

She seemed wary of us, scrutinizing everything we did and hissing when we gave her food and drink. I covered her cage early that night since I knew she was fatigued and needed sleep more than anything else at that point.

She wasn’t eating well the following morning, so we made an appointment with our veterinarian as quickly as possible. Throughout the day, I would gently open the entrance of her cage, urging her to come out. Despite her protests, the hissing eventually ceased, and she appeared to grow more interested in her new surroundings. We heard a cry late that afternoon and discovered that she had part of her right wing hooked in the cage bars. She was struggling to pull away from the cage’s side, but the final two major feathers on the wing’s outer tip were caught on the wire.

My husband unlocked the door, reached inside, and gently lifted her body, allowing the wing to fly away. As she ascended to her perch, we saw that her right wing was slightly sagging. Needless to say, we were worried. We kept a close eye on her throughout the day and evening and were happy to find that she could draw the wing back to its natural place. I decided to take Inca out of the cage after supper to have a closer look at the wing. I was overjoyed when she let me gently drape a towel over her back and under her chest and hoist her up. She extended her wings, rose her crest, and let out a terrible cry as I set her on the floor alongside her cage. She fluttered across the floor and sought to hide behind a potted plant.

My husband took the tiny chick in his arms and gave her to me. I felt a warm, sticky substance beneath Inca’s wing as I put her on my lap. My husband said that I began shouting “Oh, no! She’s bleeding! I barely recall the following several hours feeling like I was in a nightmare. We raised her wing to investigate the source of the bleeding. Blood spurted from a hole at the wing-body junction, and a bone protruded from the body cavity. My husband grabbed the towel, wrapped Inca in it, and started gently pressing on the incision while keeping her close to his chest. I raced to the phone and dialed our veterinarian’s number, and to our delight, he was still in his office at 7:30 p.m. All I had to say was that there was a bird emergency, and he told me to bring her in right away. I cut the thirty-minute journey down the steep, twisting two-lane mountain route in half. Inca sat calmly in the dark on my husband’s knee while he massaged her face and talked sweetly to her, telling her that she would be well. There was no screaming, writhing, or any other form of action. Just two large black eyes staring into his face, as if asking “why?” The vet checked her rapidly and said that she would need emergency surgery right away. We wanted to wait until she was awake from anesthesia, but I had infants at home to feed and the doctor didn’t know how long the procedure would take. We drove home in quiet, knowing Inca was in critical condition after losing a lot of blood, her little body already stressed by the previous day’s voyage. During those peaceful times of prayer I knew that if Inca lived, I would never be able to let her go.

One and a half hours later, after what felt like an eternity, the phone rang. The vet told us that he had patched up the wound and implanted a steel pin at the break. Despite her poor condition, he believed Inca had a fair chance of complete recovery if she survived the night. We returned to the office at 8:00 a.m. the following morning and were led into the operation room. Inca sat on a perch in the corner of a tiny cage, next to a heat light. What a wretched sight she was…still filthy from her confinement in the little shipping container, her feathers stained with blood from the night before’s tragedy, and a look on her face that asked, “what next?”

The doctor showed us the wing’s X-ray, and we were shocked to see that the complex break was located extremely high up on the wing, almost within the body cavity. We wondered whether the wing had been fractured when it became entangled in the cage, but we were skeptical since the wing had not twisted (that we could see), and my husband had been able to swiftly extricate Inca. The only other possibilities were that she was injured when being grabbed and packaged early the morning of transportation, or while in the little box during travel. The solution will never be known.

We started the trek home with the terrified baby Major Mitchell’s now tucked in a little towel-lined cardboard box. We put Inca in the box for the rest of the day and noted that she slept the whole time. We gave her an injection of antibiotics from the vet around 4:00 p.m., and I was able to persuade her to take a little of formula from a spoon. She seemed fragile and helpless, and I grieved gently while holding her, wondering whether she would survive.

At sunrise the following morning, I received my response. When we woke up, Inca was fully awake. I gave her some formula again and then gave her a bowl of sprouting seeds. Despite the fact that she had been picking at the sprouts all morning, she seemed weary, so I left her box partially covered so she could continue to rest. I was astonished at lunchtime when I reached inside the box to check on Inca. I sprang up and started yelling to my husband, “She nipped me! She bit me quite hard!” I was overjoyed that this adorable young bird was clearly feeling better. That was the first and only time Inca bit any of us.

I prepared some formula for her, and as the spoon neared her lips, Inca leaned back, grabbed for the food, and started bobbing her head up and down…our damaged baby was starving. After a few nibbles, she let me hold her and touch her face for a few minutes before returning her to her cardboard home. I came in an hour later to see her flinging some fresh vegetables from one end of the box to the other. She was consuming (or at least playing).

Inca ate a little more formula that afternoon, after getting her another shot. After all of my other infants were fed and securely tucked in for “night-night,” I leaned in again to gently pick up my tiny charge, and we started what would become a nightly routine for the two of us over the following several years. She reached out with her beak and gently tugged on my lower lip as I cradled this infant to my breast and sat back in the chair… Inca then relaxed, nestled her head on my neck, and fell asleep in less than two minutes. My spouse wrapped a blanket across us and we slept on the chair for nearly an hour without moving.

The sound of Inca scratching her beak on the edge of the box that now “lived” directly next to our bed woke me up the following morning, shortly before daylight.

I leaned in and drew her onto the bed with me. She extended her neck, and my lower lip started whining for food after “kissing.” She climbed up my arm, then up to my chest, and started reaching for my face after a few licks of formula. As I dropped my head, our tiny angel started softly preening my lashes.

When Inca was restored to her box, she immediately began eating the moistened seed. Though still fragile, it looked like our new bird was finally on the mend. We took the first photos of Inca that morning…she looked pitiful. Her tail and tummy were still discolored from being in the shipping box for so long, her whole right side was stained red with blood and disinfectant as a consequence of the procedure, and every feather on her little body appeared out of place. But behind all of that chaos was a magnificent creature with a tremendous determination to live.

We could feel the love and intelligence radiating from that tiny bird when Inca would look up at us with her bright shining eyes, tilt her head slightly to one side, then give a very low “gurgle” while reaching up to preen our faces…and we somehow knew she was thanking us for helping her survive the pain.

Inca’s recovery process and personality evolved throughout the weeks. When it came time to remove the pin from her wing, we were all surprised when, instead of screaming, Inca climbed up the vet’s arm and started preening his face. From then on, whenever we took her for a vehicle ride and were near to his office, we had to take Inca in for a visit with “Dr…” she had an open invitation. Inca would gladly go to anybody who approached her in a kind, compassionate way.

Inca was a lovely addition to our household, but she never became attached to any of our other pet Cockatoos “Mum’s particular companion. The memories of her time with us are too precious to put into words. Each day was a joyful occasion for Inca, and she loved life to the fullest, maybe because it had almost been taken from her at such a young age.

Every morning, she came out of her sleeping cage next to our bed and climbed under the covers for a snuggle with “Mum.” During the day, she would spend some time in her “day” cage in the bird room with her feathered siblings and some time snuggling and playing with us. Inca appeared perfectly pleased to be with me whether I was feeding young birds, making human or bird meals, reading, chatting on the phone, or watching TV. If I attempted to put my hand on the arm of my easy chair, Inca would reach out with her beak, raise my hand, and nestle her head beneath my fingers, gazing up at me with her gorgeous smiling face…how could I say no?

We spread an old sheet on the living room floor for Inca to use as a play area. She sat on the edge of the wicker basket with her head tilted, staring in until something “special” grabbed her attention. She’d descend inside the basket to get the prize, then crawl back up to sit atop the basket while scrutinizing and destroying the thing at hand.

Inca would sometimes get out of control while playing (overloaded). She’d lift her crest, expand her wings, and start racing in tight circles like a dog chasing its tail for no apparent reason. I need to explain our home so you can understand and completely grasp this behavior. Because of the tropical heat, doors in northern Australia were constantly open throughout the day, and there were no screens. Inca would start “circling,” and then, like a top spinning, she’d start moving laterally as well. On numerous times, she was out the door and onto the verandah before she (or we) realized what had happened, then down the verandah and into the ground, where she would abruptly stop, lift her head, and look about as if to ask, “What happened?”

My husband and I were making supper one evening while Inca was playing in the living room. Although she could see us, I believe she believed we were too far away. She strolled over to where we were standing after climbing the three stairs. I turned to face her and said, “Inca, my hands are filthy and I can’t pick you up right now. Dad is also preparing something on the stove.” I’ll never forget her perplexed expression. She then moved over to the corner where the cabinets meet and stood with her face pressed against the wood, as if she were a kid being instructed to “stand in the corner.” After a few minutes, she lifted one foot and closed her eyes. She did it from then on whenever we were both in the kitchen and she needed our attention.

Summer and winter, Inca’s bedtime was exactly 7:00 p.m. This was her choice. She usually ate supper with us about 6:00, and by 6:30, she was beak scraping on the sofa, curled up against either my husband or me. She would be irritated if we did not pay great attention to the clock and crawl up the six stairs leading to our bedroom at exactly 7:00 p.m. She’d sit on the floor by the door, waiting for one of us to pick her up, apologize profusely for being such “negligent” parents, and tuck her in safe and sound for the night.

We had been raising Australian cockatoos for five years before Inca arrived, and we were (and continue to be) astounded by their knowledge, the depth of their affections, and their acceptance of people. Inca was a new chapter for us, and it showed us the value, if not the need, of positively engaging with nature’s unique and unusual species. If we are open to new challenges and open our lives and hearts to new experiences, we may be touched by an angel.

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