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facts & arguments

RACHEL IDZERDA/The Globe and Mail

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers.

Charlie sits on the edge of his gold-trimmed bathtub (a bowl from my best china) and stares me down. "Haven't you anything better to do?" I hear him thinking. Finally, I retreat.

He came to us in a small cardboard box in the hands of our teenaged granddaughter. She had said, many times, "You two need a pet."

Don and I had developed macular degeneration, an age-related eye condition that ended our driving, reading and pursuit of hobbies. Our world had contracted. But we didn't want a pet to care for. However, one evening Megan and her mother, Jen, came in and placed a small box on the table. Peering at the picture on the box, I said, "Is there something alive in there?"

"Well, uh, yes …" Megan said. I opened the box. Within was a clump of yellow feathers awaiting its fate. Seeing my expression, Megan said hastily, "This is Grandpa's bird." Looking at Grandpa, she added: "Taking care of a canary is no sweat. All you do is give him some food and water every day."

Grandpa said, "Okay, honey. Thanks." She darted outside and lugged in a large cage and two bags of birdseed.

This birdseed was not to Charlie's taste. He scratched it out of his dish. It lay on the floor of his cage, along with discarded lettuce, apple and canary excrement. The cage had to be cleaned daily. First we had to capture Charlie. Don would lift off the top of his cage while I grabbed the bird and transferred him to a shoebox. This canary, guaranteed by the store to be a male songbird, had never favoured us with a musical note, but he could certainly squawk.

However, soon our home rang with birdsong issuing from a CD contributed by our elder daughter, Judy. A whole choir of yellow birds twittered, trilled and emitted those long, liquid arpeggios meant to remind a laggard canary to pull up his socks.

It didn't work. Charlie behaved like a bird besieged. He flapped wildly about the cage, apparently certain that an army of male canaries threatened his territory.

"Let's try the bookstore," Don said, "Maybe they have Canaries for Dummies. Judy found us an excellent book. We read it with the aid of our magnifying device from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and approached our bird with renewed hope.

But there was one more problem. Charlie couldn't read.

"Canaries are sociable creatures," the book advised. "Talk to it so it won't be lonely. Eventually, some canaries will perch on an owner's finger."

Hah. Whenever I looked into his cage and said, "How about a song?" he would flap to the uppermost perch and stare pointedly out the window.

He did communicate with my husband. When Don looked in on Charlie, the bird would pick up the food in his dish, bit by bit, and drop it daintily into his bathwater. He would eat nothing but the best gourmet seed. Finally, we found another food he liked – broccoli. Don chopped broccoli into shreds every day. Charlie gobbled it and even accepted banana for dessert. After a sticky feed, he cleaned his beak thoroughly on the bars of the cage. Soon, the entire cage had to be scrubbed with a brush.

One day, Megan saw Charlie taking a nap and decided that he did not look comfy clinging to the perch. She bought him a nest to fit on the perch. Charlie loved it. As two golden feathers drifted to the cage floor, he closed his eyes and tucked his head under his wing.

He seemed content for a while. Then he began tearing up the paper on the cage floor to line his nest. I cut up remnants of silky material and made a neat stack near the nest. My offering was accepted. Still, all was not well. On his daily exercise fly-by from one side of the cage to the other, Charlie had to dodge hanging toys. His flight was erratic, and I feared he would bump his head.

I said to Don, "Charlie needs a larger cage." Don, no doubt recalling the garage littered with bags of rejected birdseed and the fridge, where the latest package of broccoli withered on the shelf, said, "He can get one for a song."

And thus life with Charlie stumbled on until a visiting daughter, glancing into the cage, inquired: "Mom, how did that stone get in there?"

The beige oval had a few blue spots. So, we did not have a male songbird. But why had the egg not been laid in the nest? Carefully, I picked it up and put it there. Charlie swooped over and shoved it right through the bars. It smashed on the dining-room carpet. The egg was unfertilized and, therefore, canary garbage.

One day we caught Charlie dismantling her nest and chucking the pieces out, some on her floor, some on ours. It was clear she was sending a message.

We looked at each other. This bird had been restless and unhappy since the day she moved in. Could she have sensed our initial dismay and our grudging custody? Was her behaviour a cry for help?

In any case, Megan had been right. Trying to please Charlie had been a challenge that brought purpose to our days.

We bought our pet a larger cage, a new nest, and a fake egg.

And then our yellow bird found her voice, a voice as sweet as that of any male canary.

The moral of this story: Remain open to new experiences. They can enrich your life.

Hazel Fulford lives in Thunder Bay, Ont.