Learning from Mercy

This article originally appeared in Good Bird Magazine, Fall of 2008 edition. It was published under my maiden name, Emily Gough. 

Mercy came into our lives as quickly as she left.

A red tailed grey sixteen years young, she was displaced for the second time in her life when we got the call. From the moment the phone rang, with word that there was a grey that needed a home, we knew she would be a good fit. A grey was my dream parrot, and I was very eager to experience the intelligence and talking ability of one. When we arrived, it went without saying that we would take this bird home. Her living conditions were less then spectacular, and her diet was something not to be desired.

The first couple weeks were rough. Mercy took an instant dislike to me, and would unabashedly insult me using rude phrases and names. She would also not hesitate to stare me down, or send a well placed nip my way. If by chance she did allow me to pick her up, she only allotted a small amount of time for me to carry her from point A to point B before she would begin to nip at my hand. Try as I might, no amount of handmade toys, lovingly prepared food, or favorite treats could win her over. However, she took an instant shine to my mother, and they became best of friends. Mercy would beg to get her attention, and they would spend hours cuddling on the couch. My mother could do anything with that bird- carry her around the house, engage her in flapping exercises, hand feed her treats. Mercy happily participated in any activity that included my mom.. I enjoyed sitting by the sidelines, listening to her growing repertoire of phrases and sounds, and watching her turn into a lovebug when ‘snuggle time’ came around.

A year went by, and our family underwent many changes. We added another rehome to the flock, a caique, and moved across state. We were finally settling into a new pace of life, when the unexpected happened.

Being as I am an early bird, I was up one morning browsing on the computer in the other room as to not wake the birds, who were situated in our living room. I started to hear this odd noise, reminiscent of Darth Vader. Tiptoeing into the living room, I immediately started checking cages. Tired birds peeked out from under their covers, feet curled comfortably against their bodies. Except for Mercy. She was swinging slowly on her swing, and making a noise that can only be described as a death rattle. Her whole body shook in pain and her tail was bobbing furiously with each breath. Of course, this all happened on a Sunday morning.

I put in a frantic call to the vet on his emergency line, and we raced to take Mercy in. We met the vet at the door, and anxiously waited for him to complete a preliminary examination. Of course by now, adrenaline had kicked in, and Mercy had stopped making the noise that was worrying us so.  Last year, when my Amazon, Paco, was sick, we experienced the same frustration, him not showing he was sick when we took him to the vet, and the vet was unable to see and experience the troublesome symptoms. I learned a great deal from that experience, and so before we had bundled up Mercy and headed to the office, I had used my digital recorder to record the distressing noise.

When the vet sat down to talk to us, I offered him the recorder to listen. Surprised, he listened to the recording intently, and then patted me on the back. He had been about to tell us that because Mercy stopped exhibiting symptoms (as expected) he was going to have to run a great deal of testing to find out what was wrong. But, because he could listen to the noise that we were so worried about, he was able to eliminate a great deal of possible causes, such as egg binding, and certain respiratory ailments. He explained that because the way she was breathing, he was able to identify what area was being affected- upper respiratory versus lower respiratory- and eliminate a list of previous concerns. That was the good news. The bad news was, that what it narrowed down to was heart trouble. The vet kept Mercy in an ICU unit, and set up the unit so that she could breathe in pain medication to get some relief. Until the x-rays and other tests were back, we would have to wait.

The next day, we were able to go visit Mercy, bring her some favorite foods, and discuss the results of current tests run. We discussed little observations that had been previously missed- decrease in activity, for example, with our vet, in hopes to come to a concrete conclusion of what had happened. The X-rays taken revealed that Mercy’s arteries were hardened and clogged, her heart swollen, and there was fluid in her lungs. The vet explained it as a heart attack, and we agreed that it was likely a consequence of her previous diet, which was made up of mainly peanuts and sunflower seeds.

Mercy was at the veterinarians office for about a week, recuperating. Our vet was wonderful, and kept her in the ICU unit to keep her most comfortable, and allowed us to visit her. Near the end of the week, Mercy was starting to make some of her favorite noises again, and interacting with my mom when we came to see her. On Wednesday, we were allowed to bring her home, much to our surprise.

Under careful instruction from the vet, we moved her cage against a wall to give her more comfort, kept it partially covered with a light blanket, and set up a humidifier next to the cage. These changes helped keep her calm, and breathe easier. Within a couple days, much to our astonishment, she was on top of her cage, when she grasped to her perch firmly and began flapping! This we believed to be the start of the road to recovery.

A couple days before the Thanksgiving holiday, Mercy started to decline. She became listless, and stopped playing with toys. Two days before we were scheduled to leave town for the holiday, Mercy took a turn for the worse. That night, the noise started again. My mom took her out of her cage, and cuddled with her on the couch as I called the vet. That night, Mercy suffered a series of mini strokes and presumably another heart attack. Knowing this was the end, we stayed up with her throughout the night. By morning, Mercy was still alive, against whatever odds. Knowing it was time to say goodbye, we wrapped her in a blanket and drove to the vet. During the car ride, I was able to pet her head, without her attempting to bite me, a first.

At the clinic, the vet prepared the oral anesthesia that would put Mercy gently to sleep and end her pain. As he fed the contents of the syringe into her crop, her eyes got heavy. After a couple minutes, the vet left the room to get another syringe. Because her heart was no longer pumping properly, the normal dosage was not effective, so it was doubled. For the past year, my mom had been trying to teach Mercy to say “I love you.” As Mercy drifted off to sleep, it was the first- and last- time she ever uttered the words “I love you” to the human that cared about her most.

As a reminder of just how much Mercy touched our lives in the short time she was with us, our vet removed her band and gave it to me for safekeeping. At a later date, he explained the importance of that week and the revelation that had followed. The recording of Mercy’s wheezing had not only saved our family money that would have been otherwise spent running tests, but it helped save Mercy. Because the vet was able to experience what we had been witnessing, he was able to diagnose her and not have to go through trial and error to find the cause. Mercy shouldn’t have been alive after that first heart attack- but she was. That recording had bought us a month of extra time with the bird we had only known for such a short period.