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The Missing Cockatiel

    The other day our elementary school had the end-of-year picnic, which was every bit as hot and sticky and full of children as I had feared it would be. One of the kids decided to bring her beloved pet bird, a cockatiel. She let it out of the cage, I guess to allow it to explore the soccer field and the blacktop all the more easily. The bird instead noticed the trees, and flew away. The child's weeping dominated the rest of the evening, her sobs a soundtrack of despair and hopelessness.

     A number of people went looking for the bird, but I felt strongly that the best course of action would be to give the little despairing girl a Speech to Remember. I wanted to tell her something like this:

    "Little Darlin', I'm very sorry about your bird. I know you loved that bird. Though your actions have led directly to the bird's certain death, that is a good lesson in how life works. We live in a hostile world. The margin of error is narrow and constantly contracting. But although your bird has surely been devoured by a hawk, at least it had a moment of joy before its gruesome death. Take solace in that."

     But I did not give that speech, because some parents believe in sheltering their children from the harsh vagaries of human existence. So I looked for the bird. I saw and heard a lot of birds but none of them was The Bird.

     The next morning at dawn, my friend Lindsey Truitt went looking for the bird. Lindsey is one of the moms at the school. She did not know the little girl or her family, but Lindsey is a nature person, a landscaper, someone who drives a pickup truck and has built her own kayak by hand. She's also personally revamped the grounds of the school, for free, and installed educational gardens with a little guidebook that teaches students how to identify plants by studying the leaves. Someone like Lindsey goes under the label of "volunteer." You probably know a lot of volunteers in your own life, and grasp the central concept that these are people who work without pay, as opposed to many of us, who get paid even though we don't work. A huge sector of our economy is built around these volunteers laboring for no compensation and, at best, a line in the school newsletter.

     So Lindsey went back to the school the next morning at dawn. She sat there, and listened. She heard the bird. She saw the bird. She used her cellphone to track down the bird's human family. The family raced to the school and soon the bird was back in the cage, safe and sound, no more anguish, no more tears.

     Yesterday was the last day of school. Lindsey's youngest child graduated from the school and I guess we won't see her around school much anymore. But we'll keep admiring her shrubs and trees and flowers. Years from now, long after our kids are gone, we'll go back and see how much everything has grown, and we'll bore people with tales of the end-of-year picnics, and how small everything and everyone used to be.

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 21, 2005; 7:44 PM ET
 
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Comments

Aw, that's a good post. And nothing at all controversial!

Except for the cruel inprisonment of a creature of nature for a child's petty entertainment! If I told you about a freedom-loving soul that was kept in a cage, and was released to freedom only to be tracked down so that it could again be put behind cold bars, you'd probably think I was describing Nazis! Or Gulags or Klingons or my ex-girlfriend that made me sit through Phantom of the Opera!

Posted by: jw | June 22, 2005 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I'm going to my first chid's first end-of year picnic in about half an hour. Having never done this before, I appreciate the insight. Though it won't be hot and sticky today, we might have rain!

This piece was beautifully written, thank you!

Posted by: Hmmm | June 22, 2005 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Sounds like a case of a desire to show off gone wrong. Only it didn't really go wrong, because some kind soul took responsibility for the bird and made everything OK again. Joel's "Speech to Remember" would have done a lot more good. Instead, this little girl has learned that if you make a mistake, someone else will go to great lengths to pick up the pieces. I'm thinking maybe the kids in the creepy sperm donor family will learn more useful life lessons than this.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | June 22, 2005 10:42 AM | Report abuse

is something wrong with the washpost site? The blog only seems to be accessible every other day or so now....

Posted by: Anonymous | June 22, 2005 10:48 AM | Report abuse

The Univ of South Carolina mascot is the cockatiel. That is so stupid.

Posted by: Ronnie | June 22, 2005 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Joel, stand by for a message from Steven Spielberg's representatives regarding the movie rights to this blog item.

bc

Posted by: bc | June 22, 2005 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and jw, at least you didn't have to sit through 'Cats' like I did (shudder).

'Phantom' was practically 'Pulp Fiction' in comparison.

bc

Posted by: bc | June 22, 2005 10:52 AM | Report abuse

I believe 'Cats' violates more than one article of the Geneva Conventions. Amnesty Int. should be contacting you shortly.

Posted by: jw | June 22, 2005 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Is EVERYTHING political to you people?!!

Oh, wait, I forgot. Everything IS political.

Nice job, Joel, you're always good at the human interest stuff, never sapppy, always sweet.

Posted by: kbertocci | June 22, 2005 11:15 AM | Report abuse

'Cats' is like the phone book--lots of characters, some of them even interesting, but little to no plot.

And too long.

Posted by: toady | June 22, 2005 11:16 AM | Report abuse

And if 'Cats' isn't the product of psychotropic pharmacuedicals, I don't know what is.

It's kind of like 'The Rats of Nymn.' I rememeber watching that movie when I was a kid, and thinking, "What the HELL is going on here?" The book made much more sense.

k: I'm just making fun of the people who tend to read Joel's posts out of context and start posting manifestos and such. Or is it manifestoes? Is there an embarrassing VP in the house?

Posted by: jw | June 22, 2005 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Manifestoes. Or Manifestos. Looks wrong either way, but both are acceptable.
The Rats of NIMH.
sappy.
pharmaceuticals.
remember.

Our collective typos make a kind of a poem.

Artistically (and politically) yours...

Posted by: kbertocci | June 22, 2005 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 22, 2005 11:59 AM | Report abuse

jw, I think that's 'The Secret of NIMH', something from the always-eccentric Don Bluth animation studios. But yeah, I understand.

I'm standing by for a call from Amnesty International, thanks for your help. They do have my number in their speed dial, though.

(eyes narrowing) kbertocci, exactly what do you mean by "you people"?

bc

Posted by: bc | June 22, 2005 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I guess jw is one of them phonetic spellers. (Isn't that how they teach "you people" to spell in this country?) :)

Posted by: Achenfan | June 22, 2005 12:06 PM | Report abuse

The movie is "The Secret of NIMH" and the main character is named Mrs. Brisby with a special necklace and the book is "Mr. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" with no special necklace. I apparently wore out the movie as a child. Then I read the book and realized the book made much more sense once I went back and compared the movie. It made me also think, "What the HELL is going on here?" Speaking of "What the hell is going on here" wasn't this post about a bird. I suppose cats eat birds and rats though...so it ties in on several levels.

Posted by: Sara | June 22, 2005 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Sara, the Select Audience of 15 doesn't care what I blog about. The 15 say whatever they want. We occupy parallel conversational universes that aren't actually parallel. They're borderline tangential. But it's all good.

Posted by: Achenbach | June 22, 2005 12:30 PM | Report abuse

"borderline tangential"! I love it.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 22, 2005 12:39 PM | Report abuse

The volunteer that sat, listened and observed is a birder I can live with.

Posted by: Bill the Ivory Billed Woodpecker | June 22, 2005 12:49 PM | Report abuse

I purposefully intersperse my posts with horrible spelling, grammar, and typos to create the illusion that I don't care what any of you think. Does it work?

Looking back at "The Secret of NIMH," I'm starting to realize how bizarre it really was. It was pretty much you usual Bruckheimer apocalypse/ticking clock flick, except instead of Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler it's a creepy rat and a strangely attractive mouse with telekinetic abilities, and instead of an asteroid it's a farmer's plow. Woah.

And I think 15 might be pushing it.

Posted by: jw | June 22, 2005 12:57 PM | Report abuse

aww what a great blog. I don't think the bird should have gone back to the little girl. Obviously the bisrd wasn't happy in the cage since he escaped as soon as it was possible. I don't know what is worst the bird being back in the cage or free and eaten by a hawk.
PS. I miss one day and I have to catch up on my comments.

Posted by: fdg31 | June 22, 2005 12:57 PM | Report abuse

bc: Of course "You People" is the Select 15, who else. But I can say it for the same reason Chris Rock gets to use the N word.

Posted by: kbertocci | June 22, 2005 12:58 PM | Report abuse

"I don't give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way." -- Mark Twain

Posted by: jw | June 22, 2005 1:05 PM | Report abuse

The University of South Carolina mascot is the Gamecocks not the Cockatiels -- which would be stupid.

Posted by: Washington,DC | June 22, 2005 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Joel, kbertocci -
I see.
The Select Audience of 15 - I like it!

I think of Joel's blog as a social particle accelerator: he provides the blog item/particle and the accleration, and once the "Post Comments" button comes up, it's like the particle hitting the target.

All kinds of weird quantum particles (Joel's Bloglodytes aka the Gang Of 15)shoot off in and any/or all directions in a spectacular display that may be difficult to associate with the original target, may contain unusual spin, charm and other bizarre properties, each of which eventually runs out of energy and collaspes into nothingness. The Observers each get to decide for themselves what they saw. Lather, rinse, repeat.

bc

bc

Posted by: bc | June 22, 2005 1:32 PM | Report abuse

By Jove, bc -- I think you've got it. What a great analogy!

Posted by: Tom fan | June 22, 2005 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I get to be the strange quark.

Posted by: jw | June 22, 2005 1:43 PM | Report abuse

You'll get no arguments on that one.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 22, 2005 1:45 PM | Report abuse

I know a little about birds because an old friend has an African Grey parrot. She and I used to try to take him on outings frequently in order to entertain and stimulate him. (Parrots are so intelligent that they eventually go crazy if they don't get enough stimulation.) It also helps to socialize the birds so that they don't bite so much. He never tried to fly away, although his wings had been clipped as a baby, which probably discouraged him from trying (their wings need to be clipped repeatedly to prevent them from being able to fly).

So the little girl at the picnic might have been bringing the bird for the bird's sake, and less for show-off, although it is fun to watch other people react to them. I'm not saying I condone locking up an animal, I certainly don't cage my dog, but the bird would be better off with the family than trying (and failing) to fend for itself in an unfamiliar environment. Most of these sorts of birds are bred in captivity. It's now illegal to take certain wild species from their habitats in Africa and South America.

Posted by: TA | June 22, 2005 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I know a little about birds because an old friend has an African Grey parrot. She and I used to try to take him on outings frequently in order to entertain and stimulate him. (Parrots are so intelligent that they eventually go crazy if they don't get enough stimulation.) It also helps to socialize the birds so that they don't bite so much. He never tried to fly away, although his wings had been clipped as a baby, which probably discouraged him from trying (their wings need to be clipped repeatedly to prevent them from being able to fly).

So the little girl at the picnic might have been bringing the bird for the bird's sake, and less for show-off, although it is fun to watch other people react to them. I'm not saying I condone locking up an animal, I certainly don't cage my dog, but the bird would be better off with the family than trying (and failing) to fend for itself in an unfamiliar environment. Most of these sorts of birds are bred in captivity. It's now illegal to take certain wild species from their habitats in Africa and South America.

Posted by: TA | June 22, 2005 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Hmm, I never thought of the bringing-it-to-the-picnic-for-its-own-sake angle. Good point. Maybe it was just a case of poor judgment in choosing an appropriate venue for the bird's socialization. Or maybe the bird squawked and cried as the family was leaving the house for the picnic, and they had no choice but to bring it. (Is it OK to call the bird an it? Or should I say he or she? I've never owned a bird, so you'll have to excuse my ignorance.)

Posted by: Curmudgeon | June 22, 2005 1:56 PM | Report abuse

That is beautiful, Joel. But wait. Could this not be a whole column? Are you sure you are not wasting this on the few?

Posted by: Alberta | June 22, 2005 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I apologize for my frequent double-postings. I seem to have browser issues.

Posted by: TA | June 22, 2005 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Is it tangential or orthogonal? I thought othogonal was the new "it" phrase for sounding sophisticated and unique.

Maybe the Select 15 do have a common orthogonality, though. I loved the book Rats of Nimh when I was a kid (Wasn't the title "Mrs. Frisby" not Mr.?, and she was a mouse, not a rat, right?). Don't remember the movie so much. I'll have to go get a copy for my kids ... finally got them hooked on Roald Dahl, but CS Lewis is a harder sell.

Concur with all, Joel, this Bird story is a solid piece. Is it really JUST a blog item?

Posted by: Kane | June 22, 2005 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, it's got everything. Animals, cute kids doing dumb kid stuff, a local-folk profile, and a Speech to Remember. I might just be *too* good.

Posted by: jw | June 22, 2005 2:37 PM | Report abuse

It might be too good, I meant.

My previous statement is, however, not inaccurate.

Posted by: jw | June 22, 2005 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Too cool for school.

Posted by: Vinnie Barbarino | June 22, 2005 2:42 PM | Report abuse

His story should be a new children book.

PS I wasn't in the selection of the 15 :(

Posted by: fdg31 | June 22, 2005 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Whoa, the story had a happy ending - which sometimes does happen. I became an owner of a budgie, or parakeet, that flew away from somebody's home and landed next to me in my yard - hungry and tired. That was seven years ago.

As for the cockatiel being that mascot of University of South Carolina - that's wrong. USC's mascot is the gamecock. 'Tiels are small parrots from Australia. Maybe there's a school down under that has one as its mascot.

By the way, both my birds get "out time" - in the house. And their wings are regularly trimmed. Don't wince - its like a birdy haircut.

Posted by: PD the 'Tiel Owner | June 22, 2005 2:54 PM | Report abuse

fdg31: How do you know you weren't? All you have to do is believe.

Posted by: Dreamer | June 22, 2005 2:55 PM | Report abuse

fdg31: Dreamer is right: we're self-selected!

Posted by: kbertocci | June 22, 2005 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Cogito ergo sum.

bc

Posted by: bc | June 22, 2005 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Although being a member is kind of a dubious honor. All it really means is that you spend more time during the workday reading and posting to Joel's blog than actually doing real work.

Posted by: jw | June 22, 2005 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Since there is no comment link on the Cosmo 1 blog. Let me just make a comment here: Do you think Cosmo 1 will return to its cage? Just like the bird?

Dreamer and kbertocci: thanks, I guess there are only 12 spaces left.

Posted by: fdg31 | June 22, 2005 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Since there is no comment link on the Cosmo 1 blog. Let me just make a comment here: Do you think Cosmi 1 will return to its cage? Just like the bird?

Dreamer and kbertocci: thanks, I guess there are only 12 spaces left.

Posted by: fdg31 | June 22, 2005 3:16 PM | Report abuse

So, Descartes is sitting at a bar when the bartender announces last call. He walks up to Descartes and says, "Have another drink, fella?" After a moment he replies, "I think not." And POOF, he disappears!

Posted by: jw | June 22, 2005 3:20 PM | Report abuse

"There is no 'out there' out there, irrespective of what's in here."

-- Fred Alan Wolf, Ph.D., in "What the Bleep Do We Know!?"

Posted by: Anonymous | June 22, 2005 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Hey fdg31:

http://blogs.washingtonpost.com/achenblog/2005/06/cosmos_1_solar_.html#comments

jw: thanks for reminding me of that one.

bc

Posted by: bc | June 22, 2005 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Hey fdg31:

http://blogs.washingtonpost.com/achenblog/2005/06/cosmos_1_solar_.html#comments

jw: thanks for reminding me of that one.

bc

Posted by: Anonymous | June 22, 2005 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Hey fdg31:

http://blogs.washingtonpost.com/achenblog/2005/06/cosmos_1_solar_.html#comments

jw: thanks for reminding me of that one.

bc

Posted by: Anonymous | June 22, 2005 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for the triple post, I'm having browser issues too. Please accept my apologies.

bc

Posted by: bc | June 22, 2005 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Apologies on the triple post (how embarassing), my browser has been freaking out for the past half hour.

bc

Posted by: bc | June 22, 2005 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Had a cockatiel disappear on me once--excitable kids in a family I was babysitting for about 15 years ago. Goes to show what can happen when you turn your back for a second! In the end, a few neighborhood kids found it after a couple hours of searching, which made everybody happy. More importantly, I didn't get in trouble for not paying attention to what the kids were up to! Still, all in all, I think Joel's speech would have been a better lesson to the little girl--how silly of her parents to allow her to bring that sort of pet to a school picnic. Thanks for the chance to comment...

Posted by: es | June 22, 2005 4:23 PM | Report abuse

So has mine! Maybe it has something to do with that missing solar sail?

Posted by: Dreamer | June 22, 2005 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Kane: I meant "Mrs." Sorry. Proofreading isn't something I do very often.

Posted by: Sara | June 22, 2005 4:25 PM | Report abuse

(The browser, I mean.)

Posted by: Dreamer | June 22, 2005 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Dunno, Dreamer.

There could be some DOS attack somewhere...

bc

Posted by: bc | June 22, 2005 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Is it only me or anyone else having problems with the recent blogs?

Posted by: fdg31 | June 22, 2005 9:31 PM | Report abuse

Its me too. I call up today's blog and i get yesterday's. No idea why. I cleared my cache. I think i quit. I think I quit this stupid enterprise right now.

Posted by: Achenbach | June 23, 2005 9:00 AM | Report abuse

The people at dot.com say they'll look into it and try to fix the problem. So maybe I won't quit.

Posted by: Achenbach | June 23, 2005 9:03 AM | Report abuse

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