Thursday, May 30, 2013

Alabaré a Mi Señor

Alabaré a Mi Señor
Alabaré (4x)
Alabaré A mi Señor (2x)
Juan vio el numero de los redimidos
Y todos alababan al Señor
Unos cantaba, otros oraban,
Y todos alababan al Señor
Todos unidos alegres cantamos
Glorias y alabanzas al Señor
Gloria al Padre, gloria al Hijo
Y gloria al Espiritu de amor

   I Will Praise My Lord
   I will praise (4x)
   I will praise my Lord (2x)
   John saw the number of those redeemed
   And all of them were praising the Lord
   Some were singing, some were praying
   And all were praising the Lord

     All sang happy together
     Glory and praise to the Lord
     Glory to the Father, glory to the Son
     And glory to the Spirit of love

Truly remarkable, totally cute, and heart warming for sure.  These are two Yellow-Crowned Amazons, one of the 30 species of Amazon parrots, which are found in the New World from South America to Mexico and the Caribbean, which makes it fitting that the birds in the video are singing in Spanish. Most Amazon Parrots look like variations on these: mostly green birds with accent colors in different shades and at different locations of their bodies.  Several of the species including the Yellow-Crowned Amazons are among the parrot world's most accomplished "talkers."  I did not use the word, mimic, for a reason.  It is true that parrots are fantastic mimics, and can imitate as sorts of sounds, including words, but I know first hand that even those species that are not known as "great talkers" can learn to use phrases in context.  (If you are interested in those stories, you need to see my other blog, where I talk about owning my birds,  Amazons are known, however, for this other amazing ability that you just witnessed in the video above, singing!

Amazons are renowned for their knack of learning songs that they love and trumpeting them at the top of their voices.  This hymn is ubiquitous in Latin America, and I'm sure these birds have heard it sung often, and they clearly enjoy the theatrical quality of the melody.  Notice, as well, how they trade different bits of the music with one bird singing half of a phrase which is then completed by the other bird.  Truly astonishing.

Watching this caused emotions of awe and inspiration.  I am continually caught in wonder of just how much more fantastical the whole of creation is than we often times give it credit.  All of creation cries out to the creator.  All of creation is a miracle and watching these birds made me think of Psalm 104:

"What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations. Oh, look—the deep, wide sea, brimming with fish past counting, sardines and sharks and salmon. Ships plow those waters, and Leviathan, your pet dragon, romps in them. All the creatures look expectantly to you... "                                                                 --Psalm 104: 24-27 (from The Message)
It would do us all well, to stop, put our human centric vision aside for a moment, and try to take the "wide-angle" view of the world.  All of creation praises the creator.  Perhaps if we take the moment of quiet to listen, we will allow ourselves to experience creations truly remarkable existence and think twice the next time our "dominion" comes into conflict with its wholeness.  We are the gardeners of the great garden.  And what a remarkable garden it is.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Softly and Tenderly

Trust, and love are two of the beautiful gifts that our pets demonstrate to us time and again. Their ability to read us and interact with us betray an intellect that is far more sophisticated than many would believe and that science said was impossible for centuries. Despite the protests of many a pet owner, science insisted that animals (other than humans) were nothing more than machines of response and stimuli. The silly assertions of pet owners were nothing more than intellectually soft and irresponsible anthropomorphizations.
A tender moment between beaker and Jorge
Fortunately this mindset has been giving way to better research and many scientists are opening up to the idea that personality is something that we share with our animal compatriots. That they do indeed have an emotional life and are capable of more complex thought than was originally believed.

Having said that, I would like to relate an incident that occurred between my Blue & Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna), Beaker and myself.

 Beaker is a "rescue" bird, meaning that we did not purchase him but rather, took him in via a rescue (Spring Branch Animal and Bird Sanctuary, in Houston, Texas - SBABS).  When he came into the rescue he was around 25 years old and had spent most of his life living with a chain smoker, who eventually died of emphysema (one of the first sounds that beaker made for us was the sound of someone coughing a deep smokers cough).  After this person died, he was given to a relative that had no interest in birds and left him in the cage with little or no attention, feeding him nothing more than seeds.  The neglect and misfortune of his early life were visible in his badly plucked plumage, his "scissor-beak" which probably occurred as a result of bad husbandry when he was a chick, and the white patches on his face (which were stained brown with nicotine when he was finally brought into SBABS).  His state of deterioration was bad enough that the vets that checked him raised the possibility that euthanasia might be the most  humane solution for him.  In spite, of his condition, the director of the sanctuary wanted to work with him and see what she could do.  Slowly but surely Beaker recovered and I was introduced to him.  He took to Jorge and I well and came to live with us.

Since that time, beaker has made a full recovery for the most part, although he already has atherosclerosis, no doubt from many years of bad diet and second hand smoke.  He has however taken more of a liking to Jorge than me.  Which is fine.  I spend much of my time with my animals trying to allow them choices rather than take more away from them.  Empowerment is my game, so if beaker likes Jorge better then thats ok.  In general this means that beaker doesn't want to have that much to do with me unless Jorge is away, then I do just fine as an acceptable replacement for Beaker's favorite person.

It is in those times, when Jorge is away, that I get to have really substantive and positive interaction with Beaker in an intellectual way as well as physical.  He will talk with me, and step up, and ride around the house on my should with bliss (or at other times, just using me as a taxi to take him around the house looking for the person he'd really rather be with).

One thing a new bird owner quickly understands is that a bird's beak speaks loudly of its mood, openess to handling, and general state of mind.  It only takes one or two real good "hits" from an angry, insecure, or reluctant bird to get the idea that a gaping beak headed for one of your appendages means "back off, buddy!" and while even a tiny budgie or parrotlet can inflict a righteous dose of punishment with their little chompers, the bigger bird, the bigger the beak, the stronger and more "persuasive" they can be, indeed.  (In "bird-speak" this can also be a warning for your own good, if the bird perceives that you are in some kind of danger, sort of like a spanking for your own good.)

Beaker issuing a clear warning!

As an instrument, however, the beak is useful for so much more than warning and admonishing.  It is a very sensitive instrument, even though it, at first glance, looks as if it is nothing more than a hard keratinous outcrop.  It is full of nerve endings and is for the most part how birds explore the world (their legs are busy supporting them and their "arms" have become wings for locomotion and little else.  The beak can also be an instrument of great delicacy that tends to the tiny filaments in a birds own feathers as they preen, or that manipulates the individual hairs in a human eyebrow as a bird allopreens it's human companion.

A few weeks ago, I went into the study to check on Beaker and spend a few minutes with him. He was perched in his cage, "chilling" the afternoon quietly away.  I Opened the door and reached in to a very calm and welcoming beaker.  He seemed aware that his preferred anthropod was not available and that I was therefore acceptable as company.  I reached behind his head and ruffled his feathers a bit, searching for pin feathers that I could assist him with dispatching.  His eyes relaxed into an almond shape and he cooed softly with approval making a kind of soft "braaa-a-a-a-a-a--a-" sound that Blue and Gold Macaws make when they are "comfy and approving" of ones actions. Knowing that he sometimes like's his face patches stroked, I let my thumb slip around and rubbed his skin gently and was treated to more "braaa-a-a-a-a-a-a-."

I do my best to let my birds my birds chooose.  There is always room for them to move away and I try not to force them to step up.  I do my best to listen to their vocal and body language.  So to this point in the story, its all about what Beaker wants.  He turns his head to the side a little bit to give me a better angle to his cheek patches and there are more "braaa-a-a-a-a-aa-'s."  More ruffling and stroking goes on for a bit and then Beaker starts to puff up just a little bit and open his beak in a way that I interpret as him being less open to my continuing and that a nip might be in my future.  I start to pull away and sure enough, here comes the beak, but then Beaker does something that warmed my heart and fascninated me.  Rather than nip me, he gently and carefully held my thumb in in his beak with just enough pressure to hold my hand in plance and nothing more, as if to say, "Wait, Wait. Stay.  Don't Go."  I stayed right there, thumb in beak and continued to ruffle his feathers for another minute or two.  Not for one second did he bite down or chew on my thumb or touch it with his tongue.  He was just holding on.  After a couple of minutes, he released my thumb and cocked his head to the side a little to look straight at me and made a little more cooing as he moved away from my hand and we both relaxed.  He quitely added a "Ha, ha, haa, HAAAaaaa as I closed the door on his cage walked back into the kitchen.  I could hear him behind me climbing up to his favorite perch to preen and relax.

Afterwards, as I went about my household tasks, I couldn't help but reflect on what had happened at be just amazed at the exchange.  How amazing is it that two different species, separated by so much time and genetic difference, could share a tender exchange, an exchange which saw the use of a powerful and intimidating appendage to communicate such gentleness.  The exchange of trust between the two of us was amazing.  I'm usually bad cop, taking Beaker to have his monthly beak trim or taking him to the vet (one of his least favorite places).  I take the brunt of the nipping and bossing from this bird as a general rule, but in this instant, that was put aside and we both enjoyed each other in detent.  These birds we invite into our homes to live with us, our animals in general are each fascinating and amazing in their own way, from rodent to psittacine.  How lucky are we to share our world with them, to cooperate with them.  While we may never know exactly what goes on in their minds, our pets live complex emotional lives beyond what many would allow.  I definitely felt love rise from within myself during our exchange and if not love, there was certainly major trust demonstrated by Beaker as he let his guard down with his "B" person. I hope that each of you will spend a few thoughtful minutes with your animal companions and marvel at the relationship you enjoy with them.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sunday Matins with Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus)

As a church worker, my Sunday mornings have little in the way of resemblance to those who are Monday-Friday workaday types. Rather than dream away sleepily about the golf game I'll be playing later in the day, I'm usually up between 3:30 and 4:30 and out the door between 4:00 and 5:00 AM (5:00 is uncomfortably late as this is only 2 hours before people start arriving for 8:00 AM worship). Anyway, as is often the case with early risers it is of vital importance to consume coffee and pastries as soon as possible and on one particular morning at around 4:00 AM I faced the rest of the morning with neither because I'd skipped grocery shopping the day before and I was headed to church before the local Shipley's Doughnuts had opened. That left only one option Walmart (thank you Sam Walton for 24/7 shopping convenience bliss).

Emerging from Walmart, secure in "the feast to come," I took a moment to observe the Grackles that are a regular fixture of the "parking lot wilderness" in my neck of the woods. Literally thousands of these medium small birds had descended from the safety of the trees and begun congregating in large groups across the parking lot. As I looked at them, I became very curious as to what was going on here. While its true that the early bird gets the worm, this was still three hours before even a hint of sun would show itself on the eastern horizon and it was pretty darn cold for houstonians at least. The temperature had dipped into the low forties during the night, cold enough to see ones breath upon exhaling. They hadn't descended into comfy insulting grass either. They were massing together on the cold hardness of the parking lot itself. I thought to myself that this couldn't be nearly as comfortable as alighting in and among the insulted branches of a tree and yet here they were. What could possibly be going on here.

I will pause for a moment in the interests of full disclosure. I realize that what follows is blatant anthropomorphization. I am to be hopefully forgiven for this for two reasons:

  1.  There is no method by which I may simply ask one of these creatures what on earth they are thinking. We don't speak anywhere near the same language. 
  2. Even while I am aware that these delicate creatures are in fact the living decedents of theropod dinosaurs, which separates us by more than twigs in the tree of life ( and even more than large branches for that matter), we do both have brains and we are vertebrates. Might we take a pause to question the hubris that says that we share nothing of our intelligences. We do, after all, somewhere in the vault of history share an ancestor. We humans are a part of the natural world, no matter how hard we try to separate our selves from it. From a biblical or a natural perspective, whether emerging from the foam of evolutionary randomness or as a key player that was and always has been a part of, and not separate from, the biblical creation story, We are part of the same story. Is it to much to believe that we might share more than our backbones? Might not it be possible that the grey matter in our skulls is not completely distinct and that in as much as we see our wildness reflected in the creatures of earth, might not our intelligence be in some way a part of their nature as well. We all come from the same stuff, and while its crazy to imagine that their minds are exactly as ours, can we cut the little creatures of the earth a little slack and at least consider the prospect that they might see the world like us in part?
Full disclosure provided, I now continue.

As I watched these spirited little beings milling around each other.  There weren't a lot of pecking at the ground and foraging.  There was more of a community of sorts happening.  There wasn't a lot of motion either.  Instead there rose from this gaggle of birds, a sustained mass of sound as they gathered together.  Not surprisingly this reminded me of church, as I was about to get into my vehicle and head to a church of my own.  This image struck me as a particularly beautiful one.

This was Matins.  What is Matins?:

Matins is the monastic nighttime liturgy, ending at dawn, of the canonical hours. As standardized in the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, it is divided into three Nocturns. The name "Matins" originally referred to the morning office also known as Lauds. When the nocturnal monastic services called Vigils or Nocturns were joined with Lauds, the name of "Matins" was applied at first to the concluding morning service and later still to the entire series of Vigils.[1]

Here was this large gathering of grackles, beginning their day by calling to each other and coming together as a group, just as we come to church as one and with one voice call to the creator.  The Sun had yet to rise and these birds were beginning their day in a way reminiscent of how, perhaps, we should all begin our days, in community with the creator and each other.  It's a stretch I know, but for that moment, early on a Sunday morning, I joined in with the grackles and experienced Matins, my morning prayers, with the whimsical, tenacious, and curious grackle.