Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Mistress of Misfit Pets, Part 2: Birds

Green parakeet aka budgerigar from Wikipedia

Considering how much I love birds now, it wasn't always so. As a child I had a green parakeet, which my mother occasionally let out of his cage to fly around (and once sucked him up in the vacuum cleaner—thankfully it was one of those old canister models, and we found him alive inside, though pretty traumatized, poor thing). I wasn't too enamored with this bird, preferring to look for my own critters in the wild.

When our oldest son was about a year old, someone gave us a blue and white parakeet, and for some reason we named him George. We should have named him Grumpy, because he was not friendly. I think he must have been the source of the phrase, "bite the hand that feeds you." Usually when he molted, he'd lose a few feathers and they'd grow back. But after several years of healthy, grumpy living George lost almost all his feathers at one time, and no matter what I tried—topical meds, food supplements, etc.—he remained a pitiful, almost naked parakeet.

George got out one day when one of the boys left the door open, and we never saw him again. I imagine he either thrived in San Antonio and his bird leprosy was cured, or he was a quick meal for a hawk or cat.
Only known photo of George, the misfit parakeet

I didn't get another bird until my Zebra finches, which I named Cheeky and Pumpkin (who appear briefly in my novel, Leandra's Enchanted Flute). I wanted to see if they would lay eggs, so I bought a nesting basket, which they ignored. Pumpkin preferred the purple gravel dish, and promptly laid three eggs. 

The blind, featherless babies were fascinating to watch as they changed dramatically from day to day. Unfortunately, two birds were noisy and messy enough, but five were just too much for our little house. A local assisted living facility had a large aviary for their residents, and one day while my homeschool band was performing for them, I noticed there weren't many birds in this large space, so I asked if they would like five more residents. They were thrilled, and I brought Cheeky, Pumpkin, and their three now grown offspring to live in this wonderful aviary with new bird and human friends and plenty of room to fly around, compared with their cramped cage.
Cheeky, whose personality matched his name
The 3 offspring and their purple plastic "nest"

As much as I love birds, I plan to observe them in the wild from now on. I have two feeding stations and bird baths—one in the front yard and another in the back. My resident Carolina wren, whom I call Songcatcher of course, sings to me from the front feeder almost every morning.

I guess sometimes nature needs to stay outside, where it belongs.
One of many Carolina wrens who have called our yard "home."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Mistress of Misfit Pets, Part 1: Fish

Perhaps I should call myself the "misfit mistress of misfit pets" because sometimes it's been my fault!

Since I was a child I've been fascinated with animals. I almost changed my college major from music to biology, and even took extra science courses. I'd rather visit an aquarium or zoo than an amusement park, and I have to consciously NOT try to catch every spider, lizard, snake, etc. in my yard to keep as a "pet." (I do catch-and-release if I find them in the house, however.)

For my tenth birthday I received my first real aquarium with a filter and a light. Up to that time I'd had goldfish in bowls, but now I could observe some "real" tropical fish. Along with a pair of black mollies and swordfish, I selected a pair of guppies. Being a serious scientist I checked out books on fish and read that guppies were also known as "mosquito fish" because they eat mosquito larvae. I had to see that for myself, so naturally I found some mosquito larvae in a bowl of rainwater outside and dumped them in my aquarium.

After a day or two my mother remarked that "there sure were a lot of mosquitoes in the house." Oops! I guess my two guppies couldn't eat all the larvae I'd put in their tank.

I had as many as five aquariums at one time, in order to house all the prolific guppy offspring. I even "fish sat" my high school biology teacher's fancy guppies one summer, and took the opportunity to improve my guppy genes by breeding his long-tailed males with my hardy females. I did make a little money by selling some fish to a local pet store, but not nearly enough offset the cost of supplies. So another budding fish breeder went down the drain.
Me at age 12 (in back). You can see 4 of my 5 aquariums
The saddest fish story happened just two years ago. We had a 55 gallon aquarium with a large goldfish who began life as a feeder fish. When it was time to feed him to our garter snake, his little eyes looked so sad I couldn't bear to give him to the snake, so he joined the tropical fish in the big aquarium and outlived them all. He was several years old and about 10 inches long with a very (*ahem*) original name—Goldie.
55 gallon aquarium with tropical fish and Goldie
To keep Goldie company I bought a pair of fantails. Then a friend's stock tank sprung a leak and they offered me some of their feeder goldfish which had grown quite large. Of course! A 55 gallon aquarium is just BEGGING for more fish.
Goldie (in the middle) with his goldfish friends
All went well until my niece visited and, of course, we had to look at the fish at the pet store, and of course there was an unusual goldfish that we HAD to buy, naming it Gypsy because of the beautiful swirly fins it had.

I should have quarantined this fish, but I wasn't thinking, and by the next day Gypsy had developed ick and fungus and dropsy, and within 24 hours had died, even after I doctored the entire tank. Naturally, she was a plague carrier, and one by one the other fish died, too. Even Goldie. Only one of the fantails managed to survive another year. I moved him to a 10 gallon aquarium, and he might still be alive today, but he somehow managed to jump out through the only opening in the cover, which was smaller than his long body. I found him dried up one morning when I went in to feed him.

Maybe someday I'll work up the nerve to set up another fish habitat, but for now I'll just have to enjoy the fake but realistic fish in my bathroom "aquarium."
My low maintenance bathroom "aquarium"

Monday, October 21, 2013

My Jazz Initiation

Not long ago our symphony was scheduled to play a pops concert with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans. We didn't get the music for our portion of the program until a week before the concert, so I spent many hours practicing my many, many fast notes and solos (we were also going to play a lot of "Americana" type music). Because the personnel for a pops concert is not usually the same as for the regular season concerts, we only had one practice scheduled for the day of the concert.

So from 9:00-12:00 the symphony practiced our non-jazz pieces, and then we were given fancy folders from the jazz band to use for the afternoon practice (and I honestly figured I wouldn't have any parts, being the piccolo player). But one of the pieces, "Mardi Gras Medley," had a piccolo solo with the words "stand up" written in pencil.....sounded ominous to me.

After lunch we just "ran through" the several songs we were to play with the jazz band--no "practice" at all! I was pretty much confused and lost, especially when the arranger (who's a white guy with a wild-looking Afro) looked right at me and said, "there's a piccolo solo in the medley." I could hardly read the rhythms, much less understand WHY there was a piccolo solo!

So after this 'rehearsal' I found the arranger, who is a very nice man named Ben Jaffe, and asked him to please help me understand, as I really knew very little about jazz.

He said he wrote the solo for piccolo after hearing a man whistle the melody while playing piano. OH! My non-jazz-trained light bulb finally came on. I asked the symphony conductor if it was all right for me to wear a jazzy red hat during my solo so I could "get into" the part. He said, "Sure, why not?"

I didn't tell anyone else about the hat and kept it in my black bag under my seat. When it was time for the "Mardi Gras Medley" (the last and longest piece of the concert), the arranger announced to the audience that there would be a piccolo solo in this song. Since it begins with the piccolo playing what sounds like an old "field call" from slave days, everyone probably figured that was the solo.

After I played that opening lick, I raised my stand a little so I could see the music when I stood up (I had practiced it over and over during our little break to make sure I had it "down" in case I couldn't see the music). A few measures before I was supposed to stand up, I pulled out the hat and put it on while hiding behind the stand. The flute player who sits next to me whispered, "What is that?" but I couldn't answer then or I would have missed my cue.

Then I stood up, shaking like a leaf (cuz I felt like a fish out of water) and tried to pretend I was "one of the guys" while I played that solo like a whistling jazz musician. I didn't see or hear anything else until I sat down and pulled off the hat. The audience was clapping and the flute player said I was moving with the music, so I guess the hat really helped.  She also said the guys in the band turned around and watched me.

After the concert I put the hat back on and found the arranger. He said I did great and hugged me. I thanked him for broadening my music horizons, and he looked at the black sax player next to him and said in his Louisiana drawl, "Oh, she's comin' to the dark side."

I almost forgot to tell you---because this group travels and plays with symphonies all over, at the bottom of my music several other piccolo players had signed in pencil: "Hi from Nashville! Joy" "Hi from Minneapolis! Carol" etc., so I wrote "Hi from Kerrville, TX! Katy."