The Mind   |   Franklyn Wu  |   February 16, 2012, 5:09 pm

Rosey the cockatiel

Ms Rosey is an adult female cockatiel. Her body is white dotted with grey spots, and long yellow streaks run the length of her tiny body from crown to tail (which is as long as her body). She has lived with the Hughs since their elder daughter brought her over one day eight years ago, claiming that the bird came to her while she was hanging her laundry outside. The mother took Rosey under her wings and showered her with much affection and attention.

Rosey’s residence was upgraded several times throughout her stay with the family, each time bigger and nicer. Since 4 years ago, she has been living in a beautiful white cage that is enormous for her tiny body. Two irregular-shaped rods made from old tree branches divide up the vertical space nicely so Rosey can utilize the entire height of the cage. The cage also has four racks that sit at the level of the lower rod, and these racks have easy access from the outside, so Mrs. Hughs can swap out food and water easily. Throughout the years Mrs. Hughs bought other toys to hang in the cage—a swing near the upper rod, a bunch of hoops and balls on a thin rope, and what looks like a dried corn cob—for Rosey to climb on, and pick and peck at.

Rosey’s diet consists of a healthy balance of mixed seeds, some bird treats (a special kind of seed rolled onto a cork stick) hanging in her cage, and the occasional delicacies—bread crumbs and other human food scraps—that mother and others put in her food bowl. The human snacks taste mighty nice. They lack fiber and other nutrients that are good for Rosey, but she never turns them down.

At night, a blanket would be thrown over the cage so Rosey could sleep. In the morning, the blanket would come off and Rosey would begin her day. She strolls up and down the two rods repeatedly, sometimes stepping from side-to-side as if she were dancing. She also plays with her various toys—rocking on the swing, knocking the hoops then bending her head next to them in order to scratch her neck, and picking and pecking on the corn cob. She hovers over the food and water bowls often, as the seeds and water are refilled frequently. She uses both her claws and her beak effectively to break up seeds, making cracking noises and scattering seed shells in and beyond the cage. She does all her activities with earnest, and becomes irritated and fussy when others interrupt her.

Rosey travels between the upper and lower rods by climbing on the side of the cage as if they are ladders or stairs. She does this with aplomb. She stretches her wings occasionally and flaps them hard as if she were flying while clinging to the rod with her claws. She doesn’t fly all that much anymore, and who can blame her? The cage is spacious enough for strolling, but not quite big enough for flying. Rosey has always been shy, and only allows Mrs Hughs to pet her. She used to let even strangers scratch her neck, but has become more withdrawn of late and avoiding all human contact except those from Mrs Hughs.

… she stood on the doorframe of the cage for a while, and then took flight around the room.

The cage is often open–for sure it is never locked–as Rosey seems contented in her comfortable cage. One day, while the cage was open, she stood on the doorframe of the cage for a while, and then took flight around the room. The flapping of her wings was hurried, noisy, and lacked rhythm. Within seconds she found a soft landing spot and stopped flying. Out of breath, her little chest heaved quickly. She slowly and gradually migrated onto Mr. Hughs’ shoulder, which is closest to the cage door. Mr. Hughs’ guests applauded and enjoyed this apparent trick, and joked that he must have seeds in his ears.

No one noticed that Rosey looked longingly at the cage, and fidgeted uneasily as if she were a fish out of water. She seemed eager to get back into her cage, where she feels familiar and comfortable. But it was as if the flight around the room was all the adventure she could stand for the day, and despite her eagerness to get back, she couldn’t muster enough energy to fly again. The son-in-law walked over to see if he could lend her a hand back to the cage. Not understanding his intention, Rosey leaped off Mr. Hughs’ shoulder and made a desperate attempt to escape, only to land a few feet away in a pile of laundry that just came off the clothes lines, her wings tangled up with towels and t-shirts.

“Silly bird”, the son-in-law said, and picked her up. She lay helplessly in his hands but did not struggle too much. Her cage sits close to the window, which was slightly ajar at the moment, and one could hear the chatters, fusses, and the wing flutters made by wild birds gathering around the feeders just below the windows. Rosey made no visible attempt for the open window as the son-in-law walked past it, but wrestled away from his grasp and jumped into the cage when they got close enough.

Within minutes, she was back into her routine, strolling up and down the rods, and dipping her head into the food and water bowls. Birds outside the window continued to make noises, and jumped and flew about, but Rosey appeared unconcerned, and not tempted by the fresh air and open space outside. She seemed contented with her nicely appointed cage, stocked with entertainment and the promise of three good meals a day. Maybe she will get out and fly around the room on another day, but the cage was where she wanted to be right there and then.

Regarding the P’eng bird’s ninety thousand li journey to the south, “the cicada and the little dove laugh at this, saying ‘when we make an effort to fly up, we can get as far as the elm and the sapanwood tree, but sometimes we don’t make it and just fall down on the ground. Now how is anyone going to go ninety thousand li to the south!?’

If you go off to the green woods nearby, you can take along three meals and come back with your stomach as full as ever. If you are going a hundred li, you must grind your grain the night before, if you are going a thousand li, you must start getting the provisions together three months in advance. What do these two creatures understand? Little understanding cannot come up to great understanding; the short-lived cannot come up to the long-lived”

Section 1, Chuang Tzu, translated by Burton Watson

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