Hatched May 1985, died November 3, 2008

Rosebud was my constant companion for twenty-three years. Where I was, he was. Rosie, in this picture, is on a cast-iron perch at the foot of my bed. The perch had to be made of cast iron because Rosebud was so heavy — there were nearly five pounds of him. He flew more or less like a bowling ball, although, when he flapped as hard as he could, there was a small gale in the house. He was more than a yard in length. One of his tail feathers, which I’ve kept, is more than two feet long. His talons were so large they wrapped around my wrists.

Rosebud was a Ruby macaw, a rare cross between a Scarlet and a Greenwing. They don’t cross in the wild although there are places where they flock together. There are only a handful in the world.

He inherited the best features of both breeds. His cheeks were feathered, like a Greenwing. He had the bright yellow of a Scarlet. His red was greenwing deep, not like the washed-out tomato red of a Scarlet. Despite his great size, he was of gentle disposition, unlike the usual Scarlet, although he had strong likes and dislikes when it came to people. If you were one of the few people on his hate list, it was wise to keep your head away from him — one of my housekeepers had to have stitches in her ears twice. Very few creatures were on his bad side, but if they were, it was permanent.

He was subject to deep passions. In particular, he fell insanely and instantly in love with every black woman he ever saw. He was particularly enamored of one of my former housekeepers, also named Rose. When she would walk into the room he would practically fall off his perch, then would do whatever he could to attract her attention — scream, violently ring a bell that hung from his ring stand, flap his wings, say “hello” at the top of his voice (which, by the way, could be heard for miles if he decided to go all in). After getting on her arm, he would happily stay there for the rest of the day were she to allow it. He was completely heterosexual. He loved me, but I was Daddy, and that’s different.

Rosie and Rosie

Other parrots mimic the voices they hear, by the way, but macaws are different — they have their own voices. Rosebud’s voice was deep, as you might expect from one so large. He wasn’t a great talker, but when he did talk he was amusing. I liked to occasionally blow his mind by taking him somewhere, like a hardware store. If he saw something that frightened him, he would babble softly like a baby in a stream of indecipherable words.

Rosebud was a hand-fed baby. Incubated, when he was hatched he was raised by humans as a human, fed with such foods as Gerber’s baby food with a special spoon and plastic eyedroppers. (He loved cereal all his life.) I still have the spoon. Just like a human baby, he had to be fed every few hours around the clock. When I got him he was weaned to solid foods but still needed to be spoon fed for a few weeks. That’s how I became Daddy. Such birds make wonderful pets because they have no fear of humans. In fact, in their birdly minds, they are humans. I’m sure he thought my plumage was ugly.

I had no intention of buying a bird at the bird store — I was buying food for another bird (a pain-in-the-ass wild macaw that I tamed who was named Merlin). When I first saw Rosebud he was covered in pin feathers, like a miniature porcupine, with practically no tail. The owner was handling him. After the Devil whispered in my ear, I asked the owner, may I hold him? In a trice Rosebud was on my forearm. I thought to myself, wow, he is everything I’ve ever wanted in a macaw. (I’ve adored macaws above all other birds — and I love every bird on this planet — ever since I was a little boy and saw my first macaw at Parrot Jungle in Miami.) So what did he do? He tightened up his claws on my sweater, leaned against my chest, and fell asleep. Adorable. I tried to get out of that store without buying him but I couldn’t do it, nor he wouldn’t let go of me. He was so cute! In a way, he bought me as much as I bought him. So about $2,500 later, not counting a monster cage, perches and stands, and horse-like quantities of food, I had the bird of my dreams.

I loved to take him places, in part because his mind needed periodic blowing and in part because the reactions of other people to seeing him were always delightful. Adults often would try to pretend that there was nothing strange about seeing a man with a gigantic, gaudy bird on his shoulder in a store, but kids had no such reservations. They would run up to me and immediately start peppering me with questions. What is that on your shoulder? Does he have a name? Does he talk? Can I touch him? Does he bite? To that last question, I would always respond with an enthusiastic, “Yes! He especially likes to bite off the fingers of little children!” Not that he would, of course. If upset enough, though, he could bite through a broomstick. His head and jaws were massive.

One day, my friend Kent and I took him to a dump that served a tolerably good beef sandwich. At the register, the buxom cashier saw Rosebud, then said, “You can’t bring him in here!” I replied, matter-of-factly, “He’s a seeing-eye bird.” No further questions. Rosie sat with us on a chair back and ate bits of sandwich and fries. Rosebud especially liked Kentucky Fried Chicken. He’d sit on a chair back gnawing on a chicken leg grasped tightly in his talons, completely ignoring everything else. That was his way of protecting himself in an unfamiliar environment — acting for all the world as if it didn’t exist and he was at home, on his perch. By the way, he was expert at cracking large bones open and scooping out the marrow.

But he was more than amusing, in a sense. Do you remember the old movie, Harvey? In it, Jimmie Stewart had an invisible giant rabbit friend, a pooka, that went with him everywhere. In one scene, in a bar, he explained how people in bars react to Harvey. What he said was equally true about Rosebud:

“They [the men in bars] tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey…and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us.”

— Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmie Stewart), Harvey

So it was with Rosebud. Seeing him caused most folks come out of themselves for a few moments to appreciate him with a degree of wonder and awe. I don’t claim that seeing him was life changing for everyone, but it certainly was for me.

One thing I liked about owning these magnificent birds was that they were likely to outlive me, having a possible lifespan of seventy or more years, although I felt guilty about feeling this way. While I wouldn’t have to suffer the bereavement of losing Rosebud — he was, after all, like a son to me — he would be devastated by my death. To give you an example, one lady I know had to give up her bird due to unfortunate circumstances. She gave it to a new, loving home. One day, after visiting her bird at its new home, she had to leave. When she was in the driveway half-way to her car, the bird, who had never before said anything like this, yelled after her in a desperate tone: “I’m sorry!” These intelligent, passionate birds will break your heart.

A Scarlet, Sahara, playing peekaboo

And so it was with Rosebud. There was something a little odd that Monday morning. He wasn’t paying much attention to his deep love, my housekeeper Rosie. He looked fine. After an hour or so I picked him up, wondering how he was. That’s when I heard a gurgling sound during his breathing. It took me too long to panic, but, then, panic I did. I was racing with him out the door to the vet when he bit the holy hell out of my hand, fell to the front porch, and died in less than a minute, died in the most horrible way I could have possibly imagined, drowning in his own blood. All the way to the vet I tried to resuscitate him, but I knew there was no hope. A blood vessel had ruptured and had slowly leaked into his lungs.

I believe that there was nothing that could have been done for him even if I had caught on to his distress earlier (birds, when ill, hide it as a protective mechanism — they don’t want others to see their vulnerability). Even had this happened in the arms of my dear bird vet, Jeff, there was nothing that could have been done. I passionately believe that. And I’ll tell you why. Because the alternative is unthinkable.

I made a casket for him some forty inches long out of six-inch heavy plastic pipe capped at both ends in order to be both air and water tight. Inside I put the bell he rang so often when he wanted attention, some of his other toys, a brief note from me, and a walnut. Every night of his life, at bed time, I gave him a walnut. One time I nearly ran out of them in winter and had to air-freight them from South America. After devouring it, he would climb to the top-most perch of his gigantic cage and go to sleep. There had to be a walnut in his casket.

I wrapped him in linen. He required a lot of linen. Rosie, my housekeeper and big-hearted friend, helped prepare him. In what might be considered heresy by some, I put on my full religious clothing — tallit and yarmulke, and said Kaddish over him.

Still, I could not bear to put him in the ground. I kept him on the floor of my dining room for about a year. He was still home, you see. His cages and perches were right where he had left them, as if, in my lunacy and grief, he might be coming back.

On top of that, his death was so horrible to see, he suffered so much, that I had a full-blown attack of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that lasted for about five months. PTSD is nothing like grief. PTSD is a high-definition DVD playing — I can’t even say “in my mind” because it is more than that. It is a complete reliving of the event, like the most realistic dream possible to have, over and over and over. There was no controlling it. It tore me apart.

After a few months, I realized that to stop the recording, I had to describe what happened to someone else. Completely. Especially, I had to describe the last ten seconds of it. I tried and tried but couldn’t do it. I would occasionally get farther in my attempts, but always stopped short of those last seconds. When I finally was able to get to the end, the PTSD was over.

Rosebud is buried beside the big tree on the left

Last year my friend Kent, who is a genuinely good man, helped me bury him on the hillside behind my house. I couldn’t do much to help, actually. Mostly, I just sat there. Kent, in his wisdom and kindness, forced me to talk about Rosebud although I didn’t want to do it, and talking about him helped me. Rosebud was finally put to rest. Because it was the rainy season, I asked Kent to put some large rocks just below Rosebud’s grave so the rains wouldn’t uncover him. Now they can be removed. By local law, nothing can be done with the area where he’s buried. I know he’ll be undisturbed. That comforts me. I wish someone would buy the old cages and perches, but I’ve had no luck. Now that my house is filled with teenager, we need the room. Perhaps I’ll have to donate them to a charity.

No, I don’t think I’ll be buying another bird. Rosebud was an act no other bird could possibly follow. I would be constantly comparing any new bird to Rosebud. No new bird could possibly measure up. Besides, in the last two years, I’ve lost two other pets I deeply loved, one of which, Yeti, I told you about. I can’t stand the thought of losing another. I have to confess that when my own brother died last year, my grief was nowhere near as profound as it was after Rosebud died.

Besides, Rosebud, deep in my psyche, took the place of the son who abandoned me years ago. The great love I had for my son went to Rosebud who stood in for him. I don’t want to do that again. It’s crazy. Sanity requires that loss be accepted. Now, with this post about the death of Rosebud, perhaps I can finally accept the loss of my son, too.

My thinking about keeping these wonderful creatures has changed. I don’t think keeping them is such a good idea. Although I declined to have Rosebud necropsied, I know that his diet was full of fat and other human garbage food, and, most importantly, there was no way he could have gotten the strenuous exercise his system was built for: after all, a macaw in the wild would be flying most of the day. Without their natural diet and exercise, they suffer from the same kind of sedentary diseases we do — high blood pressure, diabetes, you name it. There’s no way to keep them inside and at the same time keep them healthy. Even if you build a huge flight cage in the back yard, so they can fly as much as they need to, they tend to revert to wild behavior. Either way, you lose them.

There is a flock of wild macaws over Point Loma, right here in San Diego. You can hear them coming for miles, screaming as they fly. Speaking fluent macaw, as I do, I called out to them as Rosebud might have done as they flew high overhead. Damned if they didn’t change course, circle, and land on a tree just over my head in order to see the strange man who could speak macaw. The Navy, on whose property they live, has put gigantic garbage cans up in the trees for the macaws to use for nesting. I love the Navy for doing that. If you’re ever in San Diego, do try to see them, especially in flight.

It was my very great privilege to have fostered Rosebud for twenty-three years. I want to thank you all for allowing me to share him with you.

Goodbye, Rosebud.

Greenwings in Bolivia