June 8, 2012
Written by Sue Randall of Johannesburg, South Africa
ago, a little bird fell into our lives. My friend Johann and I were living
in a small community in the mountains, and one day the gardener brought two
baby birds to me. He had found them under a tree. The adult birds were
calling like crazy in the trees above. We looked everywhere for a nest,
wanting to put the babies back, but found none. It had probably been
destroyed in the previous day's storm.
I phoned a friend who did bird
rescue work, and she told me what to feed the babies and how to keep them
warm. It was the first time I had looked after baby birds and it was one of
the most intense experiences of my life. Baby birds are known to "imprint"
on humans -- but we humans do exactly the same back! Johann and I were very
upset when, on day 5, the smaller bird walked out of the sleeping box and
dropped dead. It had been a runt. We had nicknamed the babies Chubby and
Skinny, not realizing that even Chubby was undersized. Skinny was far
smaller and probably never stood much of a chance.
Baby photo of
When Skinny died, we started facing up to the fact that Chubby was
disabled. I had noticed her deformed legs on the first day but had been so
intent on providing food and warmth that I had barely stopped to think. By
the time our friend confirmed that Chubby was too disabled ever to be
released, Johann and I had bonded very deeply with the bird. Euthanizing her
Chubby was a really happy and friendly little bird.
She did not seem to be in any pain from her legs. We believed that she
wanted to live and that she had come into our lives for a reason, but she
would never be able to walk properly, or to grip a branch. I knew she needed
shoes or prostheses. The Grey Lourie (also known as the Grey Go-away Bird)
is quite a large bird, and fitting shoes to Chubby's legs would be possible
in a way that it would not be with a smaller species.
Johann and I
were not living in a good situation. We did not own the land we lived on and
we would have to borrow the money to build an aviary, but my main
concern--which soon became an obsession--was making shoes for Chubby. If I
could not find a way to do that, then euthanasia would indeed be the only
option. I tried making shoes out of denim, neoprene, rubber. Nothing worked.
I could not attach the shoes firmly enough that they did not fall off or
twist around the legs. We seemed to be losing the battle.
Give Up on Her
Yet Chubby was playful and she was learning to fly.
She seemed blissfully unaware that her feet did not work and that we might
not be able to save her life. I thought of all the people in the world who
have disabilities in every imaginable body part, all the prostheses and
adaptations that have ever been designed for humans. This was just a little
bird! Her needs were so much simpler. And yet I could not find the way
My sister had broken a finger a few months earlier and
suddenly she had an idea. She suggested that I contact her hand therapist
and ask for some offcuts of finger-splinting material. I called her
therapist and she said she would be delighted to help. The next day Johann
collected the splinting material from her rooms in the city. As soon as he
got home, we started experimenting. Within an hour, we had made Chubby's
first pair of shoes! For the first time ever she was able to walk, run, and
balance without difficulty. She became even more playful and happy, and
trundled around in her little shoes as if they had always been part of her.
A friend donated some money to help us build an aviary, and Johann and a
neighbor put it together. It had to be specially adapted because of Chubby’s
disability. She would never have feet that gripped, so we built a network of
little ladder ramps and put up flat planks instead of branches. Now Chubby
was able to fly, feed, bathe, preen, run around and sun herself
And Soon Another Arrived
Our bird rescue friend
brought another lourie to us because its legs were deformed in almost the
exact same way as Chubby's. This bird also needed shoes, and we made them
the next day. We called her Scruffy because her feathers were such a mess.
She was a juvenile, almost a young adult. Her story was tragic. She must
have fallen out of the nest and broken both legs, which then healed in a
broken position. Humans did not intervene until it was too late, but her
bird parents had kept her alive by bringing food down to her on the ground.
Scruffy had miraculously survived.
Her injuries were old and
inflexible by the time she came to us and our friend estimated that she was
3 or 4 months old. The people had noticed that their dogs were excited about
something in the swimming pool enclosure. They kept an eye out and soon
realized that there was a young bird in there, and that her bird parents
were bringing her food on the ground. The humans finally intervened, and
Scruffy ended up with our friend and then us. She was extremely traumatized
and had no long feathers in either the tail or wings. It was clear she had
What would you do, knowing that a juvenile bird had been kept alive for
so long by its parents after a major injury? Would you simply euthanize her?
We couldn't. And so Johann and I now had two louries that wore shoes!
Neither bird seemed to be in any pain. Chubby seems to have a genetic
problem. We don’t think her legs were ever broken the way Scruffy's probably
Some of Chubby's tail feathers persistently grow upside down.
Our friend thought that her leg deformity might have been caused by a lack
of vitamin B or calcium, but Chubby's upside-down tail feathers suggest
Both birds had to go through a process of
learning what they could and could not do. Scruffy's feathers took about 3
months to regrow, and she then became such a strong flier that Johann
nicknamed her Superbird. She is the only bird I have ever known that could
turn right angles in mid-air just for the fun of it. She has an independent
spirit and it took her a while to learn that she could not land on the only
real branch in the aviary. Once she accepted that, she stayed on the flat
planks. She was extremely active and seemed to love life.
was similar to that which any disabled person must go through. You have to
learn your limits, and that means testing them and making some mistakes.
It's not easy. It’s life. It doesn’t mean you need to be euthanized.