And a Partridge without a Pear Tree…
One morning a few months ago, I woke up and stumbled towards the shower. DH (Darling Husband, for the uninitiated) said, “Someone is here to see you,” and pointed towards the travel cage that we use to take the birds to the vet.
Inwardly, I groaned. I suspected that he had brought home yet another wild bird that we were either going to have to care for until it was ready to be released or for which I was going to have to track down a licensed rehabber. I didn’t even want to look in the cage. I said, “What is it?” He said, “I don’t know. I think it may be a baby peacock.”
That got my attention. I peered into the cage. “That’s not a peacock. That’s a partridge. Where the heck did you find a partridge?”
“It was shopping,” he said.
“What do you mean, it was shopping?”
“I came back from running, and it was looking into the window of the store next door.”
“It wasn’t shopping, it was looking at its reflection,” I said. “How did you catch it?”
Long story short, the bird, which was probably hungry, disoriented and exhausted, made a series of short flights before DH cornered it.
So, we had a partridge. The first order of business was to figure out what to feed it.
I did a quick search on the Internet and discovered that our newest bird was a chukar partridge. Chukars are native to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and southeastern Europe. It was introduced to North America as a game bird. Thousands are breed and released in the U.S. every year.
In the wild, they eat insects and wild grass seeds. In captivity, farmers feed them poultry mash. Fortunately, we had cockatiel seeds and chicken mash on hand. We put a mix of these foods in a bowl in the travel cage along with a bowl of water. In short order, the chukar was devouring the food. One problem solved: The partridge would not starve.
When I came home from work, I got a really good look at the partridge, which we dubbed Lucky, because it was lucky that we found him instead of one of our Chinese neighbors, who may have had him for dinner. I carefully opened the travel cage and picked Lucky up. I thought that picking him up would be like picking up a chicken, which I had done many times in my teens. I was wrong. Partridges have long, sharp, strong, hooked beaks. Chukars, and some other captive game birds, are prone to cannibalism. Evidently, Lucky didn’t get the memo that explained that cannibalism means to consume one’s own species; he latched onto my forearm and twisted his beak. Suffice it to say that it hurt…a lot.
It was evident that Lucky had been housed with other birds stacked on top of his cage. His back and tail were encrusted with bird droppings. He was filthy. Partridge is a delicacy in Chinatown, and there are several poultry facilities in the neighborhood; we believe that Lucky escaped from one of them.
I sat down on the couch, placed a towel on my lap and put Lucky on the towel. In short order, my hands and arms were covered with bird mites. I panicked. I put Lucky back in his cage and logged onto the Starling Talk Message Board. I knew that, given time, one of my friends would tell me how to get rid of the bird mites.
While I was waiting for an answer to my post, I gave Lucky a bath in Dawn dish detergent. I figured that if it was safe for shore birds that were the victims of oil spills, it was safe for chukars. I had to get the encrusted feces and mites off of him. Whoever coined the expression, “Madder than a wet hen,” never bathed a partridge.
After his bath, Lucky looked clean. But a colony of bird mites was still happy ensconced under his feathers.
My friends at Starling Talk told me to apply 5% Sevin Dust to Lucky’s feathers with a paint brush. Alas, Sevin Dust is hard to come by in Manhattan. I spent a weekend searching hardware stores to no avail. Finally, one of my buddies at Starling Talk who lives in Middle America sent some to me.
Painting a partridge with Sevin Dust is only slightly less difficult than bathing one, but it killed the mites on contact.
The day that DH found Lucky, I frantically started trying to find a suitable home for him. (It is difficult to tell male and female chukars apart, and we really don’t know which Lucky is. We’re going to call him a boy until he lays an egg.) In my mind, a suitable home would have been a farm or game preserve that had an appropriate habitat and at least one other chukar. I called farm sanctuaries, game preserves and rehabbers. I wrote “Please help! Partridge found in Manhattan” posts on the Starling Talk Bulletin Board as well as The Pigeon Talk Bulletin Board. There were some promising nibbles, but demand for chukars is surprisingly low outside of the hunting community.
In the meantime, Lucky was living in the travel cage, which was far too small for him. It is plastic with metal bars on the top. There is a small sliding door on the top, which is intended to allow people to feed or water their pet without opening the cage. From day one, DH left the little sliding door open. He pointed out that the door was parallel with the cage floor and that Lucky was too rotund to access it.
I woke up one night and discovered Lucky standing in the middle of the kitchen. Somehow, I managed to catch him and put him back in the travel cage. Needless to say, I closed the sliding door.
I decided to buy Lucky a new home. Clearly, he couldn’t live in the travel cage. DH and I went to the pet store and bought a large, long, low cage that’s meant for rabbits and guinea pigs.
After we moved Lucky into his new cage, we realized how he broke out of the old one that night: He jumped. Chukars have powerful, muscular legs that are designed to propel them to the top of boulders. Lucky spent the first couple of weeks in his new house jumping straight up. In so doing, he smacked his head on the ceiling of his cage repeatedly. He injured the top of his beak near the cere, and it took weeks for the wound to heal.
Another time, he jumped up while I was trying to get him out of his cage. I was holding him in my arms when I realized that my collarbone was covered in blood. For a second, I thought that he had scratched me and that I hadn’t noticed. Then I saw the blood dripping from his beak. He had broken about an eighth of an inch off his bottom beak. I held him as I repeatedly packed the break with corn starch to stanch the bleeding. It bled heavily for about 20 minutes. Just when I thought that I was going to have to rush him to the vet, the bleeding stopped.
The solution to the jumping problem turned out to be quite simple; we covered the back of the cage with a dark towel. That seemed to give him a sense of security, and he immediately stopped jumping.
I began to accept that we probably weren’t going to find a suitable home for Lucky. As soon as the mites were eradicated, I started holding Lucky on my lap every night. He seemed to like having his head, cere and ears scratched, as well as under his wings. He would close his eyes and look quite blissful. Then he’d try to take a chunk – or many chunks – out of my arm.
After each “cuddle session,” I would let him go, and he’d run directly to the corner of the room behind some furniture. Since chukars come from an arid climate, they don’t drink much water. They don’t defecate nearly as frequently as parrots, and their droppings are quite solid and easy to pick up. So, I didn’t worry about the carpet. I just let him hide in the corner until it was time to put him back in his cage.
After we had Lucky for about six weeks, I was home on vacation for ten days. Lucky got extra cuddle time every day. Sometime during that week, we had a turning point. Lucky didn’t bite me. And instead of running into the corner after I pet him, he jumped onto the back of the couch.
For a couple of weeks, he sat on the back of the couch as far from me as possible. One day, I went into the study to talk to DH. When I returned to the living room, Lucky was on “my” end of the couch waiting for me! When I walked back into the room, he returned to the far end of the couch.
Soon, whenever I left the room, Lucky followed me as far as the couch would allow. Eventually, he started hanging out right behind me on the back of the couch.
Getting Lucky out of his cage was still a chore. Ironically, the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan, was the solution to this particular partridge problem. On one episode, Cesar taught a dog groomer how to move a very large, stubborn dog. This particular dog would move forward if she placed her forearm across his legs just under his buttocks.
I decided to try a variation on Cesar’s theme on Lucky. I opened his cage and put one hand on his chest. I placed my other hand across his chunky little thighs and then slid them down the back of his legs till his feet were balanced on my palm. Then I was able to scoop him right up.
These days, DH and I marvel at how tame Lucky is. I can pick him up and carry him around like a baby. He happily sits on my lap as I scratch his head. He particularly likes for me to ruffle his head feathers. He sits near me on the back of the couch. He clucks softly and makes a mewling noise to acknowledge us when we talk to him. He’s a trusting, loving pet and a cherished member of our family.
Lucky really did luck out when he ended up in front of the store next door early in the morning. As it turns out, so did we.