I grew up looking after and interacting with a wide range of animals (cats, dogs, horses, calves, pigs, a guinea pig, stick insects and more), and often roaming the moors, swamps and woods behind our house (“Brunssumerheide“) for hours (with my dog Robbie). It does not always look as glossy as in this photo. In fact, it usually does not!
In those days, I didn’t know a thing about birds yet.
I rode horses for a while in my teens. First, next-door as the neighbours and their relatives a few houses away along the same road had horses. Next, at Stal Heihof van Abdissenbosch, run by Chris and Jeannette Haazen at the time. (You can see Chris and Jeannette in the three videos below. Ever seen a horse dance? If not, then you really gotta watch the first video.)
In Britain, this is something for the elite, but not in my home country. I used to save up for lessons so that I could have more lessons during school holidays. I rode my bicycle to the stables, one hour each way. One lesson cost what was about the equivalent of 3 pounds in those days.
My favourite was called “Devil”. Does not quite have the same ring in Dutch, but yes, he was a stubborn little rascal. I think he even pulled me into the water once, on an outdoor ride. There was also one called Duebe. That was an armchair ride. Quite nice every once in a while. Joel also was a character. Tested you. Would unexpectedly come to a halt in a corner, refuse to budge and then wait to see how you responded to that. The one that always bucked was Lyndon, which meant you had to take the end of the line if you rode Lyndon.
I got to the point of jumping, but then I graduated from secondary school and moved away.
(In this third video, you see the same horse – Nartan – as in the wonderful first video of these three. It shows you a bit of the relationship between Jeannette and Nartan.)
Dogs tend to like me. Sometimes, dogs (strangers!) come running when they see me, tail wagging. For a quick hello. It’s even happened, on Castle Field in Southsea, that a dog spontaneously came running, threw itself at my feet and rolled onto its back. Particularly larger dogs seem to trust me and consider me reliable. I generally prefer somewhat larger dogs, and they undoubtedly know that.
When I grew up, we had a Dutch Shepherd called Hector. Hector was 6 months older than I was. After Hector passed away, at age 10 or 11, we briefly had two different dogs who weren’t suitable, as my dad needed a guard dog for his business. (The dog wasn’t in the house, but had its own little building with one wire-fenced side, with an insulated wooden dog house in it, of which the opening was toward a wall of the building so that the wind didn’t blow into the dog house.)
One of these dogs returned to the original owner, who had sold the dog (Champar) to someone else who sold the dog on to my dad (and told us that the dog’s name was Kaspar, so we called him Kashi), but then regretted it and tracked his dog down. My dad had been told that a greyhound made a good guard dog when he bought this dog, and that still makes me chuckle.
The other one – Waldi – went back to the shelter, a long-haired smallish dog who loved to roll around in mud and filth, but wasn’t exactly a guard dog either. (She sure was very messy. I was the dog person so I got to clean up the mess.) Then we got Robbie, also from the shelter, who in retrospect probably was a Staffie mix.
I like animals so I also enjoy looking after other people’s pets (and homes). While I was living in Florida, I did that for various people and animals. And a few years ago, I had the pleasure of looking after a sensitive older rescue Staffie in my home for about a month.
I’ve also gone fox-watching a few times. (Britain has many urban foxes. Also an increasing urban deer population, but not here where I live.)
I have also had three rescue cats who emigrated with me three times (twice with my first two cats and once with my third cat).
My cats’ vet in Amsterdam was Dr Geerling. I still haven’t gotten over the fact that he passed away a while back.
My learning about birds began in Florida. Up to that point, I knew next to nothing about birds. I got into sea bird rehabilitation with the wonderful and globally well-respected bird champion and oil spill contingency planner Lee Fox.
Freshly arrived from Amsterdam, I decided that volunteering might be a great way to grow roots in the local community so I started calling around for volunteering opportunities. Lee’s facility PSRC was the first to call me back.
Since then, I have had two feral (wild) quaker parrots (Myiopsitta monachus) and emigrated with them twice.
For a while, I also had a spunky half-tame cockatiel (Nymphicus hollandicus) who I liked very much, but turned out to be much happier in a large aviary with lots of other cockatiels than in my home. After my last quaker passed away, this cockatiel clearly felt lonely and I had to make a quick decision, to either let the bird become bonded to me and delight me with his silky early-morning chatter or to do what I thought would make the bird happier.
By the way, on YouTube, I often see bird owners stroke their birds as if the bird were a cat or dog, but it is my understanding that stroking the back of a bird tends to have a sexual meaning for the bird. If you want to be friends with a bird who knows you well, stroke the bird under one of the wings. Gently insert your finger from the front, but observe how the bird responds. Don’t force it.
Gently stroking a bird’s bill tends to be calming to a bird. Soothing. Nice. Sweet. It’s what I did with a blind pelican, for example, who often would only eat if I was the one who fed him.
Birds have similar reserves about being touched in certain places as humans, by the way.
I used to have my own version of a bird ICU, which cost me around £250 (four components: glass case, heat, nebulizer and humidifier; the latter can work wonders for sub/tropical bird species) whereas “real” ones go for $1200 and more. I gave three of those components away at some point. I still have the heating pad, which is good.
But every time I ran into a bird in distress again, I so regretted not having the main IC unit, as the large cage I have for recovering birds who can fly (again) is not great for dealing with a bird in an emergency. So I started looking for the right components again. You need to have the right click, in terms of dimensions, to make all components work together, but in the meantime, just having a small glass enclosure again is wonderful. Very often, it is enough to allow a bird to recover. It helps the bird preserve energy and I find that it makes it much easier to handle the bird. I can swiftly reach in and pluck the bird out, and return it again, with minimal stress.
In recent years, I have rehabbed a few pigeons (Columba livia); see below. Pigeons are highly intelligent and gentle creatures that I had essentially ignored for decades, embarrassingly.
One stayed with me for six months and taught me a lot. She had an infection, and it had lodged itself in her sinuses, from where she became reinfected, so it was important to treat her. I am very grateful for the experience.
(Unfortunately, one or more anonymous people around me got into my flat at some point by shimmying the locks and got to her (to spite and threaten me). She was not hurt too badly so there was nothing I could do about it other than continue to let her heal.)
I have also on occasion grabbed a highly inquisitive pigeon who had ventured into a store, in Portsmouth and in Amsterdam. I kept one of them overnight, to make sure the bird was okay. (Yes.)
I clean and disinfect with F10, a high-end veterinary product.
As you can see, the above bird was feeling pretty damn miserable back then. She turned out to be very wise, smart, persistent (setting goals for herself, to entertain herself, which was a big eye opener for me) and highly inquisitive. She stayed with me for six months, through the winter. She left with a fresh set of feathers and a heck of a lot more energy. I’ll say! She really stunned me when I released her. She instantly shot up incredibly high, did three circles to find her bearings, then headed home, half a mile north. She was looking very different by then. She briefly reconnected with me, right after I released her. I have also seen seen her again later, once or twice.
Below is a photo of that same bird, taken much later. Her coloring is not remarkable; she looks like most other pigeons out there. Pigeons recognize individual human faces, but we humans have a heck of a lot of trouble recognizing their “faces”.
My third rehab pigeon had been attacked. I initially assumed that it had been a raptor attack, but later started suspecting – for several reasons; I’ll spare you the details – that one or more anonymous people around me were behind it, again, possibly with the aid of a drone. (Other people and I saw a drone over my house.)
(Her first mate had been killed too, and decapitated, left for me to find, with the message “You needed a kick, a really big kick” and the bird who stayed with me for six months was actually also gotten to IN MY FLAT at some point as local people sometimes shimmy the locks to my flat when I am out.)
Anyway, the poor thing was in pain, in shock/stunned, and in need of healing, but still fully functional. Below, you see her “good” side. The other side looked considerably less good and needed to heal. She first needed rest, and safety. She actually sought me out, after the attack, for help and safety.
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But, coming back to birds, you can’t save them all. The next pigeon I tried to save was a young wood pigeon, but this one died in my hands before I could do anything. It looked like it had flown into the window of a Debenhams store and had suffered too much brain damage as a result. The bird was limp, and overheated. I’ve seen another pigeon, an adult, bang into a window at that same store, so these particular windows may be tricky for pigeons for some reason. A soft and fluffy little thing, this bird, quite pretty. Even the toenails were really beautiful. Shiny, as if lacquered. It was still that young.