Bye, Bye, Birdie
I’m gonna miss you so;
Bye Bye Birdie,
Why’d ya have to go?
No more sunshine,
It’s followed you away;
I’ll cry Birdie,
Till you’re home to stay. – Lee Adams
There was the story of the stolen bicycle, the story of the underwear found hanging on the chandelier, the story of the famous film producer, odd, quirky, adorable, the stories of the guests who wandered downstairs in their underwear or came to breakfast in their pajamas. There are the stories and anecdotes about the people who stroll (or saunter) in and out of reception, the friends and neighbors we’ve made, each a unique character with a role to play. A hotel is filled to brimming with stories happening, stories waiting to be told. And now there is one about a bird.
The garden at the hotel has become a haven for birds, birds of all sorts who flitter around the terrace, play in the rose bushes, perch in the linden and kiwi trees observing the humans below. Birdhouses hang on the walls of the buildings and nests are sheltered, half hidden, among the vines.
One day, one of our employees dashes into reception crying “there’s a bird lying dead on the sidewalk in front of the laundry room!” Jean-Pierre follows her out and realizes that the poor mama blackbird had ended her life against the pane of a window. He scoops her small, limp body up and carries it away. We know that she was the birdmom whose nest was tucked into the rose vines over Room #18 and that she has left a nest full of newborns.
We watch as papa blackbird flies and swoops around the courtyard and back to the nest, worms and such gripped in his beak. We watch as papa blackbird feeds those baby birds, frantic hungry cheeps emanating from the leaves, tiny fluffs of heads bobbing up and down, little yellow beaks agape, begging to be the one to receive a bit of worm. First day, second day and then…. Papa bird flies the nest. And leaves those baby birds all alone. Abandoned and hungry.
We listen painfully as those baby birds squawk, and screech, desperate and hungry, flashes of yellow as they open tiny beaks heavenwards, towards the papa bird who no longer comes. We stand below, wringing our hands, wondering if there is anything that we can do. A day later, our employee dashes into reception crying “there are four little baby birds on the ground, running across the terrace, hopping into the boiler room, and they might get stepped on!” Sure enough, four of those little birds have, in their desperation, jumped from the nest, luckily landing safely on the ground below. They immediately began scurrying to and fro, not very sure on their little feet, never having before left the nest.
Jean-Pierre arrives, scoops those tiny bundles of fluff and down up and, creating a nest in an old birdcage, until now simply decoratively perched on a tree stump under a rose trellis in the garden, from shreds of newspaper, and pops one two three four little birds inside. And we stare worriedly up at the nest over Room #18, wringing our hands, calling for the last little bird, squawking inconsolably, to come down.
Jean-Pierre and I begin to dig in the cool, damp earth under the bushes in the garden, looking desperately for snails to feed those babies, guests (sitting on the terrace, drinks in hand) staring at us curiously. One two three four fat, juicy snails are joyfully discovered and proudly proffered, Jean-Pierre digging out the gooey, slug-like bodies and slicing them into bits, feeding those baby birds, beaks wide open awaiting sustenance, eagerly taking slimy bits of snail from the end of a pair of tweezers.
And the following day, the client in Room #18 comes into reception and says, amused, “there is a fluffy little baby bird standing in the doorway of my room! I do believe that it is the bird that you’ve been missing.” We run over and, sure enough, sibling number 5 has finally taken the leap and is standing, rather dazed and confused, on the cement just under the nest. She is smaller and weaker than her siblings who had one day of healthy, abundant eating on her, but she was safe. And then they were 5.
One week and two, Jean-Pierre has quickly become papa bird, Big Bird, the Bird Whisperer. He walks into the warm darkness of the boiler room, flicks on the lights and those little things begin their excited chorus, bright yellow beaks crying for, waiting for food. He carries them out into the sunshine, opens the top of the cage and a week or two go by and one then two is able to flap his or her wings just enough to hop up onto the rim of the cage, shaky and wavering, or up onto JP’s shoulder (scooped up and placed back down safely into the cage). Lunch (snails from the garden, worms purchased, dog food softened overnight in water) and a bit of fresh air. JP has become the Hôtel Diderot’s own Konrad Lorenz, his voice, his face, the noise he makes clicking tongue against teeth, imprinted on the little bird brains of those chicks; each time he approaches the cage, click click click, talking to those birds, cooing and cheering them on, their excitement, their eagerness mounts, and they flap and chirp and open their yellow beaks towards this new papa bird who cares for them, nourishes them, loves them.
“Did you just kiss her?” I ask in astonishment, watching the feeding ceremony from the doorway. “Did I just see you kiss that bird on the top of the head?!” “Yep.” Smiling down at his babies.
Two weeks or so in, we carry the cage to Raymonde to ask her advice, where can we free the birds when they are able to survive on their own, are there gardens, safe havens where cats don’t roam? She tells us where we can let them go when they are ready “but, oh, not for another 5 days or so!” she exclaims, swatting away the paw and the curious nose of the fat cat in her own garden, hovering close by. “They are too young yet.” she exclaims knowingly. They are still rather tiny.
Funny thing, our visit to Raymonde, because the following morning we go down to feed those birds, prepared to continue being birdparents for another week and to our shock (and amusement) it seems that those darn birds have doubled in size overnight, 5 big, plump birds standing wing to wing, jostling each other for space in that old cage. Fat things. One, the strongest, flutters up and over the others, trying to stretch his or her wings, landing, standing on the backs and heads of the others. JP pushes a stick or two through the cage, resting on the bars side to side so this eager one could perch, but we can see that those birds will not last another five days stuffed into that cage. And they keep on eating. We know that we have to free them, only allowing one to remain, one to claim the hotel garden as his or her territory.
“What’s that white spot on this one’s head?” I ask, pointing to one. “Oh, I put a dot on this one’s head with White Out. I can’t keep them all here in the garden and I chose this one to stay!” Adoption!
Another day and the situation is getting ridiculous, those birds no longer tiny squashed into that cage. And each time he opens the cage to feed them, one, two, three flutter up and hop out, one hand stuffing worms and softened dog food into their gullets, the other hand grabbing birds one by one and placing them back into the cage, chattering to them all the while, cooing and clicking his tongue click click click against his teeth, imprinting his sound, his voice, his face on their little bird brains. The fuzzy poofs of down have been replaced by feathers, the last one or two sprigs of fluff stick ridiculously out of tiny heads like antennae.
The time has come, much to my chagrin, to free four of the five baby birds, still babies but too big to keep.
A last meal on that last afternoon with our adopted babies. JP sets the cage on the table in the garden under the olive tree and lifts up the lid and damn if that one bird, the strongest, the biggest, the first to have tried to fly, doesn’t pop out and flitter away. “Well,” JP mutters, “I guess she’s the one to stay in the garden and not Miss White Dot.” Heartbroken.
The following day, JP tucks the cage into a large Ikea tote bag and we head out behind the hotel, down Rue Diderot, and take the tiny side street that heads up to the hillside behind the winery where Raymonde had suggested we let those birds go. Plenty of grub and zero cats. Or so we hope. He sets the sack down, opens the cage, click click click, cooing and talking them through this big step. He lifts them out one by one, lifts them up and points them in the direction of the bushes on the hillside, propelling each forward with the flick of the wrist. They’ve yet to fly, Papa Bird, so they are wobbly even as they take flight, waggling and flapping unsteadily towards the bushes. One, two, three, the fourth doesn’t want to go. Is it White Dot? Is it the fifth birdy, the last to leave the nest, smaller and weaker for having missed a day of nourishment? He clings to JP’s finger, then his sleeve, then flits to his shoulder and doesn’t want to go. But Papa Bird is adamant that it is time. And he pushes baby bird off of his hand and sends him on his way. I have tears in my eyes (my pleas to let him stay with us fall on deaf ears).
We head home and click click click call Birdie, my name for the one who stayed at the hotel, claiming it as her own, home to eat.
It’s been a few weeks and we’ve watched Birdie grow. But more than that, I have watched a touching, warm relationship grow between Birdie and Big Bird; she arrives on the terrace, hopping around the plants or standing in the warmth of the dryer exhaust outside the laundry room, the hot air ruffling her feathers, and chirps and calls, he answers back click click click, or he comes out onto the terrace with a cup of worms or softened dog food, or up on the first floor balcony, click click click, calls and waits, and she answers him, back and forth. She arrives, they chat, he offers her a bit of something to eat, and she excitedly flaps and dances and chirps then takes the food. Sometimes she’s temperamental, teasing, refusing to come too close, waiting until he tosses her something, dancing around it, head cocked to the side each time he speaks, chirping in response to his clicks, picking up the food and testing its veracity by whipping it against the tabletop before gulping it down. And then, satisfied, turning her back and flitting off.
“Did you just kiss her?” I ask in astonishment, watching the feeding ceremony, he in a chair, she on the tabletop close by. “Did I just see you kiss that bird on the top of the head?!” “Yep.” Smiling down at his baby.
He taught her to dig in the earth, as a good papa bird must do, first in a small plastic cup on a newspaper on one of the terrace tables, then around the base of the potted lemon tree, to find food, worms he purchases and buries for her. Her chirping evolves into singing and he arrives at her beck and call the moment he recognizes her particular strain; she flying out of the trees answering his click click click and landing on the back of a chair below or the edge of the planter on the balcony above. When she comes calling, hungry, expecting worms or wet, mushy kibble and he’s not here, I grab the jar and call her, stretch out my hand and offer. She cocks her head, listening, recognizing the voice and knowing it is not his then decides, I assume, how hungry she really is, if she’ll take from someone who is not Big Bird, her dad. She squawks at me, not coming too close, pecking at and inspecting the bits of food I toss to her, taking or not taking as if deciding whether to reward me or punish me, eat the food I’ve placed in front of her or not, like a temperamental child, or a teenager. And I feel such joy and contentment when she deigns to eat from my hand.
photos courtesy of Paola Thomas
The guests at the hotel who come and go have each heard the story of Birdie. They watch in amazement and amusement the back and forth, the give and take, the curious relationship between the man and the bird. The groups who come with a tour guide who has recently been here during the many weeks of the evolving story arrive already on the lookout for Birdie, asking questions, hurrying out onto the terrace to watch.
And because we lost our Boston Terrier, we had to finally put our little dog to sleep just over a week ago, Birdie has been a savior, enchanting us, keeping us occupied, a little being to care for. She arrived in our lives just when we needed her to come.
But sadly, birds, like children, grow up and fly the nest and it’s been 3 days since we have seen her, since she has come calling for Big Bird and singing for food. The courtyard is lavish with birds, a wild dance, birds chirping, swooping, flapping, chanting. We spy little heads bobbing inside the birdhouses dotting the walls, we hear fluttering and chirping coming from the trees. But no Birdie. All grown up. She may have found refuge in our neighbors lush, beautiful garden, she may have gone farther. We hope that once she finds a mate she will come back to have her babies here, at the hotel, in the nest over Room #18.
Mme. Lainel, Marty, Birdie, our losses in such a short time are great, our sadness is bittersweet with memories, the emptiness they each leave behind filled with the beauty of the garden, the warmth of the summer, the chatter of the guests, and everything moves on.