by Kathy Floyd
Char Burton takes a bird named Beauty out of one of the large cages stacked in her living room. She sweet talks to Beauty and they give each other little beak-to-lip kisses. Beauty is an Eclectus Parrot with a gorgeous scarlet head, but her torso has no feathers, just dark splotchy down as she goes through a molting cycle. Beauty is only one of the 40 or so residents in Char’s avian world. Asking Char if she has a favorite is like asking a parent which child they love the most. Every one of her growing flock of birds is her “favorite.” With Beauty, it’s her personality.
Locals call Char “The Bird Lady of Archer City.” Char doesn’t mind being known as the Bird Lady. She doesn’t even mind when some people put the word “crazy” in front of bird lady. She knows that her collection of birds isn’t normal. But everything about birds fascinates Char — their brilliant colors and fancy feathers, their personalities, that some have hurts that need healing just as humans do.
Char’s manufactured house in northwest Archer City sits on the diagonal of her corner lot, her front door not directly facing one street or the other. She keeps five or six birds inside her house between the kitchen and living area, the cages forming a room divider. Along with the usual decor of ivy and framed homey sayings on the wall, the living room has a large swing with little baubles hanging on it for the birds to peck at. She has stacks of books on birds, but says she doesn’t read them merely as instruction manuals. She reads about birds because to her, they are interesting. Another 13 birds live in protected cages outside and 25, give or take a few, in an outbuilding she calls the birdhouse just across the patio from her back door. Her menagerie includes a variety of tropical parrots, cockatiels, cockatoos, and other exotic birds.
Pieces of Char’s short, curly graying hair have escaped the pins intended to hold them back and they hang in wisps around her round face. She’s 61 years old, and the lines at the corners of her eyes deepen when she smiles. Something in her voice and laugh makes you think of the comedian Rosanne Barr.
At Char’s house, most conversations tend to be between her and her birds. The birds give their opinions with chirps, squawks and even words — sometimes random, sometimes an echo of a word just spoken. As Char mentions the color red, a voice repeats “red” several times, changing its inflection to make plain old red sound like it needs an exclamation point, then a question mark.
Although Char’s fascination with birds began long ago when a family friend gave her his parakeet before he went off to Vietnam, her collection in Archer City started with Mr. BB, a citron cockatoo. He had been taken back to the breeder because a male in the former owner’s household would tease the bird, and as a result, Mr. BB hated men. Char worked part time at Nature’s Half Acre, a former pet store and animal refuge between Wichita Falls and Archer City. Mr. BB bonded with Char. He would fly to her when she passed by and wanted to be near her when she was at work. When a man came into the store and wanted to buy him, Char warned him that Mr. BB wasn’t a man’s bird. Sure enough, he bit the man, drawing blood. Everyone had been telling Char she needed to buy Mr. BB, so she did, right before the man came back into the store to buy him. She calls Mr. BB her baby.
Then there was this Patagonian Conure that Char bought from someone who had to get rid of the bird. “She has such a personality,” Char says. “She belches, she makes all kinds of noises. She’s a character.” So it became the chant in the store, “Just give it to Char, she’ll take anything,” and her collection multiplied as she took in strays and unwanted birds, then began searching for mates for them.
Corky, one of Char’s flock, had emotional problems caused by 20 years in a dark cage with no interaction. She had a hole in her chest from self-mutilation. She continually plucked all her feathers out. A vet told Char that Corky would never be a pretty bird, but to Char she was beautiful. After Char’s care, Corky thrived. Char would take her to parties and to visit friends at barbecues. Corky would go for months without plucking her feathers out, but then something would trigger her pain and she would begin pulling her feathers out again, and one day this past summer when Char was at work, Corky bled to death after plucking a feather in a blood vessel. As Char reminisces about Corky, she tears up. “Corky was a character, that girl.”
Char identifies with birds and humans that have been scarred, physically or emotionally. Helping those birds heal is more than just a hobby, Char says, it’s her destiny. She may not always know what caused the hurt, but she knows that by giving them love and care she can try to reverse the damage done. She runs an unofficial bird hospital, nursing sick birds for their owners, giving progress reports by sending photos of the healing birds to their people. She puts those with health problems on special diets.
Part of Char’s childhood was spent in California, and part in a small mining town in Nevada. When she and her sisters were just barely out of their toddler years, their mother would dress them up in their Sunday dresses and they would drive to visit one of their mother’s friends in California’s Soledad Prison. The girls would sit on the man’s lap, and he would put his hands underneath their pretty dresses and fondle them. After he was released from prison, Char’s mother married him, and the abuse continued until Char was 11 or 12 years old, and he was sent back to prison.
“Shut up,” says a voice from a cage.
The birds know when Char is uneasy. They don’t like it when the talk turns to her childhood. Rocco, a green male Eclectus, squawks so loudly that talk is impossible. Char takes him out of the cage to sooth him, but Kiki begins a shrill squealing that is louder than Rocco’s calls.
“There was parts of my childhood that weren’t so nice,” Char says. Even though 50 years have passed since the abuse, the pitch of her voice rises and quivers, and she flicks tears off her cheeks. The pauses between sentences grows longer. “But I had good parts too. It was a part of my life and that’s just the way it was. You never put it behind you because it’s there.”
Years later, when Char was pregnant with her son, she was haunted with dreams that her molester was going to come and take her child, even though he was still locked up. She knew it didn’t make sense, but her dreams led to sleeplessness and depression. She was frantic. When she learned that her molester had died in prison, it was like a load was lifted, and she never dreamed about him again.
Char overcame her childhood scars through counseling. “That was the most influential thing in my life, not the molestation, not the dysfunctional home life. It was the counseling. It [abuse] doesn’t have to be what your life pivots around,” she says. “There’s no “poor Char” here,” she says.
“That’s right,” says a voice.
As Char takes Rocco out of his cage, she says that birds love to be with their people. They make you part of their flock. She rotates the birds in and out of the house every few days so they all get to spend quality time near her, and she can spend quality time with all of them.
Rocco snuggles his head under Char’s chin and she pets his head and back. Rocco has a special problem — he thinks Char is his mate. Rocco begins the avian equivalent of humping as he cuddles up to Char. She scolds him and puts him back in the cage with Beauty, his intended mate. Char is partial to the green birds. The reds are beautiful, but the greens, she says, are gorgeous.
In life before Archer City, Char lived in Ketchikan, Alaska, where she owned a jewelry store. She left the thick forests and fords of Ketchikan for the scraggly landscape of West Texas to make a change. Her children were here — her daughter lives in Olney and her son is Archer City’s police chief. Coming to a small town, living in one and liking it can be tough for someone who doesn’t have deep roots in the dry dirt.
But Char cherishes the small-town community atmosphere, even though there are times when she feels like she’s living in a bird cage herself. For a short time, Char lived in the Caribbean where she befriended a local woman who made her brightly colored caftans to wear. She would hike to places where she could see the same birds kept in cages here fly free. “I was in heaven,” she says.
After Char’s granddaughter started to school, she had too much time on her hands and her family told her she needed to find a job. Because of her jewelry store experience, she applied at jewelry stores and she also applied at North Texas State Hospital in Wichita Falls, a mental health facility. She got a call back from a jewelry company, and one from the hospital.
Char says she moved to Texas needing a change, and decided to take the hospital job. She is a psychiatric nurse aid in the social behavior program, one of the least desirable units, working with patients who can be violent. When she was first assigned there, others warned her that the unit was a bad place, the worst. Quitting crossed her mind, but more than 12 years later, she’s still there. Not that there aren’t days when she doesn’t question her decision, but she loves helping people who are so troubled they are locked up. At work, when conditions lean toward the dramatic, Char will lead the conversation toward birds. She is known as the Bird Lady at work, too.
Sometimes, Char thinks her past is an asset. When I ask her if it’s okay to include her childhood in her story, she gives her consent on the chance that it might help someone else. Maybe someone will get help. Maybe someone will see that the pain doesn’t have to rule. Maybe someone will see that healing is possible after the hurt. She picks up on both molesters and those who have been molested. “I have patients out there who have never told me they’ve been molested, but I know that they have,” and she shuts her eyes as she imagines the hurts that have led to their condition today.
Char’s former husband’s mother is part of her human flock. She won’t call her an ex mother-in-law — and “Granny,” or Jeane Burton, won’t call Char an ex daughter-in-law. Granny tells people that her son and Char may have gotten divorced 30 years ago, but she and Char never got divorced. Whenever Granny introduces Char, she identifies her as the mother of her grandchildren. Char takes Granny to the stores in Wichita Falls when she needs to, she helps with her two dogs, and sometimes Granny helps Char with the birds when she has a lot of babies to feed. Granny has known Char since she was a teenager, and she has been a mother figure for Char. Now, they each call the other their best friend. As for the birds, Granny laughs and says, “I think she’s insane! I think they’re noisy buggers, but she loves them so much.”
Char wants to show a visitor some of the birds outside in the birdhouse, but the presence of a stranger ruffles some feathers. Opening the door sets off a loud reaction of cries, crazed chirps and squawks. Some of the birds are sitting on eggs and make clear with all their squawking that they do not wish to be disturbed.
Back in the house, Char mixes up some pablum and takes two baby Amazons out of a cage, puts them on the kitchen table and sits down to feed them with an eye dropper.
“Paaablum,” says a less than human voice from behind us.
Just a few months ago Char had 24 babies to feed, most because a friend couldn’t feed her own birds. Char cooks boiled eggs, pasta, potatoes, carrots and celery for the birds. She feeds the older birds a combination of nuts and fruits like trail mix. She spends at least $50 (free shipping!) every two weeks online Drs. Foster and Smith on foods such as Birdie Banquet, little heat-and-eat meals like TV dinners for birds.
“Meow,” says a voice during the food talk. Then the voice begins the Meow Mix cat food commercial jingle, “Meow, meow, meow, meow.” The meowing continues. From somewhere comes a wolf whistle.
Between boarding and breeding, Char says most of the birds pay their own way at her house. For some of the birds, Char’s house is only a way station. She uses a network of friends, acquaintances, pet store owners and the Senior Citizen Center to find homes for birds whose owners can’t keep them anymore. When she sells birds, she will make out a detailed instruction sheet for the new owners and she makes calls to find out how the babies are doing. If she visits a store that wants to buy birds, she won’t sell if she doesn’t like the condition of the store.
Char plans on expanding in the near future. When she retires in four years, she wants to build another house to make room for more birds, more birds to hold and love.
Now Char is giving some love to Coda — a diva of a double yellow-headed Amazon if ever there was one. When Char calls her a pretty girl, Coda gives her yellow head a toss to the side, as if she’s tossing a mane of Farrah Fawcett hair. She says “Hi” in a voice that could belong to a movie starlet, and just like she was addressing her fans, she says, “I love you, heart,” — she can’t say the word “sweet” — when Char calls her a pretty girl.
“Come here,” one of the caged birds says.
“Step up, Coda,” Coda tells herself.
Char laughs at Coda’s antics. “She’s a ham. To Coda, it’s all about me.”
Coda keeps talking. “Hi, Coda.” “Step up, Coda.”
Kiki, jealous of the attention Coda is getting, begins her shrill calls again. “Come on, baby,” says another voice. Someone is clucking like a chicken.
A thick growth of morning glory vines covers the porch railing just a step from Char’s front door. It’s covered with purple-blue blossoms even in November. The first time I walked up to the front door, a cloud of sparrows flew out from deep in the vines. I couldn’t believe that so many birds could find shelter in there. Apparently, even wild birds know they’re safe at the Bird Lady’s house.
As early as the third grade, Kathy Floyd knew she wanted to write. After working for the U.S. Postal Service for 16 years, including time as a writer/editor for several Postal Service publications at headquarters in Washington, D.C., she wrote for newspapers and magazines in Cooke, Denton and Grayson counties in Texas. She has won awards from the Texas Press Association for photography and headlines and the Vinson Award for Journalism at MSU in 1991. She now works at MSU as Marketing and Public Information assistant. She has attended the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference since 2008.