By JESSICA BOURQUE
Cindy Eaglen — that's eagle with an 'n' — sits in her computer chair, a bird in one hand, a mouse in the other. The mouse is of the computer variety, but the bird is an African grey, one of the smartest avian breeds in the animal kingdom. Cindy carefully holds the two, kissing one on the beak and using the other to scroll through YouTube videos; she is searching for one of her favorites.
"It's amazing!" she says. "They put on some NSYNC song or something (it's actually Backstreet Boys) and this bird starts dancing — just bobbing his head and moving his feet perfectly in line with the beat!"
She finds the video, and soon a cockatoo named Snowball appears on the screen.
"Look at him! Isn't he ?" she seems about to finish that thought with "amazing" or "incredible," but she's interrupted.
That's Pretty — the bird perched so contentedly on Cindy's hand who wants back in the spotlight. He likes being the center of attention and doesn't want to compete with this virtual counterpart now dancing, quite rhythmically, to the boy-band hit "Backstreet's Back."
"Ow?! Well, nobody hurt you! What are you 'Ow-ing' about?" Cindy replies.
She speaks to her birds in high-pitched coos, much like a mother humoring a jabbering toddler. It's appropriate, really. Cindy considers her birds to be an extension of her family. She knows they can't replace her two daughters or her husband, but all 13 of her "feathered children" who live at her house provide a companionship Cindy hasn't found in any other animal. These birds are her passion.
Her obsession started with a heart attack. Cindy smoked most her life, and 12 years ago, at age 50, she finally paid for it. The heart attack meant Cindy had to stop smoking for good, but she couldn't rely on her weak willpower. She had to find help.
"I want a bird," she told her husband.
Birds are unique creatures in that they have air sacs instead of lungs, which means they can die upon inhaling tobacco smoke. Cindy realized that with birds she shared a common enemy: cigarettes. This vulnerability made a bird "the perfect insurance plan" in Cindy's struggle to stop smoking. That Mother's Day, she bought a blue and gold macaw named Anton.
"They can express their affection verbally. I have birds that tell me, 'I love you. I love your kisses,' and I know they mean it."
She pauses to shower Pretty with tender pecks on the beak.
"Yes, your momma loves you, doesn't she?"
Affection, humor, profanity: her birds articulate it all. In fact, they hardly shut up.
It's not uncommon to hear Bo, Cindy's gold and blue cockatoo, scream a familiar obscenity when she is frustrated — a bad habit she picked up from Cindy.
Or Susanna, a scarlet red macaw, shout, "Goonie birds!" when she feels silly. The term, borrowed from Susanna's favorite show, Sesame Street, is an inside joke among Susanna and her dozen cage mates. Anytime she says it, the birds will erupt in laughter, which, to the untrained ear, is really just squawking and screeching.
That laughter reverberates throughout the spacious, well-lit room that houses Susanna, Bo, Bella, Howard, Murphy, Heidi, Muffin, Scarlet, Gracie, Benny (short for Benjamin Franklin), Captain Morgan, Bandit and Cleo. In this room — a special addition to Cindy's Danville home that she built specifically for her birds — they spend their days perching in expensive cages, watching their favorite cartoons and getting pampered. For Cindy's babies, no amenities are skimped.
Terry, Cindy's recently retired husband, does a lot of the caretaking. Cindy works a day job managing the couple's two waste management businesses, Gotta Potty and Illini Recycling. But even at her office, located on the outskirts of Champaign, Cindy is surrounded by exotic birds.
The small space doubles as the headquarters for her avian rescue operation, Feathered Friends. The six-year-old organization is run by Cindy and Terry. Their goal is simple: Rescue abandoned or mistreated birds and find them loving, permanent homes.
Because exotic birds have a lifespan of about 70 years, it's difficult to find eternal housing for the castaways. People often tire of the loud pets after a few years. So Cindy doesn't allow just any Joe Blow to adopt her birds — they must be perfect fits.
"Well, you don't even care if I take a bird, do you?!" accused one potential parent, irritated with Cindy's FBI-like background check.
"No, I don't," Cindy retorted. "I do this entirely for the birds, not for the people."
Cindy estimates that she "re-homes" about 70 birds a year. As of now, 20 orphans — including Pretty — populate her rescue. She travels all over the Midwest to rescue her birds, but there is no distance she wouldn't travel; she has flown as far as California for a bird, and she'd do it again.
Sometimes, the birds come to her. After one African grey boarded at Cindy's rescue, the bird's parent complained: "Murphy hasn't been the same since we picked him up. All day he just sits in the washing machine and only comes out once a day to bite me."
It was decided that Murphy was simply happier with Cindy, so he became a member of her flock. Now, the cantankerous bird that sat in the washing machine all day is one of the friendliest of Cindy's birds.
"Are you going to pop for momma?" Cindy asks, playing Murphy's favorite game.
To the uninitiated, it seems she is just talking nonsense with Murphy; but really, she's playing an elaborate game, one she thinks proves Murphy's supreme intelligence. If Murphy is happy, he dips his body, bobs his head and makes an impeccable "pop" noise, which he does now.
"Oo! Thank you! Are you happy to see momma today?"
Today's game is half fun, half preparation. Cindy is readying Murphy for a public showing. She seizes every chance to show off her charismatic creatures to rectify "the serious misunderstandings" people have about birds.
Today, the presentation is at the Champaign County Humane Society and the audience is a group of children. Murphy should be a hit; kids love the antics of Cindy's birds. But the room turns out to be small, and Murphy is gnawing at his claws, a sign he is nervous. Cindy never forgets the possibility of disaster, even if it is unlikely. If Murphy bites, claws or, God forbid, poops on a child, the presentation, along with everyone's perception of birds, could be irreparably marred.
Cindy has heard all the accusations: Birds are loud, stupid, annoying, a hassle. But when she witnesses her birds singing opera, creating nicknames, telling jokes, expressing affection, or even giving kisses — she knows the bird haters are wrong.
"They are truly the most misunderstood creatures. ... They say birds have an intelligence comparable to that of apes and dolphins! But they have the discipline of a 2-year-old."
Murphy is still biting at his talons as he and Cindy wait for the children to arrive. Cindy is sitting on a stool toward the front of the room when her phone goes off; she grips onto Murphy. Even unexpected noises like a phone-ring can spook him. She checks it.
"Oh! It's just Murphy," she chuckles. "He has learned to imitate the beep on my Nextel!"
He can also do a back-up beeper on a garbage truck and a drop of water "so convincing it makes me get up and check the faucet."
The kids pour in making a sea of bright red shirts.
"Wheeee woooo," Murphy whistles playfully.
The children explode with high-pitched laughter. But it isn't until halfway through the presentation that Murphy really starts his display. He loosens his feet from Cindy's grip and takes a few laps around the room. This time, the laughter is a thin veil hiding the children's fear.
"He's just putting on a show for you all!" Cindy reassures them.
Cindy wraps up the presentation quickly. Two birds are on their way to her rescue. She knows them well because she raised them before they were adopted by new parents. Now, their mother is ill and can't care for them any more. Cindy's budget is tight, but she will still take them.
"I will make it work. I always do."
As she leaves, she inundates Murphy with praise and affection. He ruffles his feathers, a sign that he's happy, says Cindy — no one understands Murphy's mannerisms quite like she does.
"It takes so very little to make them happy and, in turn, their biggest desire in this world is to make you happy. Like Murphy here. I know Murphy loves me so much. I know there is nothing he wouldn't do for me."
And that return of the favor is enough for Cindy.
Jessica Bourque is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done in a version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class that included students and News-Gazette staffers. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.