The boy had no fear. He walked into the room with those lorikeets, surehandedly took that tiny cup filled with nectar and waited for them to land on his arm and begin tasting their treat. The boy's smile looked natural, not at all as though he was trying to show me up.
But that is what it felt like.
Over a year has passed since my first adult visit to the National Aviary on the North Side. Day one was fun, but only in hindsight. As a bird-fearing journalist who had fought with Penguins (the hockey playing kind) and nervously navigated interactions with lorikeets, penguins (real ones), a toucan, a condor and a sloth, the activities forced an unscheduled call to my counselor. Talk therapy after taking time to feed a toucan — now that made sense.
My being at the National Aviary made no sense.
My fear of birds was real. Not exaggerated. If one landed near a tree in a yard, I stayed far away. If one was on the street, I either stopped the car or hit the horn hoping for a sound loud enough to quake the heavens. If one was anywhere, I went anywhere else.
“I’m going to turn you into a bird lover,” said Jennifer Bertetto, a former boss and a friend.
She is still my friend. Though, that day in March 2017 when she assigned me to spend parts of several weeks getting up close and personal with occupants of the National Aviary, I figured our friendship’s days were numbered.
“You’re going to be a bird person,” she said. “I know it.”
I know this: Day One at the National Aviary was a mess of me stammering (around the sloth), flinching (while feeding penguins), and wishing I had the courage of a little boy (he accompanied me into the lorikeets room to “show me it’s fun”). I sweat through a couple of t-shirts, a ballcap, and … look, even the birds were grossed out. As a colleague filming it said several times to National Aviary employees: “I thought he was playing it up. But I’ve never seen him this nervous.”
Nervousness carried into that evening. I slept like a baby. The next morning, I felt an odd sense of accomplishment for not having fled from the birds. As the day-after progressed, I couldn’t stop talking about my time with the birds, and it hit me: the National Aviary was changing me.
It is still changing me.
Visiting the National Aviary is something I now do on my own. Usually, I don’t tell anybody about a visit. Not Jenn, who is on the board. Not Robin Weber, who is senior director of marketing. Not my nephew, my goddaughter, or any of those hockey-playing Penguins. And there is a good reason for this secrecy.
I need to see the birds when I am fed up with people.
The National Aviary has become my special place, its inhabitants a respite from the stressors of daily life that will transform a daily battle with adult attention deficit disorder into one that also includes taking on anxiety and depression. I cannot recall exactly when, but sometime between Day One and Week Three of visiting the National Aviary on a work assignment, the experience went from forcing a panicked call to a therapist to becoming a form of therapy.
And I won’t say the National Aviary can do something similar for everybody.
But the National Aviary does do it for me. Its dedicated staff, its volunteers and its animals are to whom I turn when life starts flying on me.
That group includes a barred owl named “Rossi.” The National Aviary actually named a barred owl after me for helping raise awareness of its many worthy initiatives. Pretty much, there is a “Rossi” owl because I can’t stop talking about falling in love with birds.
This month, “Rossi” began his training to become an educational ambassador so that he can visit schools, participate in exhibits and be there to help somebody else someday fall in love with birds. The trade-off is that “Rossi” won’t be at the National Aviary for its big summer party, Night in the Tropics, on Saturday night.
But I will. After all, I’m a bird person.