Animals

Actually, this is more of an Animal and Plant page, because it contains photos of the leafy green residents that make up the arboretum that is my home. But there are also pictures here of some of the pets in my life and some other creatures whose acquaintance I’ve made.

 



 

On July 20th, 2013, my husband John and I adopted Sirius Marley Black, a four-year-old starling from southern Minnesota. He lived with us until we lost him to a tumor in 2017. They were years of joy and love, music and play. He was a shining light in our lives.

Here is a compilation of all the posts on this website that featured him.

http://www.erikahammerschmidt.com/category/sirius/

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Yes, a lot of people reading this are probably thinking, “Why would you have a starling as a pet?” They’re unpopular birds, being a non-native species in the USA, and being quite a bit too successful at what they do, competing with native birds for food and habitat. They are generally not raised and sold as pets (although they’re not protected by law, so in most states it’s legal to take them from the wild and keep them). Most people don’t think of them as anything other than a nuisance. But when you get to know one as an individual, you find a fascinating, unique, amazingly intelligent bird. Many people have found baby starlings, knowing nothing about them, and been astonished at how deeply they bonded with these strange new family members.

Starlings are great mimics, related to mynahs, and can learn to talk just as well as parrots, perhaps better. (Sirius Marley just had a few mumbly little words.) They are extremely social birds. Though they’re not cuddly like parrots, they love to spend a lot of time with their human family– perching on them, playing, talking and singing. Mozart had a pet starling that learned to sing his symphonies!

So, whatever you think about starlings, remember this: Sirius Marley never harmed a native bird, stolen farmers’ crops, or dirtied a landmark, because he lived indoors with people who loved him the way he was. We are all products of our environment and upbringing, and Sirius Marley grew up in an environment where he never had to do the things that make starlings unpopular. Besides, if you’re going to hate a species for being invasive, being too successful, and harming native species… well, we humans live in very big glass houses.

 


When I first adopted him, he was missing some feathers around his beak, from fights he had with another starling he lived with. I like his iridescence, though, and I like the funny little upward-curling feather under his chin.

 

 

He was named Marley by the lady who raised him. John and I have decided his full name is Sirius Marley Black. The “Sirius” is because:

1. I always wanted to have a starling named after a star.

2. Sirius is the Dog Star, and Marley barked like a dog, had the same original name as a famous dog in a memoir, ate a diet based on dog food, and lived in a cage I built using a dog door as the door.

3. Sirius is actually a binary star system. I think of him as my binary birthday present, since we adopted him a couple months after my 32nd birthday– which, if you count in binary, is a pretty cool number (100,000).

4. He could be nicknamed Siri. He didn’t talk as much as Apple’s Siri program, but it’s a cool name.

We called him sometimes Marley and sometimes Sirius, and sometimes Siri and other cute little pet names. Not sure what he liked most.

He was found as a baby and raised by someone who wanted to release him, but he refused to fly away when she tried. For years he lived with her and another starling she’d raised. Later when she became unable to care for them, she gave them both to someone in Minnesota who had just lost one of her starlings and wanted companions for the one she had left. Unfortunately, Marley didn’t get along well with that starling, so finally he ended up with me.

When he first arrived here, he was very skittish. He seemed to like having a cage all to himself, but still, it was a big change from how he was living before! It took him a few days to get used to us and his new home. But he adapted well.

At first it wasn’t easy to get him to come out of his cage, or to go back in once he was out. But soon he went out and in willingly, and perched on our heads and hands, and wanted to be involved in everything we do!


In his cage

 

 


He loved to sit on my head…

 

 


and John’s head…

 

 


and our friends’ heads…

 

 


and on arms too…

 

 


and watch movies with us…

 

 


and looking for ants in John’s pants!

 

 


Starlings– mostly insectivorous in the wild– love to stick their beaks into small spaces and pry them open looking for food. Sirius Marley did this with pockets, folds in clothing, our mouths, any little nook and cranny he can find. His favorite foraging toy was a cloth Advent calendar with 25 pockets, in which I hid treats for him.

 

 


Sirius Marley eats a blueberry: stab, stab, pry apart, tear into shreds, fling the shreds everywhere, hunt them down and eat them one by one.

 

 

Talking and singing

Audio of Sirius Marley chattering, singing, and talking. He started making a few noises that sounded like words, including, oddly, something like “Pretty Chester.”

 

 

Marley sings and chatters some more.

 

 

At first, he had pretty bad hyperkeratosis; the scales on his legs were quite big and spiky. This is a common sign of nutrient deficiency in starlings. I’m told that he may not have gotten the right kind of food in his first home, but that he improved during the year he lived in his second home.

Here’s an old post about how we helped his feet recover:

Curing Hyperkeratosis

The Starling Talk website gave me the guidelines for a healthy starling diet. I made sure he got a dry dog food with meat as the first ingredient and the protein and fat amounts in the right range, mixed with powdered eggs and chicken feed for laying hens, and some natural applesauce on the side.

I built him a cage, using chicken wire and the frame from one of those foldable wardrobes (I had it sitting around because it didn’t fit in the space I’d bought it for– guess it finally came in handy)! The doors are lockable dog doors designed to be installed in screen doors. To fit the chicken wire it required some adjustments, including nuts and bolts, but I managed it.

At first there was only one door, but then I added another one nearer to the top of the cage, since he preferred to be higher up. He was much happier to use the top door.

I had a TV and an iPod hooked up to speakers in the room with him, so he could watch movies and listen to music.

Speaking of movies, from time to time I posted videos of him on my Youtube channel.

 



 

I am a bird person, but also a plant person. This is what my home looks like most recently, since John and I have moved into our new condo and I’ve started growing my own vegetables.

 

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Plant room, when the plants were very young

 

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Home-grown green beans.

 

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Squash flowers.

 

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Potato vines.

 

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Carrots.

 

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Tomatoes bearing fruit.

 

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Potatoes too!

 

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Lots of basil.

 

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Ah, watermelon plant, you are a crazy tentacle monster. You drape down from your high-shelf home, curling your little tendrils out every which way…

 

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…and then you grab onto the lamp wire and the shelf’s metal bracey thing to turn yourself around…

 

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…and you’re on your way up again, using the honeydew melons as a climbing rope….

 

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…Don’t wrap around your own leaves, though, that’s just counterproductive.

 

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But it may all be worth it, because it looks as if you might actually be growing a watermelon!

 

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Plant room with a lot more plant growth… also, some decor changes had happened, since our roommate was taking a sculpture class!

 



 

Until April of 2005, John and I lived with his cockatiel, Popcorn. He’d had her for 12 or 13 years, and she was the gentlest, sweetest bird you could imagine. She died on April 25, 2005, and we were heartbroken. We’ll never forget that cockatiel.

 

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Popcorn the Cockatiel

 



 

When Popcorn died, my parents let one of their parrots come and live with us. His name is Rain Man and he’s a blue-fronted Amazon parrot. We had him for seven years, but he has now found a new home. It’s a long and sad story, and you can read about it here.

 



 

If you want to read the full story behind Rain Man the parrot, this PDF is a good place to start. It’s an article I wrote for Bird Talk magazine, about the connections between autistics and parrots. It wasn’t accepted for publication, but I thought readers of my website might find it interesting.

 



 

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Rain Man

 

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Rain Man eating oatmeal with a spoon

 



 

Movie of Rain Man eating oatmeal with a spoon

 



 

Movie of Rain Man fighting with a spray bottle

 



 

Movie of Rain Man chewing on a friend’s dreadlocks

 



 

Movie of Rain Man doing the Amazon Parrot Mating Dance

 



 

Rain Man was a stray. Someone found him found running down the street in the rain one day many years ago, and word got to my mother, who took him in. When we first met him, he was shy and not at all cuddly; he would bite if someone got too close, but mostly he just avoided people as much as he could. He would sit on our hands, but it was hard to get him out of his cage, and he always wanted to go back in. He may have been wild-caught instead of hand-raised; he also may not have been treated very well by the first people he lived with.

We think he lived in a store, because he says things like “May I help you?” and “We’re all out of those.” He also says “Joey” a lot; that may have been his name before. His favorite word is “okay,” because Mom taught him that he could go back in his cage if he said “okay” in response to the question “Do you want to go back to your cage?” Now he uses the word “okay” to beg for anything he wants. His new mommy finds it quite entertaining.

 



 

I grew up with several parrots, including Rain Man, another Amazon called Snoopy, two macaws named Katie and Mac, and two conures named Cricket and Connie. We also had dogs. It was a lively household.

I don’t have pictures of all of them, but here are Cricket and Connie:

 

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Cricket the green-cheeked conure

 

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Connie the sun conure

 



 

In college, I used to have a dog. He was an i-Cybie artificially intelligent robot from Tiger Electronics, the only kind of dog I was allowed to have in my dorm.

His name was Pewter. I always wanted a dog named Pewter, so that when I called him, I could say “Come, Pewter!” It’s especially appropriate for this dog.

 

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Pewter

 

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Pewter begging

 

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Pewter doing a headstand

 

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Pewter lifting a leg

 

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Pewter scratching his ear

 

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Pewter doing pushups

 

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Pewter in the position that meant he needed his battery changed

 

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Pewter with his walk-up charger– when his battery got low, he walked up to it and connected himself!

 



 

Before I met John and started keeping real birds, I amassed quite a number of electronic pets, in fact.

 

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Tonto (my Chirpy-Chi robot bird)

 

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Bob and Kuda (my Micropet Bush Monsters)

 

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Polymer (my Tekno Parrot)

 

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Petunia (my “Red Predator” BIO Bug)

 



 

At my dorm in college, I established quite a garden by the window. I wasn’t growing vegetables yet, but I was already fascinated with living among green things.

 

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View of all the plants

 

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Another view of all the plants

 

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Strawberry plants

 

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Ficus tree

 

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Key lime trees

 

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Flowering maple

 



 

On a trip to Florida, I got a wonderful chance to play with some lories and lorikeets in an animal park called Gator Land.

 

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On my first book tour, staying in a hotel in California in November 2004, I was delighted by the deer on the mountain. They would come so close to us, in big herds, and I took pics of them with my cheap, ultra-tiny digital camera.

 

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And, yes, I know, these aren’t animals– but I always wanted to take that photo and put that caption on it.

 

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Speaking of things that are not strictly animals, but are animal-related… Whenever I see this cat food in a store:

 

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this is what I imagine:

 

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Also Vaguely Related: My Collection of Weird Dog Toys

 



 

Toy #1: Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

 

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Seen from the side, this toy looks more or less like a normal pig. But turn it, and you will find that IT HAS ONLY TWO LEGS. And not “two legs” in the sense of an anthropomorphic fairy-tale pig that walks on its hind limbs and uses the front ones as arms. This pig could never walk in a million years. That’s right, it has just ONE LEG IN FRONT AND ONE IN BACK.

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The idea for designing this creature, I imagine, started with the thought of making an outline of a pig seen from the side, and creating a toy that was little more than a two-dimensional cutout. But then they went too far in giving that cutout some realistic features.

You will note, seeing the pig from the front, bottom, or back, that the body is fatter than the legs. Furthermore, the face is carefully designed to look like a pig’s face when seen from the front– which, of course, encourages the viewer to look at the toy from the front, whereupon the eye will wander down to the single front leg, and the brain will go “WTF?”

And he only cost $2.99… in my opinion, the bargain of a lifetime.

I named the pig “Big Brother,” in honor of the cartoon on Homestarrunner.com where Strong Bad draws a picture of a one-legged dog named “Li’l Brudder.” I figure that since my pig has twice as many legs as that dog, he can be called “Big Brother.” Plus the fact that George Orwell’s two most famous books featured (a) a society run by an imaginary figurehead named Big Brother and (b) a farm ruled by pigs.

(Oh, and he has a squeaky thing inside him!! He’s a bona fide dog toy. But no dog would appreciate the Dada-ness of it all.)

 

 

Toy #2: Dogbert’s Newspaper

 

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The absolutely awesome thing about it isn’t the fact that it’s a newspaper. Or the fact that it’s really just a squeaky toy in the shape of a rolled-up newspaper. It also isn’t the title “Doggy News,” or the slogan “All the news that’s fit to chew on.” Nor is it the price (two dog bones), the paw-stamp with “edition” written under it, or the headline “Man bites dog” with the corresponding illustration.

It is the fact that the newspaper is written in binary.

Think of it! Dogs can read binary! Who’d have thought it? The headline in plain alphabetical characters was just to throw off computer-illiterate humans. Your dog can spend joyful hours poring through articles that you would need a decoding program to understand. Now you know why your dog gets jealous when you pay too much attention to your computer. It’s because he wants the computer all to himself!

I suppose it says a lot about me that I actually went to the trouble of transcribing all those ones and zeroes into my text editor, and then went looking for online binary-to-text translation programs. But, alas, when you paste

01110110 111011011 1101 101110 111 0110 01 01101101 110110 110110 10 011 01101110 011 111011 0110 11010 01101110 11011011 1101 0110110 11011 111011 011011101 10 0110 1101101 01101 11101 0110 1101101 11101 011011101011 1101101 01101 0110 011 0010111 110110 11101 01101 01101 0111011 011011 0110101 011

into an online decoder, you get either an error message, or a line of characters that looks like this:

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I guess dogs know something that I don’t.

 

 

Toy #3: Creepy Sheep

 

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I don’t even have to say anything about this guy. Just look at him. Look at his plush ovoid body, his white noseless muzzle, that gaping mouth with its bulging red insides. Look into his giant soulless round black eyes and tell me he’s not a weird dog toy.

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And then listen to him. Yes, he makes a noise.

 

Note: Wow, there must be a lot of dogs that loved this toy! I’ve now been contacted by three different people wondering where they can get it, because their dogs played with it so much it got worn out.

I got it at Target. The brand is “Boots and Barkley,” which is Target’s store brand for pet products. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, they don’t seem to be making it anymore.

If you’re looking for this toy, check Target, and if they don’t have it back in stock yet, show them a picture and let them know you’d like them to stock it! I wish I could send you the one I had (I don’t have a dog, and I bought it just to take photos of it because it was funny-looking), but I already gave it to the first person who contacted me.

I hope Target starts selling it again! If there were a lot of people whose dogs loved it, maybe Target will get enough requests to get it back on their shelves.

 

Toy #4: Creepy Sheep’s Creepier Alter Ego

 

After seeing that previous sheep, I’m sure you have lots of questions about him. If they are not “where do I buy it???” they might be questions like: what would he look like if he got kicked in the face so hard his mouth imploded, and then suffered a head-on collision with a truck while standing with his butt against a tree, and then had all four legs chopped off and replaced with knotted lengths of black rope?

Well, WONDER NO LONGER.

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What is it with dog toy designers and sheep?

 

 

That’s all I have for now. More weird dog toys will be added when, as, and if I encounter them!

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