Miss Mildred Millichip had a whole battalion of feathered recruits. Rank after rank of them. Many were her ‘war wounded’ as she called them. They filled her life as indeed they filled her bungalow. Rescued Budgies, Parrots and Cockatoos peered from cages that lined windowsills and mantlepieces, balanced on tables and chairs, and spilled out into the numerous self-constructed aviaries and lean-tos in the back garden.
Space not taken up by provisions and birds was taken up by feeding bowls, bottles of pills and potions and many, many books and magazines.
‘Like to keep up with what’s going on, she once declared when she saw me leafing through a Parrots’ Magazine. I wished the same could be said of her views on treating bird ailments.
One book above all – a book that Mildred constantly referred to – was an old veterinary dictionary, long since superseded by later editions. The red binding was cracked, pages cellotaped in, others dog-eared from constant use. And that was the problem – the constant use. Mildred was always quoting from this dictionary, always looking up medical conditions, always trying the suggested remedies.
‘My bible,’ she’d say, forgetting her bible was an edition more appropriate for treating the ailments of the animals coming out of the Ark rather than administering to the needs of modern aviculture.
‘This bird’s plumage feels very greasy to me,’ I said, having scooped up a Budgie to cut his claws.
‘I’ve been rubbing in olive oil,’ stated Mildred. ‘My dictionary says it’s the best way to treat flaky skin.’
Taking a deep breath, I explained the problems of seborrhoea and left her with a vitamin/mineral supplement while she thumbed through her dictionary to S for skin.
On another occasion, a Cockatiel suffered for a fortnight with a sore eye. Mildred had been bathing it with weak strained tea.
‘Doesn’t seem to be getting any better,’ she admitted when she eventually called me in.
The poor bird had very puffy eyelids with severe reddening of the lining, the corners stained brown with tears. The centre of the eye was white and pitted.
‘What’s that green stuff?’ asked Mildred, watching me suspiciously as I instilled some drops into the Cockatiel’s eye.
‘Fluorescein. It will show us if there’s any ulceration there.’
‘Tricia’s just got a cold in her eye. That’s what it says in my dictionary.’
I turned the bird’s head towards her. The fluorescein had clearly delineated the crater pitting the surface of the cornea. ‘Does your dictionary tell you what that is – U for ulceration?’
Mildred was given a tube of antibiotic ointment to put in the eye three times a day. ‘And no more tea,’ I snapped as she glanced up at the book-shelf.
The showdown came when the Parrots in Mildred’s makeshift wooden aviaries erupted in a frenzy of scratching and self-mutilation. Feathers falling out. Birds going bald.
The pronouncement made by Mildred was E for eczema. ‘Classic symptoms,’ she declared, tapping the faded cover of her beloved dictionary. ‘Says so in here.’
Not that damned book again, I thought as I watched a flock of Budgies flitting round in a storm of moulted feathers. I caught a few birds up and examined them. There was evidence of chewed quill feathers. Just stumps remaining in some cases. Reddening of the skin. Discrete tiny, angry-looking spots.
There was obvious irritation. But what was causing it? L for lice? But microscopic examination of plucked feathers and skin samples had not revealed any. F for fleas? No flea dirts in the samples checked. FM for French moult? No.
That only affected young birds as they left the nest. My mental dictionary was beginning to let me down. I needed to come up with a diagnosis asap before I became S for stumped.
As we walked across the yard, I stopped to peer into the dark interior of a roosting shed.
‘I suppose you’ve tried treating the birds?’ I asked, leaning through the door to switch on a light. Silly question.
‘Of course. Chopped parsely, garlic pills and boiled lentils. Internal cleansing. Does the world of good.’ Mildred saw my look. S for sceptical. ‘Well, it can often help,’ she added.
‘But not in this case,’ I said, running my fingers along the crevices in the wooden walls adjacent to the perches.
‘I’m now trying Simpson’s Blood Mixture in the drinking water. My dictionary recommends it to cool the blood.’
‘An F word would be the best thing for this lot.’
‘You what?’ exclaimed Mildred, looking startled.
I swear that wasn’t in her bible. ‘F for fire. Put a match to these roosting sheds. They’re alive with red mites.’ I held up my fingers. The tips were covered with squashed red bodies. ‘They’re causing all the itchiness. It will save you a great deal in vet’s bills.’
That struck a chord. A match was struck too and the two sheds got burnt and replaced. Mildred admitted they were rather ancient and needed replacing anyway.
‘I also burnt that old veterinary dictionary,’ she later told me.
I leapt for joy. Thank heavens. There’d be no more battling with her bible.
She went on: ‘Well, it was rather out-of-date.’ She waved a huge, glossy tome at me. ‘So I’ve bought the latest edition.’
I came rapidly down to earth with a bump.
Malcolm’s memoir, An Armful of Animals, is available on Amazon at £7.99 and Kindle at £1.99
His website is: http://www.malcolmwelshman.co.uk