There was a faint smell of smoke in the air on the Saturday morning when I saw my
husband crouched outside, a basket, designed for a pot plant, in his hands, a flash of
yellow his small target. He smiled at me, surprised, and I realised the flash of yellow
was a small bird, flittering against our glass door, trying to get in, or perhaps trying to
get away from the impending trap of the basket.
“Do you want me to get it?” I asked through the glass, knowing my husband’s general
dislike for birds.
“Ok,” he called back, still gently angling the basket towards the bird.
Not wanting to open the door, letting the bird in, I ran around to another door and by
the time I got to him, the small bird was inside the upturned basket, hopping across
our new decking. By now the children, drawn from their morning cartoons, had
realized something was going on. They stepped outside with their bed hair and
crushed pyjamas, their skin still soft with sleep and bananas, and our youngest
squealed with delight. As we moved the bird inside, our daughter named it Sunny and
within minutes it had a home in the small space outside our laundry. Smoke wafted
through the open door, distant bushfires blanketing the city.
Sunny was the perfect name for him. He was a deep warm yellow, with flecks of
white near his tail. He hopped around the cardboard beneath the upturned basket,
carefully stepping back when I put in some water and oats. I found a stick in the yard,
and pushed it through as a perch. He flew up to it, swinging slightly.
Throughout the morning, the kids came and checked on him, as did we, watchful that
our dog didn’t bother him, that he was drinking, eating the oats, sitting on the perch. I
called the vet to see if anyone had reported a missing canary, but the receptionist said
that people don’t really, as they’re not microchipped. The vet couldn’t take him, it
was up to us to look after him or find him a new home.
We had to go out that morning, to meet my husband’s estranged cousin and his family
for a coffee. So we left Sunny, wondering if we had a new family member, and
deciding we needed to buy him a cage, to keep him safe.
As we got dressed to go, I remembered that my husband’s Nonna kept canaries.
“Didn’t she have one called Sunny?”
“Yes, I did think that.”
He told me his Zia believed that the dead came back to visit us, to check on us. It
seemed in that moment to be entirely possible Sunny was his Nonna, only six months
dead, visiting, checking out our renovation perhaps. We had to look after him.
We bought him some bird food and a small cage from a cheap store, thinking there
was every chance we would find the owner and give him back. My husband took a
photo of us holding the cage, the children delighted and excited, their faces bright.
Moving him into the small cage, he escaped, but I found myself quickly picking him
up, his small delicate body nestled in my hands. He wasn’t scared of me, of us, just
confused perhaps. He was a safe now, in the cage.
I researched canaries and found they live for 10-15 years if kept healthy. Keeping
healthy meant cleaning the cage every day, letting him have a bath every now and
then, clipping his tiny claws every six months – but be careful, there’s a vein in the
foot that if you clip it by accident, the canary will most likely die from blood loss.
I could so easily imagine the horror of that, the blood seeping out of his tiny toes until
he went limp.
I messaged our neighbour who said she’d heard canaries behind their house. I walked
around the block with the kids and we knocked on the door. We heard footsteps, but
no one answered. The children stood beside me, baffled by this. We turned and left,
secretly glad that they hadn’t answered, thinking that at least we tried.
A week before this, our dog, a small bitzy-terrier, had got out. A woman called me
from three streets away saying that she’d found her, she was safe in her front yard. It
felt like karma then, so we should try to find the owner of Sunny. That someone had
saved our dog, and we should return the favour. The karma of the neighbourhood was
circling around us.
Eighteen months before this, I had pneumonia. It started with some sort of chest
infection from one of my snotty students in the winter school I was teaching. Then we
went on holiday to a farm, where there were rozellas and lorikeets and all kinds of
birds to feed on the balcony, their colours brilliant in the winter sun, reds and yellows
bursting against the dull green of the Australian bush.
Two or three weeks later, after much speculation, multiple blood tests and chest x-
rays, I was diagnosed with pneumonia, caused by ‘parrot fever’. Psitacosis. A rare
disease caught by breathing in the dust of the poo of a sick bird. The last case my GP
had seen of it was in intensive care fifteen-odd years ago. If left untreated, it can get
into your brain, and then the prognosis is not good. Fortunately, my GP had seen that
one case, and had thought to test me. He was quite excited when he called to tell me
the news. I suppose he was proud of himself. And yes, I’m grateful he did discover it.
Especially as my husband was in London and both my kids also had the flu at the
It was a bad year and I’ve never looked at birds the same way again. What if Sunny
did get sick, and parrot fever struck us again? What if one of the kids got it? I
determined to clean out his cage every day to make sure he was well. There was also
the continued feeling that we had to keep him safe, in case the owner did turn up.
The morning after Sunny arrived, the light outside orange with smoke haze, I got up
and removed the cover from over his cage. Within minutes he started singing, a
beautiful trill – loud, but long. This is how we realized Sunny was a male bird,
because I’d read that only the boys sing long songs. It was so loud, my daughter
complained that she couldn’t hear the TV. I went back to bed and my husband and I
smiled at each other, pleased that we’d made him feel happy enough to sing.
Birdseed scattered across our newly polished floors and I swept and vacuumed,
watching how Sunny dipped his tail into his food dish and flicked the seeds across the
room with abandon. He sat on his little swing and sang, and the children delighted at
It got hot that day, so we had to put on the air conditioning, a vent for which was not
far from Sunny’s cage. I was worried about the cold on him, so we closed the vent,
but it was still a little chilly. We decided to move him outside sometimes, for fresh
air, and to keep him out of that cool draft. My husband put a hook in our balcony roof
so we could hang the cage up high in the shade. I’d read that canaries like to be more
than six feet from the ground.
Cleaning the cage sounds simple perhaps, but the amount of poo a small bird can do
is, to be honest, completely outrageous. Combine that with the amount of bird feed he
flicked around our small nook that we set up for him, and I was in a fairly constant
state of readiness to sweep and tidy.
I messaged a friend who lives in a colourful river-side cottage, with a beautiful garden
and wild ducks he has named and feeds by hand. The mother duck, Flo, lost most of
her chicks a couple of weeks before this. I could feel his sadness though his
description of her movements, and the one remainig duckling looking for its siblings.
I was hoping to cheer him up with our own bird story and sent him a photo, to which
he replied “that’s the cleanest that cage will ever look!” and I cringed.
The kids went to school the next day, my husband to work, and I worked from home
with Sunny and the dog, moving him outside, but enjoying his song. I posted pictures
on facebook at all the lost pet pages and left a note at a neighbour’s house when,
standing on a bench to look over the fence, I saw numerous bird cages and heard what
I now knew to be the sound of canaries. The neighbour called me that afternoon to say
it wasn’t his.
Each time I thought we might have found the owner, I was happy. It made me realize
I did not really want to keep the bird, I didn’t want to clean the cage for the next ten to
fifteen years. The children would accept that Sunny had to go back to his family. We
would have to lie if we got rid of him any other way. A friend said he’d give it to his
dad if we decided we didn’t want it. But my husband and children wanted Sunny. It
seemed to only be me who had the reservations.
One night, when my husband told me I probably shouldn’t clean the cage in the
laundry sink because it also doubles as a second bathroom sink, I got upset.
He was right, but I had considered this and disinfected the sink after the cleaning every time. I
agreed I’d wash it in the garden instead. But it made me upset, because everyone
wanted Sunny, but I was the one that had to clean up after him, and I was the one who
was worried about his faeces. I didn’t want cleaning the cage to be a more difficult
job. I didn’t want to keep doing it for a long time. I didn’t want to worry about Sunny
when we went on holidays.
My husband got frustrated at me for overthinking the long-term implications of a pet
that may or may not stay with us, we could still find the owner, though that seemed
unlikely to me. “Leave him outside” and “I’ll clean the cage” were the end points of
the mild argument we had. He said he didn’t realise I was cleaning it every day. That
it probably didn’t need to be done that often. Three days later he cleaned the cage for
the first time, and he nearly managed to squash Sunny in the process, but I was
grateful for him taking over the task. I began to feel like perhaps it would be ok, if
The smoke grew thicker in the afternoons, the sun turning orange then red as it fell
towards the horizon. Even the moon was a warm yellow. By the following weekend,
ash began to fall from the sky. Looking out our kitchen windows, it was almost like
snow. The smoke haze seemed to make everything quieter. Children were advised not
to play outside, events were cancelled. We hung Sunny in his spot outside, and joked
darkly that he would be like the canary down the mine. If the smoke was toxic or too
thick, his death would tell us not to go outside.
After a week of Sunny being with us, we were used to him. We learnt not to take the
cover off his cage until after everyone was awake otherwise he’d wake us all up.
I decided that I would hang him outside until about 4.30 pm, when the sun would hit his
cage too directly, then I moved him to another shady spot on the veranda, so he would
stay out of the chill of the air con. Outside, he could flick his seeds wherever he liked.
My husband worried that other birds might try to steal his food, but we decided it
would be ok.
. We had friends over who had kept canaries before, and our dog finally noticed the
bird, sitting on his chair, hopping from perch to perch.
“You’d better move Sunny away from the dog, canary’s can die of fright quite
easily.” We moved him inside, and put his cover on, to bed.
I thought about my grandparents, still alive at 90 and 93, and living close to bushy
areas. My mum was worried about them, as others in their street had already
evacuated and the smoke was so thick. There is only one way out of their street, and
it’s an hour’s drive from the nearest family. I thought about calling them, but didn’t. I
thought about my husband’s Nonna, that she would have loved Sunny too.
The next Monday was hot. Oven hot. The smoke so thick an emergency weather
warning was issued, and I considered driving the kids the 500m to school because
they were not supposed to go outside. The fires surrounded the city, distant, but in
every direction. South, West and North. The ocean to the east was doing little to
protect us from the heat and the haze.
I had to take the kids to the doctor after school, so I moved Sunny to his shady deck
spot before I left, not wanting him to be stuck in the direct sun, albeit weakened and
red from the smoke. I left the dog outside too, confident that she’d already lost
interest in Sunny.
By the time we got home, our eyes were stinging from the smoke, our throats sore. I
let the dog inside, and got our children into some comfortable clothes. We walked
back into the lounge room, my son throwing himself on the couch in exhaustion, the
regular request to watch television fresh on his lips.
My daughter, nearly six, was by my side when we saw, through the glass doors, a
large black bird – we would later realise was a magpie – perched on top of Sunny’s
cage outside, a brilliant yellow in his beak.
“It’s got Sunny,” I said, not thinking about sheltering the children from this horror,
only bracing myself for the cruel reality, perhaps. I don’t really know.
As I ran outside, hoping it was only a few feathers the magpie had, the children
started screaming, a harsh guttural cry of his name, their voices echoing through the
house, reaching me outside as I shooed the black bird away. I stood by the cage,
watching the bird disappear over the fence, yellow still in its beak.
I looked into the cage to see Sunny’s small body still there, a bloodied bone sticking
upright where his head used to be. I breathed in sharply, the smoky air cutting into my
lungs while my children continued to scream his name “Sunny!”
I had to hide the body. They could not know of this decapitation. It was more than I
could fathom, and if they saw that bloodied bone atop his golden feathers, it would be
an image they would not erase for years.
I picked up the whole cage, hesitating for a moment, wondering if I should comfort
them first. But no, I took the cage and hid it under the balcony, afraid they’d step
outside at any moment.
The song of a magpie, once one of my favourite sounds, echoed across the rows of
back yards. It sounded like a victory song.
When I went back inside, the children were still screaming and sobbing, “Did it eat
Sunny?” answered by a quiet yes from me, causing them to cry harder, fury entering
my son’s eyes.
At eight, and usually a placid, loving boy, he moved to anger so quickly it shocked
me. “I’m going to get a gun and shoot every magpie I ever see for the rest of my life!”
Moments later, as I held them both on the couch, “Can we get another canary?”
And then later still, “Can we paint a rock for Sunny, and write ‘Sunny we love you’
on it? So we remember him?”
Then back to anger once more, “I’m gonna kill that magpie!”
I held them, rocking, soothing, kissing them, all the while picturing the magpie with
yellow in it’s cruel mouth, Sunny’s small headless body.
Later, I snuck out to dispose of the body, and I checked the cage. There was no bend
in the metal. The doors had been blocked by the back of the chair the cage had been
on. There was barely any blood, just a little on the vertical bars, where the magpie
must have pulled the head through. How he got to Sunny is a mystery. I hope Sunny
died first, from fear or shock, then the magpie was able to get to his already lifeless
body. That’s why there was no blood, that’s why there was no commotion.
As I wrapped Sunny’s body and took him to the bin, the magpie sat on our TV
antenna high above the house, watching me. The sun was red behind it, a gentle
breeze ruffled its feathers. I wondered if the dog would be next, now that it had a
taste for blood.
I found five small yellow feathers on the balcony, and as I collected them for the
children, I also found two small black leaves, nestled between the decking boards of
the balcony, burnt from the fires outside the city.
The guilt descended upon me. I hadn’t wanted Sunny enough, I’d practically wished
him gone. Despite feeding him, cleaning up after him, moving him from hook to
shade to inside, covering him at night, I hadn’t really loved him. I looked after him
out of some kind of duty to a small vulnerable creature. His song echoed through my
memory, the empty hook outside reminding me he was gone.
Had I inadvertently killed my husband’s grandmother reincarnated? Had I been so
truly irresponsible to not know that a wild bird would easily kill our small domestic
song bird? I quickly deleted all the posts on the lost and found pages online, worried
now that the owner would find me, and I would have to tell them how he’d been
decapitated and his body thrown in the bin.
I had a small plaque made for Sunny with my son’s words “Sunny, we love you”
engraved on it. I stuck the plaque to a door stop that has a small cast iron bird on it.
Our daughter strokes the statue every now and then, which sits where his cage used to
be. Weeks later, she still says she doesn’t want to be alone in a room because when
she’s alone, she pictures Sunny in the magpie’s beak, the magpie flying away with
him. The other day, I nearly mentioned that it was Sunny’s head, and caught myself
just in time.
Two days after the attack, a friend who lives a street away said she found a dead
magpie outside her house. My son smiled at the news, “I bet he deserved it.”
A small dove has been born in the trees beside our deck. It comes and sits and
watches us eat dinner at night. The children worry that it will be killed by the magpie,
but I tell them its parents are watching, ready to protect it. My daughter has called it
‘Spotty’ because it has a beautiful spotted collar. He watches us, blinking quickly, not
afraid to be only a metre away. Last night, I left it a small pile of rice on the handrail
where he likes to sit, and this morning I cleaned away the poo he left in return.
Hannah Ianniello is a novelist, screenwriter and academic from Sydney, Australia. She has published several short pieces in literary journals and academic papers in books and journals from around the world.