Alan Mazza is a combination of two different people. The events and conversations depicted did happen, just not to one single individual. The places are real places, the birds are real birds, and every person not named Alan Mazza is a real person (with names changed for privacy). Node your homework.
A rooster’s cry cuts through the crisp morning air. It’s not a loud sound as crow cries go, but it carries well and soon fills the entire neighborhood, setting off the neighborhood dogs and the one particularly delicate car alarm down the street. In his small house on the top of the hill, Alan Mazza gets out of bed and goes to feed his alarm clock.
Alan Mazza, eighty-two year old Colorado native and Californian transplant, is the proud owner/caretaker/servant of ten chickens, two roosters, fifteen lovebirds, six cockatiels, four parakeets, one lady cat, and a handful of buttonquail that are too speedy to be counted. Every day at six-on-the-dot (unless the rooster is late), Alan gets up, gets dressed, puts on his steel-toe work boots (a relic from his days at the factory), and goes outside to the stand-alone garage.
The garage hasn’t seen a car in years. Al’s only car is an old Toyota that sits in front of his house like it’s hoping to be stolen. It’s been there since Al quit driving two years ago and nobody’s done it the favor yet. Alan’s garage is filled with meticulously ordered racks filled with shoebox-sized cages, wooden boxes with a little hole cut into the front of each, and carefully sealed containers of different kinds of bird food. All these containers are labeled with small strips of masking tape written on with a black Sharpie, and they read things like “millet sprigs,” “cockatiel mix,” “fruit and nut,” “chick crumble,” and so on.
In the very back of the garage is a door. The door leads to the aviary.
The aviary is attached to the back of the garage. It is a rectangle ten feet wide, eight feet long, and eight feet tall, and made out of wire, wood, and a sheet of Plexiglas on top that stops the rain from getting in. Along the sides of the aviary are wooden boxes with holes cut in the front and dowels stuck onto the front to serve as perches. These are nesting boxes. Most of them are claimed by one bird pair or another and the ones that are claimed have between two to five eggs inside them. Eggs that, depending on the quality of the parents, will hatch within the month.
Alan Mazza is a backyard breeder.
A backyard breeder is a person who breeds animals unprofessionally in their backyards. It is usually considered a derogatory term— with good reason. When they hear the phrase “backyard breeding” most professional breeders (or “reputable breeders”) think dogs. Dogs and horses are the most popular things to breed as they’re the ones with pedigrees that matter; you can make money selling a purebred dog or horse. And if you can’t, then you can always sell a horse to a slaughterhouse for dog meat. While professional breeders get proper registration and take great care in insuring quality in their animals, backyard breeders are often thought of as running haphazard operations rife with inbreeding, overbreeding, and general irresponsibility.
It’s different with birds. Dogs and horses are far more complicated than birds. Not that birds are simple, mind you, but it’s easier finding a home for a spare lovebird than an inbred show dog or a horse whose dam was mounted by the wrong stallion. Backyard breeders who go in for horses and dogs are doing it for money; backyard breeders who raise small birds are doing it as a hobby.
Most of the time, Alan doesn’t even sell his birds. He knows a professional breeder who supplies pet shops in Gilroy, and Al will usually just do a trade-in. I’m not sure if that’s regular practice for breeders, or if it’s just because they’re friends, but if Al has lovebirds or cockatiels from a brood last year that are all grown up, he’ll trade them for more birds to bring in new blood to his aviary.
Sometimes he’ll give them away; the set of little triplet girls next door to him each have their own parakeet, and the young couple across the street have a cockatiel they’ve taught to sing/whistle a decent version of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme (I know this because once at a barbecue they came over and showed off Captain Greybird’s singing chops). My family has two pairs of lovebirds and a pair of cockatiels that were given to us because my mother expressed interest in raising birds. Whenever Alan comes to our house, he makes sure to pay them a visit.
“Hello, birds,” he always says to them. “Remember me?” They don’t, of course, but he always says it, and then he’ll usually give them a sprig of millet or some yogurt treats he brings with him specifically for that purpose.
Every Sunday, Alan goes to church with my mom, my brother, our honorary aunt Tina, her husband and our honorary uncle, Karl, and their son Tom. After that, they all go to Karl and Tina's house for lunch. I don't often get to join them since I work Sundays, but on the times I do, Alan inevitably falls asleep on their sofa. My brother confirmed it: Alan does that every single week. "We normally just wake him up for dessert," he says.
Alan didn’t mean to become a bird breeder. One of his nieces had been in town visiting a friend, and through a complex series of events nobody to this day has been able to completely untangle, she came into possession of her friend’s great-aunt’s pet lovebird, which she then gave to Al.
“I couldn’t just leave it alone,” said Al. “They’re social birds.” So he got another bird to be the first one’s companion. “And I was at the store in Gilroy, the Farmer’s Feed one, and saw all those boxes. I got one without even thinking about it. I thought the birds needed them to sleep in.” Al hadn’t known the genders of the birds. They were both PeachFaced Lovebirds (birds with pink on their faces that make them look as though they’re blushing) and looked exactly the same as far as he was concerned. A month later and Al learned of his error when he opened the box’s lid and found one of the birds inside, sitting on top of several eggs. It was, he said ruefully, all over after that.
Out of the five eggs, two hatched, and that meant a bigger cage. And, because life likes odd coincidences, just as he’d found a home for one of the babies, a woman from church gave Al two more birds.
“She was moving and couldn’t take them with her, and her family didn’t want them. What was I supposed to do?”
Over the years, one medium sized cage with a few lovebirds became one giant cage with several lovebirds and parakeet, and eventually he wound up converting the back room of his garage into an indoor aviary. Then he put in a window, built the giant outdoor aviary, and connected the largest indoor cage to the outdoor ones so the birds could go indoors or outdoors whenever they liked. The chickens came later. After aviary had been built, there had been extra lumber and wire left and Alan decided in for an inch, in for a mile. The coop was built and the chickens bought.
The aviary is full of Manzanita branches places at strategic intervals for the birds to perch and chew on. Alan mentioned once how good Manzanita is for birds to chew on (it’s sturdy enough for them to have to work at it, but soft enough for them to be able to destroy it without hurting their beaks), so when we visited our family in Redding and found they had property full of Manzanita trees, we just had to bring some back for him. There are toys in Alan’s aviary, but nothing with a mirror on it. “They’ll fall in love with themselves,” he told me once. “They see their reflections and think it’s another bird, then they won’t pair up.” All the birds— parakeets, cockatiels, lovebirds and quail are all in the aviary together. At the moment, all of his birds save the quail (who really don’t count) and one young lovebird he’s going to sell are paired up.
The buttonquail were an anomaly. Al only got them a year ago as a spur of the moment buy when he was out getting chicken food. Each buttonquail full grown is about the size you’d get if you combined the mass of two golf balls. They fit into the palm of your hand (though good luck getting them in there as they aren’t tame in the slightest), and make small meeping sounds. Normally they’re indoors with Al in the large cage that used to belong to the lovebirds before the aviary was built, but when summer came around, Al placed them outside so they could get some sunshine and fresh air. Now they run around at the bottom of the aviary. Al put in a couple wooden houses on their sides with the lids up so that the quail could hide inside should they ever feel the need. They have a food and water dish, but they prefer to pick at the birdseed spilled by the other birds rather than eat their quail crumbles (which looks suspiciously like mashed up chicken food). It wasn’t until long after placing them out there that he learned that you’re not supposed to put meek little buttonquail in the same cage as lovebirds as lovebirds are ridiculously aggressive when it comes to birds smaller than they are, but Al’s never had any bullying problems with the quail, so he left them in. One is blue-black with rich red feathers on its bottom and the ends of its wings; the other is pure gray-white. And, as Alan found out the hard way, one is male and one is female.
“They weren’t my fault,” he said on the matter. “They were both supposed to be female.”
A small batch of eggs later and Alan now has four or five or maybe six quail; it’s hard to tell as they all run so fast and all look like their parents. “Did you count the eggs?” I asked once. Alan shook his head. “I didn’t even know they had eggs until I saw the extra little quail running around.” Eventually he’ll have to get them all and bring them inside for winter, but at the moment the weather is still tolerable enough for them.
Aside from being small, fast, and surprisingly reproductive, the buttonquail are also undeniably stupid. Their first food tray, back when the two parents were still indoors, had a metal cover on it. The cover had large holes in it that allowed the birds to eat, but didn’t allow them to kick and scratch their food. This is the sort of small food tray used with baby chickens so they don’t scratch away or poop on their food. Unfortunately, Al’s fully grown buttonquail proved to be dumber than weeks old chickens, because it became quickly apparent that they couldn’t figure out how to eat from the tray, and almost starved to death the first week Al had them. Ha had to remove the top of the food tray entirely before they figured out how to eat.
“They’re so damn stupid!” he said. “But I love the noises they make.”
Once, when I was ten, bored, and over at Al’s place being babysat, I went out to the aviary and peeked into the bird boxes, looking for babies I had been told were out there. Unlike Al, I had no respect for the moms and had no problem simply sticking my hand into the boxes and moving them so I could see the eggs. I didn’t bother with the cockatiels; unlike the lovebird mothers who cowered and hid behind both their eggs and their mates in order to avoid me, the cockatiel mothers hissed and swayed side to side with their wings fanned out as much as the box would let them, clearly telling me “do not touch."
That’s when I found the runt. The bird was one third size of its siblings and practically featherless. I told Alan and he came to check. He lifted the chick out of the box, away from its three healthy siblings, and gently felt its crop (a pouch-like area on the bird’s throat that stores food before it’s digested.) The verdict was clear: the mother hadn’t been feeding it.
“It’s going to die,” Al had said.
“Because she’s not feeding him, or because she knows he’s gonna die and that’s why she’s not feeding him?”
He shrugged. “Maybe he’s sick and she can tell, or maybe she can only take care of three and this one just got unlucky.” He stuck his hand inside the box and gently lifted out the chick. “It’s going to die.”
“What’re you going to do?” I followed him back to the house. Once we were inside, he placed the little bird in a shallow plastic tub with a soft rag at the bottom. Then, he went to the cupboards and brought out a jar of baby bird food— brown powder stuff inside a screw-top plastic jar with a baby cockatiel depicted on the front, open-mouthed in a bird smile. Al started mixing the food up and then got a device from the junk-drawer that looked an awful lot like a syringe, but was plastic and had no needle, just a tube vaguely reminiscent of an eyedropper where the needle would be. I watched in fascination as Alan sucked up the gravy-like food with the syringe, then started feeding the little bird.
The little bird didn’t want to eat at first. Al had to hold him carefully, bracing the bird lightly against his belly while also holding its head with one hand and using the syringe in the other. Brown glop smeared all over the bird’s face and beak until Al found a spot to the beak’s side where he could pry it open and stick the “needle” in. The bird apparently approved of this, as it then opened its mouth to allow the “needle” and enthusiastically started swallowing the food.
“You’ve gotta be careful when feeding the little ones,” Al said. “You do it wrong, and it goes down to their lungs. They die. Gets in their lungs. You gotta make sure it gets to their crops.” He stopped feeding to let the baby get some air. “This one’s gonna die.”
“Even if you’re feeding it?”
“Probably. The momma didn’t like it. There’s bound to be a reason.” All the same, every time the bird’s crop started feeling a little light and the bird squealed for food, Al would get up and feed it. I left fully believing the bird would be fine.
Al found it dead the next day.
There are nine recognized species of lovebirds. Most of them are found wild in Africa, with specific areas varying species to species. But there are other places to find them feral. The Gray-Headed Lovebird, for instance, is found in Madagascar, and for some reason--probably related to a mass pet shop exodus)-- Phoenix Arizona is home to a population of feral peach-faces.
Al has a muddled mix of lovebird breeds in his aviary.
Each breed has its general default patterns, for instance, a Yellow Collared Lovebird having yellow on its neck/belly, green on its wings/rump, and a black face, or a Peach-Faced one having the telltale blush on its face. But thanks to genetic mutations and cross breeding, there are many, many color combinations, (especially for the peach-faces who have the most man-cultivated mutations than the other breeds). Alan had no idea about the mutations when he first started out. All he knew was that, for some reason, one pair of solid-green peach faces kept having yellow babies with red faces and blue tails (called a Fallow mutation), or that occasionally one pair of yellow peach-faces will put out a dark bird with nearly-black wings and dusky-gray face (called a Double Dark Factor mutation. A single dark factor would have been just a really dark green or blue or whatever the color would have been without the mutation).
These days, Al has a chart in the Bird Room (the room in the garage where the indoor portion of the aviary is) listing the breeds and pairings and statistics of all the lovebirds he has. Who’s paired with who, who has how many live eggs on average, who is a good parent (with the entire clutch surviving) and who can only handle one or two chicks at a time.
“What can I say?” he said once. “It keeps the mind sharp. It’s like sorting jars of buttons when you’re a little kid, only prettier and with more birdseed.”
Lovebirds are tetchy creatures. On one side of the spectrum, a tamed lovebird can be the sweetest, most affectionate companion. They perch on shoulders and preen their human’s hair and can love to cuddle. On the other side of the spectrum, though, they can also store more pent-up aggression in those four-inch bodies than a bull elephant and will let you know about it. Normally this means they pick on other lovebirds (who pick back) smaller birds (who run away if they’re smart) and even docile cockatiels who are twice their size.
Back when the birds were still inside Al’s house, one Lutino mutation (yellow bird with a peach face and white tail) named Sunny used to open her cage door (she was the only one who knew how) and would fly around his house, perching on the top of cabinets and shelves and tweeting insults at anyone who came near her.
Alan’s cat Lucy is an old Himalayan (like a Siamese looking cat, only fluffy) and liked to fall asleep on the table. Sunny figured this out and decided that she was not, in fact, a palm-sized lovebird but a giant eagle and began to terrorize the cat. Lucy has always been docile and when faced with an aerial attack from some strange screaming creature with a sharp bit on the front of its head, she ran and hid under the sofa. From then on, Sunny would take every opportunity she could to find Lucy and bite her ears. When Sunny became old enough to start brooding, she stole Lucy’s fur to line her nest with. Sometimes, when she was feeling particularly cheeky, she’d open the cage door and let other birds out, only to go back inside and leave them stuck until Alan came home and let them back in.
“She’s such a jerk!” Alan said one Sunday, laughing. “And the other day I came home, looked in the box and found her nesting. You know what?” he leaned across the table. “She wasn’t even sitting on the egg! She had one egg and it was off in the corner. She was sitting on a bead from the toy they broke. A square bead.” Everyone at the table laughed. Mother of the year, Sunny was not.
Time passed and when the aviary was built, Sunny was one of the first to be transferred. Alan placed his birds in the small white cages and moved them into the new outdoor aviary. At the end of that first week, though, Alan didn’t close the inner door all the way and was too slow closing the outer (between the garage-room and the aviary, there is an intermediate hall-like airlock area all of two feet long made specifically to stop this sort of thing from happening). Sunny, clever girl she was, saw her chance and took it. She flew over Al’s head, out the garage door, and off into the sunset.
When recounting the tale to the Sunday crowd, he sighed and said, “I really should have seen that coming.”
Alan almost had a wife, once.
A few years ago at the ripe age of seventy-six, Alan met Jerry, a seventy-two year old retired school nurse who had curly hair more silver than grey and a fondness for floral print. The two hit it off and, seeing no reason to put things off at their age, were engaged by the end of the year. Before they could tie the knot, Gerri went to the doctors for a quick checkup. She came home with a diagnosis: breast cancer. It was, the doctor said, the best possible outcome of a terrible situation; Jerry had come in when it was still in the early stages. She had a double mastectomy within the week and started chemotherapy immediately.
It took a year before she got her final verdict: she was clean. Total remission, she was cancer free. Alan had been with her the entire way. He'd sold or given away all his birds (save the chickens) so he would have more time for Gerri. His meticulous garden went to ruin from lack of care. She was the one going through chemo, but he was the one losing weight.
Two months after the doctor deemed her physically fit, Gerri left Alan. She gave no reason to Alan, or to the network of family and friends that surrounded the two. "I've just had enough," she told my honorary aunt, Tina. "I need to be by myself for a while, I think." She left San Jose soon after that. None of us have heard from her since.
Alan tried to withdraw. He stopped coming to the holiday and birthday parties, he stopped going to church, and while he would answer calls, he wouldn’t call people. Alan had no local family— his two living siblings and their families are still back in Colorado. The only people he had were his friends, and he was trying to, if not push them away, then at least keep them at arm’s length. Unfortunately for him, Tina would not let him.
All of us were concerned about Alan. Our family and Tina’s family, the entire network of friends he had— but nobody knew what to do. His family was too far away to be of much help, and there were only so many times you could ask someone over to a barbecue and have them politely decline. That was, until Tina had had enough. Tina is a retired kindergarten teacher and current pastor’s wife with a stubborn streak a mile long and who knows how to kill people with kindness. After four months or so of Al cutting himself off from the world, Tina started going over there to drop off food to make sure he’d eat. Alan couldn’t exactly turn her away (he’s too polite for that), so she’d wind up staying and cooking. Soon her husband, Karl, would go with her and watch sports with Al while she worked. They invited him out to dinner and to movies and when two people who ooze kindness out of their pores want to make you happy, it’s hard not to oblige them.
It was half a year before Alan started going back to church on Sundays. It was another month after that before he went out and bought a couple Peach Faces. Just for company, he swore. He wasn’t going to get back into breeding birds-- he was done with that.
Three years later and the full aviary, the charts, and the tired smile on his face tell a different story.