Place a body block under the back of the cadaver so that the chest protrudes and the neck and arms fall backwards. You might hear the bird flutter at this stage. Do not be alarmed; this is normal. Make a deep, Y-shaped incision in the usual manner (cf pp. 22-25). Peel back the skin, muscle and soft tissue. Pull the chest flap over the face. The birdcage should now be exposed, and the thoracic bird should be visible. Using a rib cutter or saw, make two cuts on each side of the cage. Be very careful when you pull the ribs away so as not to damage the bird. The bird should now be free. Depending on your relationship with the deceased, it may choose to fly away. If it does, there is no point in chasing it. The bird was never yours. It will never be yours. Do not forget this.
If the bird stays in the chest cavity, extract it using your bare hands and proceed to step 2.
- Classification and Care
Post-mortem birds come in all shapes and sizes, but they generally do fall within known species of birds, although exceptions are possible.[i] Swallows, pigeons and larks are some of the most common, with corvids (crows and ravens) a close second. That said, do not be surprised if a fully grown peacock or a baby ostrich emerges from the chest cavity of the deceased.[ii]
In order to figure out how to properly care for the bird, please consult the Concise Guide of Post-Mortem Ornithology (10th ed.). However, most post-mortem birds need a period of adjustment before they can be properly released into the wild. During this period, the bird needs to be kept in an appropriately sized cage.
The adjustment period generally coincides with a period of mourning. During that time, you might find yourself veering towards the philosophical.[iii] This can be exacerbated by the fact that some birds seem to retain certain characteristics or quirks of the deceased. It may help to remember that the bird is not your loved one. It is only a bird. Repeat this to yourself when they peer at you behind bars with their beady, indecipherable eyes: “It is only a bird.”
It is very important, both for the bird’s health and for your own, that you eventually release it into the wild. When the bird seems to grow restless in its cage, take it to a place your loved one liked (a park, forest, or large body of water is preferable) and open the cage door. The bird will know what to do.
There have been cases of people unable to let go of their loved ones’ birds, which gradually grew dependent on their cages and could no longer survive except in captivity. The gravity of a situation like this is hard to convey. Take the following case as an example and a warning: A young man was recently discovered in New Hampshire having in his possession a large number of post-mortem birds that had been passed on to him from his parents and grandparents. The Post-Mortem Bird Rehabilitation Council has since removed the birds, which are reportedly making progress. The young man, on the other hand, did not recover. He probably never will. The fluttering in his chest feels stronger than ever. He thinks his bird will be an eagle.
[i] It is generally agreed that all birds that currently occur in nature are either post-mortem birds that have been released, or their offspring. However, there have been reports about birds emerging from chest cavities that have never before been seen in the wild. Are these new species? Are they old species that had become extinct? Were the people to whom they belonged special in some way? Will we ever know the answer to these questions?
[ii]A correlation between the kind of bird one encloses and the personality, ethnicity, race, gender, class, ability, or any other characteristic of the person has not been established.
[iii] There has been much speculation about what the birds know, how much of our loved one is in them, or how much of the person we knew used to be a bird. What do the birds remember? What do they want? Of course, a lot of this is probably projection, and birds are, and will always be, just birds. But when they sometimes come back, peeking through windows or staring at our houses from across the street, it is easy to imagine they are wondering the same about us: Where did you come from? What do you remember? What do you know?
Natalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar. Originally from Greece, she has lived and studied in the US, UK, and Indonesia for several years. Her fiction has appeared in KROnline, Clarkesworld, Crossed Genres, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website, www.natalia-theodoridou.com, or say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.