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Chirping birds for the grieving soul
by Don Edwards, Lexington Herald-Leader Contributing Columnist

"We've tried several things in the lobby," said Rob Milward, vice president of W.R. Milward Funeral Directors. "An aquarium was too high-maintenance, and a circulating fountain kept breaking down and making a mess. But everybody loves the finches."

What's not to love? When you talk to them, they squinch their eyes, puff up their feathers and sway their heads. The tiny, brightly colored birds flying, roosting and playing in the aviary at Milward's on North Broadway are captivating, almost like natural toys. One type is the "toy" breed of the songbird world.

Those are the "society" finches, sometimes called Bengalese finches. Just like Dalmatian dogs, they don't occur in the wild. They are the result of selective breeding in capivity in China long ago. The other birds are the Gouldian finches, sometimes called rainbow finches. They come from Australia, are bred in captivity and considered endangered in the wild. Red, yellow, orange - you can't miss them.

"A pair of each comes with the aviary," said Bob Foley, a Milward's employee who cares for the birds. "We have a colony at our Southland Drive location, too. The two breeds get along together just fine. And they breed. We started with four, and now we have almost 30. We buy bird seed 25 pounds at a time."

You might wonder: why birds in a mortuary?

Milward explains: "When Bob and I come here, we're going to work, and it's just another day. When the families we serve, their relatives and friends come here, they're bereaved people. They feel sad. Death is a loss. There's something about watching the little birds that is restful. It's peaceful, and its intent is to cause you to feel better."

Milward said the public is welcome to visit the aviaries, which the funeral homes have had for about 1 1/2 years. Just use discretion if a funeral service or visitation is going on, he said.

The glassed-in "Aviarium," as the manufacturer calls it, isn't a cage but more like a luxury condo for birds. It is a Queen Anne-style piece of furniture 6 feet tall, 44 inches wide and 22 inches deep. It comes with heat, ventilation and lighting systems, branches for roosting and nests made of sprayed millet.

"They aren't cheap," said James Collins, who has a patent on the Aviarium and distributes it through Nature World in Calhoun, GA.

"They range from $2,800 to $4,800 depending on the model. They're all handmade, and we don't ship. We deliver them ourselves, set them up, show how to use them and how to take care of the birds," he said. "We sell about 100 a year. Milward's birds have done well because Bob Foley takes a great interest in them.

"The Aviarium was originally developed for nursing homes and as something children would like. We're always looking for new markets, so in 2002 we showed them at a funeral-home trade convention in Orlando."

Milward said his father saw one of them in Flordia and decided to try it in Lexington.

Foley says he sometimes stops in on a day off to check on the finches. When one of the birds became ill, he took it home to nurse it.

"There's something about them that makes it easy to get interested in them," he said. "They're easy to maintain, and at night, when you turn out their lights, they go straight to sleep."

One delight, he said, is to hear all the finches sing at once: "They just chipper up a storm."

Of all the finches, he has given a name to only one, a bird who limps: "I call him 'Chester,' like the character on the old TV show Gunsmoke - the one who limped and was always drawling, 'Mister Dillon, Mister Dillon.' Remember?"