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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Drue Sheffield, a 17-year-old special-needs teen, talks to one of her parakeets, Charlie, as she shows off her birds Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — Nobody can explain the bond Drue Sheffield has with birds, and perhaps it’s just as well.

Words aren’t really necessary when Drue carefully scoops a pigeon into her arms at the park and delicately strokes its neck feathers, or when she sets a mourning dove aloft after weeks of tending to a broken wing.

All her parents know is that the connection with birds has always been there and that caring for the feathered creatures has helped their daughter to soar as well.

“This has been such a blessing for Drue,” says Kim Sheffield, her eyes brimming with tears as she watches her 17-year-old daughter care for nearly two dozen parakeets and cockatiels in her bedroom after school. “Since she has a hard time bonding with people, she really needed something to love and care about. What we never expected, though, is how the birds would love her back.”

Drue, a special-needs teenager with severe anxiety and emotional issues, has the social skills of an 8- or 9-year-old, says her mother, but she shines when she is surrounded by birds.

“She’s more relaxed and talkative,” says Kim, “and the birds come to her like a magnet. For some reason, they aren’t afraid of her. From the very beginning, Drue has always had this amazing gift.”

Impressed by Drue’s love of the avian world, a friend of the Sheffield family recently suggested that I spend some time with the teen and her birds. After a Free Lunch of cheese pizza and tossed salad, Drue shyly shows me her bedroom: a sunny sanctuary equipped with a screen door, bird pictures on the walls and several large cages filled with her favorite pets.

Her earliest memory of birds, she says, was when she found an injured dove while riding her bicycle and brought it home to nurse it back to health.

“I know how to fix a broken wing,” she says, “and wild birds will let me feed them and hold them. I’ve always loved them, but I guess I was 8 when my parents let me get my first parakeet. He’s still here. Do you want to see him?”

Unlatching a cage filled with squawking blue, green and yellow parakeets, she calls for “Charlie” and holds out her index finger. Charlie swoops out the door, circles the room once, then glides to her finger, where he perches and chirps happily.

“He’s a fun bird,” says Drue, “but he gets jealous if I spend a lot of time with the other birds, especially Louie.”

Louie, whose real name is Louise, goes everywhere with Drue at home, including the shower, where she has a special perch.

“At night,” say Kim, “that bird will sit next to Drue and pick her hair until Drue falls asleep. We’ll have to come in and put her back in the cage, and she’ll hiss at us. She’s very protective of Drue.”

At parks or in neighbors’ yards, people are astonished when Drue announces that she is going to capture a particular pigeon or duck, then does just that. “I hold them for a little bit and talk to them in a soft voice, then I set them free,” she says. “I’ve always envied them, flying. I wonder all the time, ‘What would it be like, to fly so high?’”

Birds have taught her many lessons, she says, from patience (“Cleaning their cages isn’t very fun”) to responsibility and coping with sadness.

“We have a little graveyard in the backyard for when a bird dies,” says Drue, “and I always make sure they are well taken care of. It’s hard to say goodbye, but I do remember all of them.”

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She lets four more parakeets out and watches them with shining eyes as they flutter around the room, the breeze from their wings ruffling her hair.

“Drue’s relationship with birds has been a miracle,” says Kim, who hopes that her daughter can work in an aviary or bird sanctuary someday. “She was an anxious, timid girl, and having something to love has helped her in ways you can’t imagine.” Bonding with birds, she says, “has helped Drue take flight.”

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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.