Thursday, February 10, 2011

underachieving parrots

There are two parrots who live here: one very intense double yellow-headed Amazon, a relic from the time when I used to spend a lot of my time working with birds at a wildlife hospital for aquatic birds, where the head of the clinic dabbled in parrot rescue on the side, and a ditzy African grey named Pigwidgeon.

The African grey is the only pet we have who is not supposed to be defective or secondhand; we picked her out as a baby from a bird store. She was an expensive present to me when the Sober Husband and I worked out some problems we'd been having, and she's supposed to be a top-of-the-line parrot, smart, handfed as a baby, and carefully raised.

Meanwhile the Amazon parrot was a lost bird we adopted after her original owners never claimed her. She had an infection when I got her, and she seemed to have been fed exclusively junk food by her prior owners, refusing to eat any fruits or vegetables but perking up dramatically if a bag of chips rustled nearby. She was about four years old when we got her, and she's as mean as a snake to everyone but the Sober Husband, whom she loves with a deep passion. Last year when I severely sprained my ankle and had to use crutches, the green bird saw her chance to finish me off. More than once she leaped off her cage to attack me, me screaming, "Get it off me, get it off me" as I tried to shake the vicious bird off while balancing on my crutches. Originally the Amazon parrot was named Zoe, but after we got Piggle, everyone stopped using that name. Now she's called "the green bird", and even she's taken to saying that. "Green bird, green bird," she remarks.

Part of why we picked out an African grey for the second parrot was because those birds are famous for their wit and conversation. We had seen the videotapes of Alex, the world-famous African grey who challenged scientists' conception of intelligence in animal species. I'd read about parrots who tattled on their cagemates. The children and I were excited to get such a smart bird and couldn't wait until she'd talk.

Two years later we're still waiting. Evidently we picked out the one African grey who was as dumb as a stump. Poor Piggle makes horrible noises which sound like a smoke detector going off, whistles, and screams, but she can't speak. There are plenty of other signs of a disturbing lack of reason as well. Pigwidgeon has a phobia of sticks and objects which resemble sticks. Ladders are also terrifying to her, causing her to scream and collapse in her cage when they are carried nearby. The other day we had an appraiser in as part of refinancing our house, a rather innocuous fellow, and Pigwidgeon somehow found him terrifying and nearly deafened us all with her screams of terror and frenzied thrashing.

She's a sweet bird in her own way, one who loves to be with me and the children and who enjoys grooming us. She's a very companionable creature who likes to sleep on the headboard of our bed. But at a time in her life when she should be learning new words and building a vocabulary, she's resolutely limited to harsh squawks and screams. I am quite defensive when people ask how many words she knows and when they look at me as though I must be mistaken when I say she can't talk, because "everyone knows African greys are the smartest birds there are." "Well, it's like humans," I try to explain. "You can have an Einstein, and you can have an idiot. This bird is an idiot." The children sadly remark, "Pigwidgeon is not as smart as the green bird. Why is the green bird smarter than Pigwidegeon?"

Yesterday the green bird was in a rare chatty mood, and we ended up having a long conversation. "Lola? Lola?" she asked.

"Lola's at school." She asked for the Sober Husband in the same way, and I informed her that he was at work.

"Pretty bird? Pretty bird?"

"Yes, you are pretty birds."

"Green bird. Green bird."

"Yes, you are a green bird."

"Hello? How you doing?"

"Fine! Good morning! How are you doing?" I said politely.

"Lola? Lola?"

This went on for half an hour, this rather stilted exchange of ideas on the riveting subjects of Lola's whereabouts and the greenness and attractiveness of the bird. Meanwhile my bird, Pigwidgeon, was agog. She concentrated and quivered, fascinated. But still she didn't try to talk.

Meanwhile the Sober Husband has upped the ante. He has become convinced that our birds should learn songs. Alex, the counting and reasoning lab parrot, is no longer the role model our birds are compared to. Instead, it's the Heavy Metal Parrot:
"Maybe if we play that song, 'Let The Bodies Hit The Floor', all day, the parrots will learn it," he said enthusiastically.

I snorted. "Good luck with that. I've been trying to teach them to say 'good morning' for two years now."


Anonymous said...

If he can't learn to speak, can he at least learn to dance like the bird who dances to the Backstreet Boys?

GodsKid said...

How about putting an ipod and small speakers around the bird cage (with volume low enough that it doesn't drive the REST of you crazy) and play something to him round the clock. Maybe a learning French course .... or something you wouldn't mind hearing if he *did* pick up on it!