ROVIN' AND RAVIN' WITH MIKE
Copyright © 2002, 2000 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved
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E.T. in My Home

   

 

     I came in from work, tired and frustrated on a typical after-work afternoon.  Suddenly, I got a warm greeting, “Well, hello there.”  “Hello,” I replied.

     “How are you?”  “Fine,” I mumbled.  “How are you?”

      “I’m happy.”  A jaunty whistle confirmed this.  “I’m glad someone is happy,” I said.

      “Aw, come on, baby, gimme a kiss!”  I leaned forward.  We kissed, with a loud smack.  “Ooh, baby, that was a good one!”  At that, even I had to laugh.  Finally, I had done something that day that earned a word of approval.  My own little household E.T. felt that I had given a good kiss.

     Well, not exactly an extraterrestrial, but close: an exotic being with a rich culture and a distinct personality.  Oh, yes, a being that is smart enough to learn my language and to help me learn its language, that has a sense of humor, a love of music, and, at times, it seems, the ability to read my mind.

     So, meet my personal extraterrestrial, Dorian Gray Parrot.  The more experience I have with parrots, the more I believe that it is not an exaggeration to say that those who have a parrot in the house—from a little bird like a parakeet or a cockatiel (which some may not even consider a parrot) to a macaw (which many may not imagine sharing a house with)—live almost as much of an adventure as having an extraterrestrial in the home would be.  It is a challenge to the emotions and intellect to keep the bird’s emotions and intellect challenged.  With a little bit of effort, however, the bird will offer its featherless flock-mates more pleasure, insight, and affection than any other animal can.     

     A stereotypical image of the pet dog is of an animal lying on the floor, looking up adoringly at its master.  On the other hand, the cat stares away, out the window or into the fire, ignoring the inferior human presence, except to glance out of the side of its eye to see if it is being appropriately adored.  The most common image of a parrot—aside from being stuffed into a hideously undersized cage—is perched jauntily on a human shoulder, peering in the same direction and at the same level as its companion. 

     All parrots in the wild live in flocks, and as far as I can tell, the flock is a glorious example of egalitarian anarchy.  Of all household pets, only the parrot wants to be your equal, sharing your interests, whether you are watching a movie, balancing your checkbook, or—apparently a favorite parrot activity—reading your e-mail.  

     For a solitary parrot its human family (as well as the other animals in the household) becomes its flock, a community of equals.   The flock is so much more than we, with our limited human intelligence, can understand.  It is the family, the community, the political party, the church, the job, the school.  No matter how important a part a parrot may have in the life of its unfeathered friends, they are always more important to the parrot; they are its flock, its life.  As a former English teacher, I must give myself a bad grade on this essay, because I do not stay strictly on the topic of Dorian Gray Parrot, or Dory.  But, knowing how much pleasure and insight I have gained from my friendship with him, I hope that through this essay Dory and I may be able to enrich the lives of other parrots and their human companions as well.

     Chances are, if you picture in your mind the conversation between my parrot and me, you image a plump green bird, an Amazon parrot, not the African gray.  Dory is not even the better-known Congo African gray  but a timneh African gray,  a  smaller and duller-colored but not duller-witted bird. The parrot family is a large, diverse one, spreading from Africa to the Americas and on to Australia, with a wide range of sizes, colors, and talking abilities.  The grays are just one of several African species.  There used to be a native parrot in the United States, the Carolina parakeet, which was hunted to extinction in the nineteenth century.  Now, from various cities in the United States come reports of escaped lovebirds, Quaker parrots, and other species forming flocks full of parrot and pioneer spirit.

     Since the best-known characteristic of parrots is their ability to mimic human voices, many people buy parrots (again, ranging from parakeets to macaws) because they want an animal that talks.  I have three suggestions for those people, only the first of which  is foolproof: to buy a radio.  That way, neither the person nor the bird will be disappointed.  Those who want feathers as well as talking ability should look in the classified ads for a “used” parrot, an older bird that is being sold, but, they should first find out why it is being sold and just what words it is already saying.  Finally, those who want to purchase a young bird should choose the one in their price range that is more likely to talk—a cockatiel rather than a lovebird, an African gray rather than an Amazon, a cockatoo rather than a macaw. (Lovers of lovebirds, Amazons, and macaws are probably stuffing my e-mail box as you read this.)

     But, I would no more recommend buying a parrot to have an animal that speaks than I would suggest having a child only in order to add a pianist or a shortstop to your family.   The relationship with a parrot is too rich and too complicated to be limited to just one factor.  Before I met Dory, I had had experience with parakeets (as we Americans call budgies), cockatiels, and conures, and I had never tried to teach them to talk.  I had often thought that some day I would have a larger parrot in my home, an Amazon, perhaps, because I had never liked African grays.  I have to say in all honesty that Dory picked me out.  So, finding the right individual bird is more important than finding the right species.

     By the time Dory moved in with me, I had heard him say a few words, but for the first few months he was with me, he did not say a word and rarely made any sound.  Even silent, he was such an intriguing companion that I really didn’t care. One day, however, I mentioned to the other unfeathered member of our flock that I was afraid that Dory was not as satisfied as I thought he was, because he didn’t talk.

     Dory suddenly let out a loud whistle and several chirps (more sound than he usually would make in two or three days) and began to talk—or rather, to spew words, sentences, sounds—for several minutes.  It was a sort of auditory autobiography, since I recognized the voices of the women in the shop where I had met him, the voice of our other human flock-mate, phrases from television, and sounds and words that I could not identify. 

     “Very good, Dory,” I said.  “You’ve just about got it, but you need to practice.”  With that he said, “Practice, practice,” and he has hardly shut up since.  He still continues to practice; often when he is alone on the porch, if I sneak quietly to the door, I can hear him trying out new words.  If he notices my presence, he changes the subject with a cheery, “What’s up?”  

     Many people believe that parrots simply “parrot” human speech, that is, that they repeat sounds without associating any meaning with them.  Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s two decades of research with Alex, a Congo African gray, has offered evidence that, unnatural as speech is for a bird, parrots do understand what they are saying.

Click here to listen to

Dory's greeting.

      My experience with Dory supports Dr. Pepperberg’s more formal observations.  Dory’s repertory includes three kinds of utterances.  First, there are those that his human companions intentionally teach him.  Then, there are those which he learns on his own, by listening to and imitating our speech.  Finally, most amazingly, are those expressions that he creates with his basic vocabulary.  In other words, he goes beyond “parroting” to use our language creatively.

     He has a wide range of memorized expressions such as “Give me a kiss,” “Whatcha doing?” and “Thank you very much.”  But he has picked up even more expressions on his own.  Most of them involve the feline members of his flock, Max, a Maine coon cat that he identifies as “Kitty Cat,” and Lady, a Manx that he calls “Big Girl.”  Since Lady frequently wants to go in and out to the porch, when she walks by him, Dory will often ask, as he has heard his human flock-mates ask, “Do you want to go out?” This summer, he joined his human friends in saying “It’s hot out there,” and now that the weather has gotten milder, so that he can spend more time on the porch, he says, “It’s nice out here.”

     Once he learns new words, however, he uses them to reveal something I never expected to discover in a bird—a sense of humor, a sensibility that is almost poetic, even a glimpse of soul.  As Max walked by him one day, he said, “Hey, Cat, give me a kiss.”  One evening, when Dory was on one of his perches, I had “Big Girl” in my lap.  As Dory grew louder and more and more agitated, the other human being in our flock said, “I think he’s jealous.”  I put the cat down and walked to Dory.  “Hey, Dory,” I said, using words that he says, “What’s up?”  He looked directly at me and said, “I love you.”

     I am not saying that he understands what it means to say “I love you.”  (How many of us unfeathered beings understand that?) But, he understands the impact of the words. Similarly, one afternoon while he was playing alone with some of his toys, I was across the room at the computer (in other words, playing with one of my toys), when he called to me, “Hey, Michael!”

     “Yes, Dory.”  I replied.

     “Gimme a kiss.”  Of course, he got his kiss.  He also hitched a ride on my shoulder back to the computer, which fascinates him. 

     Just as in the wild, the flock is held together by an almost mystical kind of empathy, so in the house a parrot tunes in to the emotions of his featherless flock-mates and to the energy and stimuli in their surroundings.  Since television is a part of the experience in many houses, parrots pick up on its electronic vibes.  Dory was convinced that the purpose of the Academy Awards ceremony was to recognize outstanding parrots. As warmly as he accepted the rounds of applause, he obviously won every Oscar.  (At least, until he had to go to bed; not even an online film critic’s parrot should be allowed to stay up till the end of that show.) 

     Watching television with Dory led to perhaps the strangest experience I have ever had with him.  The first night that he was with me, there was a documentary on television about animal intelligence.  As we watched it, I was delighted to see a report on Alex, the African gray with a college education, and I told Dory that some day, he would be featured on a television program about intelligent animals.  That began a routine of ours.  We watch documentaries about animals, and I keep up a running commentary, because African grays are so intelligent that repeating a single phrase is  not as effective to teach them to talk as to let them hear language used naturally.

     One night, we were watching a documentary about reindeer herders in Lapland.  (You are forgiven for thinking that I am in serious need of getting a life.)  In the many documentaries about animals that I have watched, with or without Dory, I have many time seen animals killing each other.  But, I had never seen humans killing an animal in a documentary.  I was babbling to Dory about parrots landing on the perches that those strange animals carried on their heads, when the herders singled out a reindeer and closed in around it.  Suddenly, it fell to the ground, with a red puddle forming on the ice.

     Dory dropped his head, fluffed up his feathers, did not make a sound and hardly moved the rest of the evening.   I don’t know what he was responding to.  I find it hard to believe that he understood the image of the strange animal on a strange substance in the flickering light of the television screen, but I wonder if he was responding to my surprise.  I do know that for a moment, I caught a glimpse of the complexity of this complex little being.

     I very much enjoy teaching Dory and watching him learn.  The truth is, in our flock, he recognizes his other featherless flock-mate as his teacher.  I appreciate even more what Dory teaches me.  One night, with him on my shoulder, I opened a closet to get a towel.  When I noticed him stretching forward to look into the closet, I took some time to show him the different colors of the towels.  It was an experience that perhaps practitioners of Zen could relate to—appreciating simply being in the present moment, being aware of such simple things as towels, as I had never been aware of them before, as things of beauty. 

     About once a month, I take him with me to the theme park where I work.  He is fascinated by the contents of the gift shop and delights in looking at and touching different objects as I walk through the shop with him on my shoulder.   With Dory I view differently the souvenirs that I see every day. Even though he does not join me as I prowl flea markets and yard sales, he has an effect on me there, as I shop for toys to keep his mind occupied.

     With all these references to Dory on my shoulder, I must be easy to identify—the guy with the parrot souvenirs streaking his shirts.  But, African grays instinctively regard their droppings as unpleasant, and so they try to avoid soiling their human friends.  Dory has taught me that after about twenty minutes or so on my shoulder, he needs to spend a little time on one of his safe areas.  As long as people keep parrots, the online editions of newspapers will not completely take the place of newsprint.

     Two other physical necessities that Dory shares with other parrots—eating and bathing—go beyond the physical and hint at the almost spiritual bonds that unite a parrot with its flock-mates, whether or not they have feathers.  A friend of mine who has a cockatiel in her flock once said that when she and her husband eat, their cockatiel speaks in a different voice from the way it speaks at any other time.  She said that she thinks that the bird wants to share their food.

     I’m not sure, of course, but I believe he just wants to share the experience of eating with them.  In the wild, parrots, opportunistic omnivores (or, is that omnivorous opportunists?) cheerfully, ravenously, devour almost anything they can get their beaks on, in a joyous sharing that is as much about social as nutritional needs.  I mean no sacrilege by this, but every meal for the flock is a sort of holy communion, re-affirming the birds’ links to each other.

     Similarly, bathing is a flock activity which is—again, not meaning to show disrespect—a re-baptism into all the many dimensions of the life of the flock, as well as being good for the skin and feathers.  We owe it to our pets to help them have similar experiences with their human flock.  Ultimately, for the pleasure that their satisfaction can give us, we owe it to ourselves.

     Too many pet birds are sentenced not only to a life of solitary confinement behind bars but also to a diet of bread (actually, stale seed purchased in cardboard boxes) and water.  Some years ago, veterinary scientists developed a pellet diet for parrots that would better meet their nutritional needs, and some avian vets recommend pellets and nothing else for house-birds.  But, just as we nourish more than just our bellies when we eat (think of comfort food or soul food), so does a bird. 

     Dory has fresh seed (bought in small quantities and stored in the freezer) and pellets available all the time.  For breakfast, he gets some pellets soaked in water, and if I have an omelet, he shares a bit of it.  For dinner, he gets a selection of his favorite foods—green beans and other vegetables (but no cabbage, cooked or raw), yellow rice (but not white), and a little meat.  His favorite food, which surprises many people, is a cooked chicken wing, as if we did not eat our fellow mammals.  His favorite snacks include peanuts and pickles.

     Dory enjoys splashing in a bowl of water.  If the weather is warm enough, he especially likes to play with some ice cubes in the water.  Every day, he shares a shower with me, after which he flaps the old wings to dry, and enjoys a brisk toweling. 

     A blind friend of mine used to say that, given the choice, he would rather be blind than deaf, because, blind, he had lost contact with the world, but deaf, he feared, he would have lost social contact.  If we shut a bird up in a cage and stick that cage in a corner of a room, we have deprived him of a world; we have blinded him.  If he is shut up without another bird and without physical contact from us, we have deprived him of social contact; we have deafened him.

     A parrot’s natural language is not our human speech. Instead, the language of parrots is a language of touch, physical reassurance, mutual grooming.  Many people enter into a relationship with a parrot expecting it to master our language but unwilling to learn even the rudiments of parrot communication.  But, if we make the effort, our feathered flock-mates will amply reward us.

     After Dory has had a hearty late night meal, to fill his crop so that he can maintain a parrot’s high metabolic rate, he likes to cuddle in a blanket on my shoulder for a little quality time and a backrub.  Sometimes, he will poke his head out from the blanket and rest his beak on my chin.  His pupils do not function as mine do, since they respond to emotion rather than to light.  As they narrow to mere dots, I wonder what he is feeling.  Once again, I am left outside, catching glimpses of his rich emotional life.

      I know a dog-lover who refuses to watch dog-movies, because they inevitably end in the death of the dog.  Parrots might have a similar distaste for people-movies.  When Dory and I first met, I had recently passed the half-century mark, and he had not yet reached the half-year mark.  Many African grays live more than half a century, so it is quite likely that Dory will outlive me. 

     I wonder whether those narrowed pupils are focusing on me or beyond me in time and in space or in some of those levels of parrot experience and perception that I do not have a clue about.  I wonder if he is reminding himself, “Don’t take this good life for granted.”  At least, I hope he perceives it as a good life.  Or—and this seems a more likely parrot  response—is he telling himself to seize the moment, and, to begin with, to seize my nose?

     The upper and lower parts of his beak—that wonderful structure that is at once hand, nose and mouth—grind together, in Dory's equivalent of purring.  I decide that if I can for another day keep one of my shoulders occupied by my own little almost extraterrestrial buddy, I’ll be able to keep my feet dry and my heart full of noble thoughts, especially thoughts of gratitude for the good life that Dory provides me.

     Before I show you a picture of Dorian Gray Parrot (named for the title character in the novel by Oscar Wilde; what else would an English major name a gray parrot?), I want to tell you that this picture has not been electronically altered and to warn you that it would be censored by some publications.                            

     Yes, he is wearing a hat. Bird Talk, one of the best and best known publications for bird-admirers, runs in every issue photos of pet birds that readers send in, but photos of birds wearing clothes are prohibited, since the editors do not want people to cause their birds distress.  How I was able to take this picture without upsetting Dory reveals a lot about our friendship. 

     One of Dory’s favorite toys is an empty toilet paper roller.  One day, after he had shredded all of such a cardboard tube except for about an inch, I placed it on his head.  For a moment, he held the pose; so I began to look for a little hat to try to persuade him to wear.  Once I found the hat, he would not allow it on his head.  So, I put it onto my head and talked to him about how much I enjoyed wearing it.  It took most of an afternoon, but he finally kept the hat on long enough for me to snap this photo.  I used the same technique, by the way, to get him to eat citrus fruit.

     Birds are doing quite well online.  It's a Grey's World!  is chock-full of gray or grey facts.  My favorite African gray site is, purportedly, the diary of an African gray that lives with a featherless flock in the Netherlands and provides links to a variety of other African gray sites. (See note below.)  

    There are two political notes with which I need to close this article.  First, despite the obvious affection I feel for Dory, there are people who feel that keeping pets is an unethical way to respond to beings that are definitely not extraterrestrials but are in fact fellow, even equal, residents of our planet.  One organization which voices such beliefs is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

     The remark about the deaf losing social contact was made by a friend of mine who died years ago.  Since then, the deaf have made it known to the rest of us that they are a people with a rich and distinctive culture which they express in their own language.  A center of this culture and language is Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

     Keep your feet dry, your heart full of noble thoughts, a parrot (if you are so lucky) on your shoulder… and (a final political comment) don’t forget to vote!         

     You can see more pictures of Dory in  "Giving Your Computer Eyes" 

and in "Open Salts: Worth Their Salt"

2002 update:  A favorite bird site, to which I had previously linked, disappeared, and so I had to find a new link for pictures of the Congo and timneh African grays.  The good Dutch folks who maintain what I refer to (above) as  my favorite parrot site sent me an e-mail announcing the change of their site's URL.  That reminded me that I had not kept up with their parrot's diary in some months.  When I checked the new site, I was  shocked to learn what had happened.  Dandy (the Dutch parrot) had always seemed blessed with a loving, even lovable flock, three humans who devoted more time and energy to their bird than most of us can.  They did all the right things, and yet, things did not turn out right.  Now, more than ever, I recommend their site to anyone thinking about adding a parrot to the flock.   I join them in wishing Dandy a good life, and I feel confident that I am joining Dandy in wishing them a good life. 

      Dory, I am pleased to report, is sitting on my shoulder as I write this and continues to be a model of cool in gray feathers.  When we moved last fall, I was warned that African grays have trouble with moves, but less than ten minutes after he was in the new house, he was sharing a friend's hamburger.

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