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Unplanned Parrothood

You never think it’ll be you.

After all, you seem sane (publicly). You think you’re pretty cool (privately). But then, one day you wake up and somehow, it’s happened. There’s no use denying it. You‘ve become crazy parrot lady. There’s no escaping the fact I’ve become one of those women you read about, often in conjunction with some sort of killing spree, or as the shut-in who dies and leaves 4 million dollars to her canary. I live with 2 dogs, 5 birds, and one husband. (I really should give him top billing.)

But like most women who find themselves surrounded by friends with feathers, I’m hard to categorize. Mark Twain neatly sums it up this way:

“She was not quite what you would call refined.

She was not quite what you would call unrefined.

She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.”

He recognized that a woman who shares her life with parrots operates in that particular netherworld that lies between graciousness and flamboyance, between sweet and salty, between sharp-as-a-tack and completely out-of-her-fucking-mind. Parrot people are hard to pin down. Some obsess over one psittacine suitor (usually involves lots of baby talk) and some dress them up in outfits, posing them in little mise en scenes. (Don’t believe me? Google "Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots". Really, do it right now.) Then there are some who never dreamed they’d live with a bird, find they can’t stop at one, and soon their house is filled with feathers, fruit, and noise. (Lots of noise.) I’m one of those. I was actually a little afraid of birds. (Thanks, Alfred.)

But one day I found a cool vintage birdcage at the flea market, and on a whim I decided to get a little bird to go with it. This will be nice, I thought, kind of like a pleasantly chirping goldfish with blandly pleasant background noises. But parakeets are full of cheek as well as chirp. Smitty had lots of personality; she was smart, funny, and she clearly enjoyed interacting with me. I found out birds are not out to get you, nor are they brainless automatons. Birds are full of desires, strategies, fears and longings just like us.

I got Smitty a parakeet pal to keep her company. Jonesy shared Smitty’s cage, periodically regurgitating food into one another’s mouths. (It’s much more romantic than it sounds.) Then one day, while in the pet store to buy my birds some toys and food (but no clothes, I swear!), I fell for my darling little Buster. HARD.

You know those little cartoon bluebirds who fly around Snow White, helping her get dressed and fix her hair? That was my Buster, a tiny beautiful baby blue parrotlet with a cute little pink beak. How can I explain how this tiny creature with a brain the size of a chickpea made me feel such gigantic love? Like the animated staff who flit around Snow White, Buster followed me all over my apartment, perching on my shoulder to keep me company while I folded laundry, watching over me when I was sick, snuggling when I was sad, and he gamely watched hour after hour of Law & Order re-runs.

Yes, I can’t just watch just one Law & Order, and I apparently can’t have just 3 birds. Next came Clementine, a very sweet Meyers parrot who lets you kiss and stroke her feathers, and likes nothing more than to tuck her head under her wing and fall asleep on your knee. Her hobbies are cleaning my teeth with her beak and chewing anything in sight. Then I got Butch.

Butch is an African Grey, the smartest and best talker in the parrot kingdom, exhibiting the intelligence of a five-year-old child –and the tantrums. He says "My name is Bond...James Bond" and "I am Spartacus". He hollers "Pieces of eight!" and "Nevermore!" He says, "Ooui!' and "Bonjour!" and asks, "Donnez-moi une cigarette?" (He really should quit.) Nut what's really fascinating is Butch's sophisticated powers of reasoning, and not only speaks but communicates within context. (Look up "Alex the Parrot" on YouTube. Seriously, do it now.) He doesn’t just say “Good-bye,” he says good-bye only when you’re actually leaving. He says “Fresh water!” when I change his bowl, and makes a labored sigh when I get up from a chair. He tattles on Clementine when she’s chewing the couch, and reprimands our dogs with a stern “No barking!” (Butch also has a habit of saying “Goddamit!” and a resounding “FUCK!” whenever he, or anyone, drops something.)

Also, some parrots also do this thing called “pair-bonding”. They lock on to a companion bird, and from that point on only have eyes for him or her. Some birds in captivity will look to their human as their mate. In other words, Butch thinks I’m his wife. He will only sit on my hand, will only let me kiss him, and sometimes he looks at me with a longing lovelorn look in those dinosaur eyes of his that only a wife could detect. (I confess, he often feels fairly husband-y to me, too.)

Smart as the birds are though, it’s important to remember that parrots, all parrots, are NOT domesticated animals. They are wild, no matter how many toys you buy them or curse words they pick up. Even the sweetest parrot will nip every once in awhile, and they don’t need a reason. (I’m sure they have one, but it’s seldom apparent.) When you live with a parrot, you need to expect the occasional “Here’s what I think of your fancy-schmancy opposable thumb, asshole!” as their beaks let you have it.

Then there’s the noise. Make no mistake, the squawks can be ear-piercing, mind-rattling, and best-part-of-the-movie-interrupting. I’m at the point where I barely register their jungle-traversable chatter, but my husband – not so much. I tried sharing with him the Chinese proverb, “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song,” but somehow it falls on his (newly) deaf ears. Another downside to sharing one’s life with birds is the relentless Sisophyean clean-up. Parrots are messy, they go to the bathroom everywhere, they’ll shred anything within reach, and they toss their food around whenever the mood strikes. (Parrots may not have thumbs, but unlike most pets they can pick things up and hold them, and yes, throw them.) While I try to maintain a sort of Zen-like acceptance about the never-ending upkeep in keeping birds, I can fall to pieces when I contemplate auniquely parrot problem.

These birds are smart, sensitive creatures. They need affection and attention. Lots of attention. Parrots needcompanionship; they can literally die without it. Some owners neglect to think about this when taking in a bird, and thousands of poor parrots have literally gone mad from loneliness, pacing back and forth and muttering to themselves, and plucking out all their own feathers. (Some also pluck out of boredom, anxiety, or perhaps just the reality of their life of tedious, skyless incarceration.)

In addition to my birds’ loneliness and inherently unfair lives, I worry about where they’ll go after I’m gone. Unlike most pets, parrots can live a very long time. Clementine may live another 25 years, while Butch’s could live to be 75! My parrots will outlive me and I fret about who’ll look after my birds in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. Honestly, it keeps me up nights.

Some women have “friends with benefits;” I have friends with feathers. One has erotic overtones, one has neurotic overtones, but in the end they’re not that different. My parrots give me pleasure, they mess up my towels, and they often tell me what I want to hear. Emily Dickinson one said, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” I have found that love can have feathers, and I’ll say to you, just as Miss Dickinson wrote, “I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.”

The above article was originally published in The Gift Magazine

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