Even though I was given the name of a flying creature at birth, I didn't take up the care and feeding of parrots until ten years ago, when my son, who will be 18 in just 5 days, was in the second grade. He wrote a report on African Grey parrots for school and fell in love with them. My son has always been an old man - here's a funny story about him cooking on the car engine:
At 17, my son, Louis, stands 6 foot 7 inches tall, but back in the third grade his need to understand shot to seven feet, to the seven books I would see him stuff in his backpack “just in case” the teacher assigned silent reading time. His classmates copied paragraphs from the Word Book encyclopedia for their science report on African Greys, describing the birds’ natural habitat, but Louis dove deep, buried his brain in scientific paper and philosophical discourse. He typed a young naturalist’s volume and accompanied it with a roll-out hand-painted poster of the African Grey and His Family, perched on some Congo tree, enigmatic, ready to swoop into the hot dry air.
Every trip to the Petco for dog food, Louis dragged me to the bird room to chat with a handsome grey fellow in a teeny corner cage. Fastened to the cage with a piece of dirty transparent tape was an index card with a hand-lettered warning in sharp, black Sharpie: I bite!
“Please please please please please please please Moooooooooooooooooooooooooooom can’t we take him hooooooooommmmeeee??????”
“Honey, look at the price tag. This bird costs one thousand, three hundred dollars. Plus, he bites,” I’d sigh. “Someone will come along and give him a nice home.”
But no one did. Month after month passed and the grey bird’s price dropped to eight hundred dollars, then six, then four. My kid continued to harass me, citing examples of exemplary greys and their owners.
“Mom, African Grey parrots have the cognitive abilities of five-year-old child. They can learn to speak, in context, over two-thousand words. You can potty train them! King Louis the Fourteenth had an African Grey, and MY name is Louis. Besides, some scientists even think they’re psychic.”
The parrot would stare us down with one steel eye, with feathers rough and broken from constant caged boredom. We would stand at attention, our hands safely behind our backs, and intone the phrases man has uttered all these parrot-loving years.
Pretty bird. Pretty bird. Polly wanna cracker?
As we turned to leave the bird room the bird would catcall the wolf whistle, turn his lonely face to the cement-brick wall. It broke Louis’ heart.
One night I ran to the pet store alone, but made my way to the bird room out of habit. The parrot perched in the far corner of his cage, preening his three remaining red tail feathers. The tattered index card was missing and the price tag was gone. I figured someone finally bought him and was preparing to take him home. At the checkout I made small talk with the clerk.
“So hey! That African Grey finally found a home, eh?”
She scanned my twenty-five pounds of kibble. She spoke to the register as if I didn’t exist.
“No, he has behavioral problems. The manager decided to euthanize him. They’re going to put him in the freezer when we close up.”
So the biting bird became a part of the family zoo that night. Louis named him Ramses, after the Egyptian pharaoh. I bought a huge cage on clearance and built a fake tree out of manzanita branches for him to perch on during the day.
“Ramses,” I told him, as he shivered in fright and confusion, the new cage a silver monster in his five-year-old-child’s mind, “I know you only bite people because you were stuck in a tiny cage for two years. I won’t ever close your cage. Just take your time.”
It took over a year of patience, of time, of allowing Ramses to bite me until he realized I would never, ever react with anything but love. Today he follows me around the house, chit-chatting, repeating his name over and over and imitating our nasal-voiced mailman. He’s pathologically attached to me and tolerates the rest of the brood. Of course, Louis tells everyone he knows that he - personally and singularly - owns an African Grey.