Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Parrot Tales

I have an African Gray parrot named Hawthorne. I’ve had him for over 20 years now, and he’s like a fourth kid. A very messy, loud kid that I cannot discipline, cannot educate, cannot potty train, and would hate to live without.

When we first got him, his eyes had just changed from brown to yellow, so he was pretty young. Our little family consisted of just myself, my spouse and Hawthorne. For months he said nothing, made no noise whatsoever. I started to think we had purchased the dud of the parrot world.

One day, coming home from a long day in corporate America, my husband working late at his sales job, I approached our apartment door to hear sounds of Tarzan movies whooping through the door. I thought to myself, “Damnit! Hubs left the stupid TV on when he left this morning.” Grumpily, and with some embarrassment, I opened the door, and the sounds promptly stopped. No TV, no radio, even the fish tank was relatively silent. Hawthorne was sitting on his perch, mutely preening. I eyed him. He played with his toes and ignored me.

I went off to change my clothes, and no sooner did I pull off my shoes, two rooms away, than I heard an ear shattering “AWWWWWWWWWWK.” I went back into the living room to see the bird pretending to sleep, with his head tucked back under his wing. I went up closer and noticed he was looking at me and only feigning sleep. I pointed my finger at him and said, “I’ve got your number, buster, you’re a prankster!”

It took months of careful work to get him to start making any noise at all in front of us. I wound up making a makeshift xylophone from glasses with varying amounts of water, which I played with a spoon in front of him, which showed him that humans could make interesting music, not just mumbling noises. I would sneak into the bathroom and whistle the Andy Griffith theme song, Camptown Races, and a lot of other summer camp songs. He finally decided to play whistle games with me, but still no words.

Despite the fact that we were handling him, petting him, cuddling with him, and allowing him lots of time to roam around safely, it was hard to love him. He didn’t seem to love back, and he made a huge mess – seeds, feathers from molting, dander, half-chewed fruit flung all over the place, pecked fingers, chewed t-shirts, and bird crap on the couch or floor or me, it was an uphill road. I almost gave up hope of ever having any kind of a rapport with him on a “pet” level, and had started considering him a form of living room décor with minimal potential.

My husband’s workload became heavier, and Hawthorne and I spent a lot of time alone together. I was depressed, constantly watching my weight, and kind of moping. I was feeling particularly fat one day, wearing sloppy sweats, hair a mess, no makeup, and we had a breakthrough. I was rooting under the couch for something, large butt in the air, and I heard a construction site quality wolf whistle.

I backed out from under the couch, looked at Hawthorne, and I could swear he smirked at me. He looked at me sideways and bobbed his head. “That was YOU, wasn’t it?” I asked. He clicked his beak and turned away.

I went back under the couch for the missing whatever. Big wolf whistle again. I jerked back out and we eyeballed each other. I gave in. “Thanks,” I said, “I needed that ego boost. Want a peanut?”

“Lu,” said Hawthorne.

“Is that yes?” I asked. “Peanut?”

“Lu. Woo-woo-woo,” replied the bird in a flirtatious manner.

“Are you telling me I’m a hot chick?” I prodded.

“Wacka-doo,” said Hawthorne, “Woo-woo-woo.”

“You definitely get a peanut. I get this whole decoding thing. I speak four languages. Now I get to learn ‘Transition Parrot’, too,” I answered, as I handed him a nut.

He threw it at me.

“Hard case, eh? Not going to take nuts from the hot chick? Wanna ride on my finger, big boy?” I said, and wiggled my eyebrows at him.

“Lu,” he said, and waved a claw at me. I picked him up, and he promptly started cuddled up against me.

“You’re definitely a guy,” I said, “let’s watch some tube. I’m feeling better now. Maybe there will be a nature show on.”

That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Much like a toddler, as soon as he got the hang of creating syllables rather than whistles and clicks, he talked and talked and talked. He yells, he sings, he warbles, he editorializes, he reprimands the kids and nags them, and he adds input as to our dietary choices.

“Chicken waffle,” he’ll insist from his cage in the kitchen, “graham cracker.”

“No, I was planning on making meatloaf and mashed potatoes,” I’ll answer.

“Oooooooh,” he’ll say, “corn, corn, corn.”

“Lima beans,” I’ll say, to which he responds with a big razz berry.

He comes up with sentences and phrases that keep all of us laughing, too, and on a pretty regular basis. One morning I was putting away the milk after breakfast, and, very clearly and distinctly he announced, “I don’t have any pants.”

I looked at him and said, “Well, you have little gray feathers on your legs,” and I looked at his legs. He looked down towards his legs, too, and said, “Oooooooh. Ok,” and went back to chirping, clicking, and bobbing back and forth.

Some of our family favorite Hawthornisms are:

“I’m driving a bus called the MS Chirples.”
“Doodle, there’s a bug in my water!” (It was a seed hull that he’d thrown there himself)
“Don’t leave the house without teeth.”
Saying the word “chirp”
“Hey, old fart” (said only twice, to my father and father-in-law)
“You’re a wharf rat” (usually said to someone who tells him he’s messy)
“Give me a dollar, and I won’t watch”
“I’m a dinosaur”
“Chew, chew, chew, I love to chew, chew, chew. I love to chew, chew, chew, chew (musical pause) chew, chew, chew.”

There are a million of them. But there’s only one feisty little Hawthorne. Long may he chirp.

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