Plutarch and Lola: A Love Story April 27, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets.
Tags: African grey parrots, parrots, yellow-naped Amazon parrots
HELP!!! PARROT IN TREE!!! HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Our friend Ben can recognize a crisis when I see one, and the headline of this e-mail from our friend Mary clearly qualified, especially since our friend Ben knows that Mary and her family don’t happen to own any parrots. The e-mail went on to say that Mary had been doing yardwork, and suddenly a voice started speaking, singing, and whistling to her from a nearby tree. After recovering from the initial fright, Mary went over and discovered a large grey parrot with a whitish breast and a bright red tail in the tree. She wanted to know what it was, and if she should try to catch it and contain it in a cat carrier while trying to locate its owner. She was so disconcerted by the discovery that she’d misplaced the Hawk’s Haven phone number and was now praying that our friend Ben would be checking e-mail. Fortunately, I was.
I quickly called Mary and explained that she had one of the legends of the parrot world, an African grey, in her tree. There are two types of African grey parrot—the larger Congo grey, which was the species in Mary’s tree, and the smaller, somewhat less colorful Timneh grey. These birds are renowned for their intelligence—the famous Alex, the “genius parrot” studied by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, was a Timneh grey—and they cost thousands of dollars. Nobody who’d gone to the effort of buying and training one would have simply released it. Clearly, it had inadvertently escaped.
But no, Mary shouldn’t simply send her husband or son up into the tree after it. A parrot that size can crack a nut with its powerful beak. You wouldn’t want a frightened parrot to use your hand for target practice. Our friend Ben suggested that Mary set out a dish of chopped fruit and try to lure the parrot down, then throw a towel on it and put it in the carrier with the fruit and some water while calling the local vets to see if someone had reported a missing parrot.
What if the owner didn’t turn up? Our friend Ben happens to have a huge cage in our storage shed, the first cage used to house our very own Hawk’s Haven mascot, Plutarch the Pirate Parrot. I offered to bring the cage over and set it up with dishes, toys, etc. if Mary and family decided to keep the stray parrot.
But I also know that parrots are not for everyone. Parrots like Plutarch, a yellow-naped Amazon, and African greys were once considered to have the intelligence of two- or three-year-old human toddlers. Our friend Ben has now seen estimates of equivalence to five-year-olds. Like a human child, parrots can be temperamental, loud, and prone to tantrums. They’ll do pretty much anything for attention. Their own attention spans are short, so they’re always in need of new toys and entertainments. And they can live for a hundred years. Three-year-olds are certainly endearing, but not everyone wants to live with a perpetual three-year-old for the rest of his or her life. Big gulp: Our friend Ben told Mary that, if her family couldn’t find the owner and didn’t want to keep it, our friend Ben would find a place for him or her here at Hawk’s Haven. (Let’s hope Silence isn’t reading this!)
Our friend Ben loves birds. I have had birds literally since before I was born—my parents bought a parakeet, Philomelia the Elegant Fowl, for me while my mother was still pregnant with our friend Ben, and I have never been without a parakeet since. Parakeets (budgies) are marvelous, with big parrot personalities in small, colorful bodies. If anyone out there in the blogosphere is considering getting a bird as a pet, our friend Ben enthusiastically recommends them.
However, a number of years ago, our friend Ben felt that it was time to add a bigger bird to the Hawk’s Haven menagerie. I went to a pet store that specialized in birds, and was standing at an open play station admiring all the colorful avian characters climbing all over the play equipment. Suddenly, I realized that the one bird I’d completely ignored, a big, homely green parrot, had marched up to my eye level and was staring me pointedly in the eye. This was surprising to our friend Ben, especially given the intentness of the stare, rather as though the parrot were sizing me up rather than vice-versa. But our friend Ben is a sucker for color and beauty, and this bird had neither. Besides, I wasn’t interested in a big parrot. I moved around to the other side of the play station and continued to enjoy the antics of the smaller, more colorful birds.
But our friend Ben’s appreciation of the other birds was once again interrupted by the appearance of a homely green head in my line of vision. The big green bird had followed me over, and was again giving our friend Ben an appraising look. It was a look that was entirely human, and it pierced our friend Ben to the soul. Our friend Ben recognizes that sometimes we choose the hands we play, and sometimes we play what we’re dealt. The hand of fate was clearly in play here, and our friend Ben bowed to the inevitable. I went off to find a store clerk and buy the big, homely green bird.
Sticker shock!!! That homely bird was the most expensive thing in the store. That’s because he turned out to be a yellow-naped Amazon parrot, widely believed to be as smart if not smarter than the African greys. Our friend Ben left the store parrotless, with the big green bird staring poignantly after me and muttering to itself. But I couldn’t forget the parrot that had looked at me with human eyes and a totally human understanding. After agonizing (and saving up) for a few months, I returned to the store. Either the big green bird would still be there or it wouldn’t. It was in the hands of the gods.
As it turned out, apparently nobody else had wanted a homely, hugely expensive parrot, either. There he was. At the sight of me, he began doing joyous flip-flops, calling excitedly as though to say “I knew you’d come back! I knew it!!!” And so Plutarch the Pirate Parrot came home to Hawk’s Haven. Over the years, he’s become less homely: He developed the bright yellow bandanna-shaped patch of feathers on the back of his neck that gives his species its name. His wing feathers are actually glorious, with bands of brilliant red, blue, and black or yellow, scarlet, and olive against the Romaine-lettuce green of the rest of his plumage, but you can only really see their splendor if he spreads his wings.
Plutarch was already saying a few things when he arrived here, and he picked up English quickly and grammatically. (Our friend Ben: “Plutarch, you’re a big green bird!” Plutarch: “I’m a big green bird!”) He also loved singing, making up his own eccentric, tuneless songs as well as singing enthusiastically along with his favorite rock bands (Jethro Tull is a big favorite) and displaying enormous enthusiasm for any film that features lots of gunfire and explosions (Plu’s a huge James Bond fan, and sings along with the Bond theme song). When we eventually brought home Marcus Hook, our junior parrot, Plutarch realized that he couldn’t understand a word that Marcus (a bronze-winged pionus) was saying, and taught him to speak English in two weeks. (I’m sure that he regrets this, since the first words out of Marcus’s mouth, uh, beak, were “Be quiet, Plu!”)
Obviously, our friend Ben could go on (and on) about Plutarch, Marcus, and parrots in general. I think parrots are appealing because they’re so much like us. They stand upright like us. They use their “hands” to hold and eat things like us. They’re ingenious tool-users and are easily bored, like us. They use sight to navigate their world, which is to say that they have what are called “sighted brains,” like us. (Unlike dogs and most animals, who use hearing and smell to navigate the world, with sight as a backup.) Their senses are identical to ours: They see what we see, hear what we hear, smell what we smell, taste what we taste. If you’re experiencing something, you know that your parrot can also experience it—a color, a flavor, a song—and in exactly the same way. They have a sense of humor. And, of course, they speak our language. We love our cats, dogs, and other pets for themselves. But we love our parrots on a different level, because they are so much like ourselves. It truly is a different order of relationship.
But let’s get back to Mary and that poor parrot lost and up in a tree. Our friend Ben waited anxiously to hear what was happening. Night was coming on, which would leave the parrot prey to great horned owls. Besides, how would the poor bird fare out in the open like that? And would Mary and her family try to catch the parrot, and if so, would they or it be injured in the attempt? Would that simply scare it off into parts unknown?
As it turned out, the story had a happy ending. Mary went out to check on the parrot a final time, and saw a middle-aged man standing under the tree crooning to the bird. He said her name was Lola, and some men working on electric wires had told him they’d seen a parrot on Mary’s road, so he’d been walking around calling for her. She had escaped because he and his wife hadn’t clipped her wings, since they’d just gotten a new dog and Lola didn’t like him. With her wing feathers grown in, she could fly away from the dog. But unfortunately, while they were spring cleaning, she’d apparently found herself outside and flown off. Lola flew gratefully down into the man’s arms, and he called his wife to come over while cradling his beloved parrot in an old sweatshirt. While they waited for his wife to arrive, the man told Mary that Lola knew 90 words, songs, and whistles. Her avian vet refused to call her Lola, instead referring to her as Einstein.
When the man’s wfe arrived, she began sobbing at the sight of Lola safe in her husband’s arms. She’d apparently been praying the rosary for Lola’s safe return before getting the call. Such is the love we can feel for our parrots. Unlike our dogs, cats, and other pets, whose lives are cut off long before we’re ready to part with them, this is truly a relationship, a love story, that endures for all our lives.