This previous Saturday, I received a telephone call from a woman, MaryAnne (not her real name), who lives in Greenwich Village and whose pet parrots I care for. After I answered her call, she paused for a long moment and then, very unexpectedly, she offered to give me her pet African grey parrot. I was stunned.
Nearly all of my life, I have wanted a so-called “Congo” African grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus erithacus, but I never got one for a variety of reasons (“my life is not stable enough” or “I can’t afford one” were my typical reasons). But really, I am a “lory person”: intelligent, energetic, intense, and .. er, eccentric. I was afraid that any grey parrot I lived with would be utterly miserable, and the bird would then punish me for being myself by becoming a terrible feather plucker. Somewhere along the way, I simply accepted that my life would never be “good enough” to share with one of these birds, so I instead became resigned to caring for other people’s pet grey parrots.
But then I met Charlie. He is unlike any grey parrot I’ve met before because he is so openly affectionate. But perhaps his sweetness is a reflection of his youth? He is, after all, only a fledgling parrot, merely five months old, as MaryAnne tells me. She purchased him from a pet store in New York City and, as everyone knows, a pet store is hardly the best place to meet the emotional needs of a young parrot.
Charlie lived with MaryAnne for approximately one month when I met him. When I first saw him, I noticed that he had been quite busy plucking his feathers from his back, neck and wings, leaving his breast mostly feathered. He was downy (or bare) everywhere else, except for his few remaining wing and tail feathers, which were heavily chewed and damaged. MaryAnne said that he was fully feathered when she brought him home, but that obviously didn’t last long. What happened?
Parrots begin plucking and chewing their feathers for a variety of reasons, including fear, anxiety, sexual frustration, illness or pain, or a combination of these. Since the bird had already visited the vet several times in the previous month for his feather picking habit and had been pronounced to be in excellent health, his plucking and chewing were probably triggered by some combination of emotional factors. But, as with all behavioral problems, feather picking and chewing must be resolved quickly before it becomes a life long habit; stubbornly persisting after the original triggers for the behavior are long gone and forgotten.
Perhaps the source of this bird’s unhappiness was MaryAnne’s other pets; one dog, two cats and two other parrots. After caring for her pets, I thought that MaryAnne’s three-year-old Ducorps cockatoo, Cacatua ducorpsii, Sammy (not his real name), was certainly part of the problem because of his annoyingly frequent habit of screaming obscenities that he learned from MaryAnne. Or perhaps it was the environment — a studio apartment — that they all were living in. Or perhaps, as MaryAnne told me sadly, the source of his unhappiness was MaryAnne herself.
When she admitted this to me, I felt sorrow .. for her. It takes a lot of courage to admit that you cannot meet the needs of those you love, and it takes even more courage than that to say it aloud to a person whom you barely know.
Despite the cramped and emotionally charged environment that these animals live in, I want to make it clear, dear readers, that none of MaryAnne’s pets showed any signs of being physically neglected or abused. In fact, all of her pets were healthy, gentle and affectionate. She clearly loves her animals, but had reached a point in her life, for whatever reasons, where she couldn’t live with all of them and they responded by driving her and each other crazy.
So it was obvious that this newest addition to the family was deeply unhappy, but despite his melancholy, he somehow still retained a basic optimism and emotional honesty that only the young seem to manage. I think this is what I sensed and was attracted to when we first saw each other. Even though I have lived with birds for most of my life, I’ve never lived with a feather plucking or chewing bird and I have never wished to do so, even rejecting other offers of free birds (that pluck their feathers) because I have seen the anguish it causes in those who live with such birds. But, surprisingly, despite Charlie’s fluffy semi-plucked self and my bias against that, I felt an instant emotional connection with this particular parrot, and he with me. It was like magic.
So needless to say, since I had been acquainted with Charlie in a caretaker role and I was well aware of his fondness for me (but never wanted to encourage it), when MaryAnne asked me if I would consider giving Charlie a permanent home, I immediately accepted.
I am renaming Charlie, too. MaryAnne says this is fine with her, that he is an exceptional parrot, and I agree (although I think that all parrots — all birds, really — are exceptional), so I am trying to think of an exceptional name that will fit him. [So far, the names I have thought of are; Gandalf (even though I love this name, it is a really common name for a grey parrot, which makes me want to avoid it), Tesla, or Bix or … ?]
I think this event revealed that MaryAnne is an exceptional person. She loves her pets as her family, and yet, she is willing to part with them if this is, as she said, “the best thing for them”. She could have sold this parrot (and probably should have, these are very expensive birds, after all) but instead, she chose me specifically to give this parrot to, knowing that he and I share a special bond, wishing only that I keep him and love him and help him solve his problems, that I purchase him a nice cage to live in, and that I invite her to my apartment every now and again to visit him.
What she doesn’t know is that she gave me something that I had allowed to die, that I never thought I deserved to have; hope. Her gift of this precious bird gave me a glimmer of hope that my own life might improve also, and that my life does have a purpose even if it has been hidden from me for more than a year, that I need to be needed and this little bird definitely needs me right now. And that gives me great joy.