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The few non-bird-owning friends I have left often express surprise, even alarm, as to what I might be doing in my spare time. I was once known as a woman who was always prompt, who accomplished whatever tasks needed doing, the one who always organized the next yard sale or gathered signatures for a petition. Someone you could depend on.
Now? Well, let’s just say that now I bear more than a passing resemblance to one of those fascinating individuals whose lives have shrunk to orbit a much smaller universe, a world they have created to support the one all-consuming passion that has taken over their existence. For some it’s Irish dancing, for others it’s knitting, or Civil War battle reenactments.
For me, it’s parrots. While all my non-bird-owning friends spend their spare time wind-surfing, volunteering at the hospital, and planning trips to the Caribbean (after helming $50 million corporations, writing movie scripts, and raising 2.5 children), you will find me catering to the needs of three cockatiels and a brown-head parrot. It goes something like this:
5–6:45 a.m. Up and at ’em to prepare organic grains. Good nutrition is vital for shiny feathers! While breakfast is simmering on the stove I awaken my darlings with the gentle reverie of slipping the hand-made covers off their cages. I believe in spending as much quality time with my birds as possible before I leave for work.
Sugar Franklin, the lutino cockatiel, rewards me with a stretch of her gorgeous yellow wings. Or, depending on her mood, a hair-raising hiss that means “how dare you disturb my slumber, lowly woman servant. Replace the sleeping cover at once!”
I can depend on Flash to hiss and lunge at me through the bars of his cage. Ever since I added another male cockatiel (Nicholas) to the household, Flash has been angry, understandably so. I gently whistle a short tune to him to show I still love him. He lunges again. If he were a saber tooth tiger, a fang would now be impaling my neck. Flash’s nemesis, Nicholas, bless his heart, sticks his little head against the cage bars for a scratch. Isn’t that sweet? I accept the invitation and get snapped at in return.
Charli pops her head out of her sleeping hut and looks so warm and fluffy and cuddly it’s all I can do not to grab her and kiss her all over. Sometimes she’ll offer a good morning chirp and then go back to sleep like any sensible creature. This is the most social time of the day for her.
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The organic grains have finished cooking. I dish up the cereal into separate bowls for each bird. I blow on each bowl for a couple of minutes to make sure the food is not too hot.
While the birds toss their breakfast on the floor, I run through the shower and throw on the first thing I find in my closet. Before dashing out the door I turn on the television so the birds won’t miss Dr. Phil.
7–4 p.m. Work to pay for mortgage, food, and bird accessories.
4:45 p.m. Carrying mail, purse, paperwork brought home from the office, and groceries, I stagger through the front door and call out a greeting to my beloved parrots.
With nine hours to consider her earlier behavior, Sugar has seen the error of her ways and is genuinely glad to see me. She screams and runs back and forth on her perch as if turbocharged by one of the better classes of amphetamines while I dump everything on the dining room table, whose surface no one has seen since the first Clinton inauguration. I open Sugar’s cage and she happily climbs out onto my finger. I give her a peck on her beak and she pecks me back on the nose.
With Sugar on my shoulder I open Charli’s cage and invite her to come out. “Come on, Charli! Come out, sweetie! Come see Mommy!” Sometimes she is not impressed with my arrival and sits on her high perch as if made of stone. “Come out, baby! Come out, Charli!” No, Charli has seen Medusa and tragically, has been turned into a pillar of salt.
On her non-sodium days, Charli will slowly and delicately move toward the cage door. When I open it, she backs or turns away from me as if noticing for the first time I have insufferably bad breath. “Up, Charli,” I say. “Come see Mommy!”
Charli will consider this request, perhaps taking a reluctant step or two toward me, and then, remembering my bad dental hygiene, she moves off to the far corner of the cage. “Come on, Charli.” I tap my finger against the cage door. I wait a moment, then in my sternest voice, “I’m going to leave you in there.” Charli considers this for a long while, so long that I usually give up.
I make a big show of closing the cage door and turning my attention to the cockatiels.
I open their doors and Nicholas immediately climbs into Flash’s cage. A great deal of hissing commences, then the two rivals settle into mutual preening, punctuated by the occasional accidentally tweaked feather and hissing from the offended party.
I return to plea with Charli. Finally she saunters out, being sure to sink her sharpened nails into my flesh. This reminds me: it’s grooming day at the vet’s! I can’t be late this time. I hate the look the receptionist gives me even more than the creepy stares every feline patient in the room trains on my birds the minute we walk in.
I quickly change from my work clothes into something more casual for the vet’s. Which fashion statement should I make today? The t-shirt with a dozen small holes for the moth-eaten look favored by most bird owners? Or the stained t-shirt for that Jackson Pollack splashed-poo look? I decide ragged is less offensive.
I find the four small travel cages and spend 30 minutes convincing, threatening, and finally forcing each bird into its respective carrier. Then it’s out to the car, arranging all the cages in the front and back seats, and strapping them in. I get halfway down the street before I realize I’ve forgotten my purse. Late again.
6:30 p.m. Grooming over, it’s back home for dinner and baths! Sugar prefers to be misted in the kitchen sink, but only after examining every inch of the surrounding counters to be sure they do not contain any stray Nutriberries. Charli does not like baths of any sort, so I must spend 20 minutes chasing her around the kitchen before she gives up and tolerates a few sprinkles of water. Flash is unsure about any water that does not appear in a ceramic bowl and shivers miserably under the mist. Nicholas, my water baby, prefers to be held under a running faucet.
7:15 p.m. While the birds are back in their cages, preening their wet feathers, I prepare their dinner, which consists of fresh or defrosted frozen vegetables (hey, it can’t be filet mignon every night). I serve them in separate bowls, then stand back to watch as my birds throw their vegetables on the floor and stare at me for more. Which I promptly provide. I microwave a frozen dinner for myself.
8 p.m. Time to give each bird their own special time with me! Sugar demands scritches alternating with sinking her beak into my fingers because I’m not doing it to suit her. When my fingers are numb from bites, I return her to her cage. If she isn’t too angry with me for scritching Sugar first, Charli will come out of her cage and allow me to pet her. We then play an amusing game of Charli climbing onto my shoulder and me removing her from my shoulder. While on my shoulder she uses the opportunity to clean her beak on my t-shirt. If the phone happens to ring, I have to let the machine pick up. The telephone receiver is a dangerous beast, and Charli will lay her life on the line to protect me from it, even if it means piercing my ear to prevent the monster from approaching my face.
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If all the birds are in their cages, they chirp happily while I talk, usually at top volume. With the sound of Flash and Nicholas hissing added to the cacophony, people on the other end often ask what that “noise” is.
For some reason I bring Flash and Nicholas out together for their quality time, placing them on separate shoulders. When I attempt to pet one, the other hisses, causing the pet-ee to fly off my shoulder and careen through the house, ending up on top of the window blinds or under a table. This startles the other bird, who flies into a different part of the house. There commences much shrieking between the two cockatiels as they attempt to locate each other while making sure to stay just out of my reach.
By the time each bird has had their “special time” with me, the evening news, the weather, and latest episode of my favorite sitcom are history. I tell myself that if anything important has happened in the world someone will mention it at work tomorrow.
8:45 p.m. It’s time to wipe down the cages, change the papers, replenish the water bottles, and give each bird fresh pellets. Each bird receives its own special nighttime treat, of course, such as millet or Nutriberries. Sometimes I even remember to prepare dishes of frozen veggies to thaw out in the refrigerator for the next morning. I cover all the cages, stopping to say special sweet things to each of them. All the cockatiels bid me goodnight with a hearty hiss. Charli says nothing.
9:15 p.m. I go into the study to check my e-mail. My chair tilts dangerously because Charli has been gnawing at its legs and removing the bolts. Someone on a bird list mentions a new toy their parrot just loves. I Google it until I find it for sale in a small shop in Madagascar. I order four, change my mind and order eight — just in case it’s a big hit with all the birds.
10 p.m. Exhausted, I collapse on the couch, kick off my shoes, and suddenly remember I was supposed to meet someone at 7 to discuss an important project. I call to apologize, knowing full well how ridiculous I sound, stammering on about losing track of the time because of my parrots.
After all, how involved could it be to take care of a few birds?
Copyright 2007 Marguerite Floyd, all rights reserved
This article first appeared in The Parrot Reckonings, 2007