I Don't Believe in Starter Birds

Written by Patricia Sund. Posted in Humorous Essays

patricia sundWhat is a “starter bird?”  Is that like a “starter human?”  Maybe that’s why human babies start out small.  I don’t have children but I imagine that when they are small, they’re easier to handle. They have no teeth so they can’t bite you. They are loud and messy however, and we have to teach them everything. They can’t talk and the only way they can complain to us about whatever it is that’s bothering them is by crying. So maybe human babies are “starter humans.” Maybe they show up that way so we can learn as they grow up and get larger.

It’s a given that they become more expensive, more difficult and more demanding when they get older and bigger. They begin to talk and they learn their way around the world, gathering more experience, and acquiring more independence. They become more self-sufficient and pick up habits that we aren’t necessarily fond of, like sassing back and lying about doing their homework when they haven’t cracked a book. For the most part, they hate cleaning their room and helping with the dishes. They disappear into the bathroom for hours at a time. How do I know this when I’ve never even been pregnant? I was a kid once. Those are the days when I assume parents wish they had their little baby back. But I think it all comes down to size. Babies simply don’t eat as much as your seventeen year-old varsity running back on the high school football team and in a way, they are probably easier to manage. Babies may not be quieter, but to their advantage, they do have have that sweet and innocent thing going on.

I was at a Bird Club Meeting and the membership was having a discussion. A woman in the club had a friend who wanted a Macaw, but her friend didn’t have any experience. The general consensus of the club was that she get a “Starter Bird” to learn on and then “work her way up” to the aforementioned macaw she so desperately wanted.  Well let me tell you, if I was a budgie I’d be one honked-off bird. As it was, I was one honked-off Human. I really was absolutely horrified. I found it disrespectful to the “Budgie Nation,” the “Cockatiel Nation” and every other small bird that ever chirped his way into someone’s heart just by being exactly who they are.

As you might know, I happen to like African Greys. I liked African Greys before I even had an African Grey. When I finally got Parker after years of putting off getting a Grey, I knew I had made the right decision by getting a bird and more specifically, about getting an African Grey.  I wrote an essay about them years ago trying to explain what it was about them that I adored. A portion of it got picked up by “BIRD TALK” Magazine and it was the first time my words were ever published in “BT.”

I blame that article containing my quote for joyfully dragging me into the world of writing about aviculture and I’ve never looked back. Occasionally, I wonder what in the hell I ever did with all of that free time I had before I became a professional writer with parrots. Recently, I came across some photos of what my Condo looked like before I had birds and started getting published. There it was: gleaming, tidy, immaculate.  Apparently I used all that free time doing a lot of cleaning. But I digress.
These were the words I wrote about African Greys and why I favored them:

  • "When I I first learned about African Greys, I was intrigued. Greys were smart. Greys were elegant and understated. They reminded me of that well dressed but not overbearing, intelligent guy at the party who took in everything and only opened his mouth when he had something extremely witty to say.  I thought of a Grey as that guy who had a half smile on his face and found being a part of things far more fun than being the center of attention. But then became the center of attention because of his personality. He got the attention from his brains and his manners, not his looks.
  • I visualized Greys as a combination of Nathan Lane and Gene Kelly in a gray tuxedo. Not flashy like a Cockatoo, (Mae West) brilliantly colored like a Macaw, (Carmen Miranda or Rue Paul) or as standard as a budgie or cockatiel, (The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and The Rockettes).
  • I saw a Grey as fitting in with what I am like: sort of understated and efficient. I’m not real quiet, but I’m to the point. I’m bookish, but I have a sense of humor.  It was as if I thought a Grey would get my jokes.”

You see? I always wanted a Grey because I thought we’d get along. I didn’t get a Grey because I thought he would talk, or because he was gorgeous. Greys aren’t particularly flamboyant. They are rather plain really and if it weren’t for that gorgeous red tail, I’m not sure they would be as popular as they are. But they aren’t a really big bird either. Of course many people who tend to like Lovebirds, Parrotlets and Budgerigars might have a bone to pick with me about that.   My point is that I got into Greys because their personality suited me. I got into birds like most people: ass-backwards. But I believe I more than made up for my mistake of getting a bird and then figuring out what it was supposed to eat. I began reading and educating myself and I haven’t stopped. But I didn’t get Parker as a “starter bird” like he was a set of training wheels for a bicycle.

If you want a bird, do your homework first and keep learning. If you have your heart set on a cockatoo and you just know this species is what you want, find someone who has one and knows what they are doing. Learn from them and take your time. Read about them. Take some classes. Learn about what they need and require. Learn about their nutritional needs, their particular eccentricities and immerse yourself in all things "cockatoo."  Discover the good things about them as well as the bad. Visit dozens of websites. Read up on behavior training because you’re going to need to know this. Do your work and then set about finding the particular species you think might work for you and your lifestyle. After all of that, finally comes the time for searching for that one Cockatoo that will become a member of your family. Just like people, not all birds are the same. Nor are all Cockatoos. Nor are all Bare-eyed Cockatoos. This will better your chances for a successful situation. And along the way you just might discover that Cockatoos aren’t really for you. Through your research, you might find yourself drawn to a Jardine’s Parrot. Or maybe you’ll take an interest in Amazons. Just because you started out interested in Cockatoos doesn’t necessarily mean that your research will lead you to one as the ideal bird for you.

This goes for the little birds as well. If you just love little Quakers, and God knows tons of people simply adore them, learn about them and have at it!  But don’t get a Quaker in hopes that you might learn enough about birds in order to graduate to a Greenwing Macaw.  I find this very disrespectful to both the Quaker and the Greenwing. Knowing how to care for a Quaker is not going to give you the proper skill set to care for a Greenwing. And with all due respect to the Quakers of the world, caring for a Greenwing isn’t the same as caring for the Quaker. Having fostered several Quakers, I personally think a Greenwing would be easier. As far as I’m concerned, you haven’t lived until you’ve been nailed by a Quaker. They are little birds with a big personality and writing them off as a “little bird” is a huge mistake.

Each species of birds has their own set of attributes. They also have their peculiarities, enrichment and dietary needs, their own personalities and tendencies.
Please don’t head out to get a “Parakeet” at the local “Big Box” pet store in hopes that this little bird will teach you about caring for birds. A small bird isn’t a “starter bird” so that one day you will be able to adopt a Blue and Gold Macaw. Think again. With that approach, chances are that Blue And Gold will never come because you didn’t learn enough about working with what you already have. The situation has a high chance of failure because you aren’t working with the budgerigar because you want her. They aren’t just for “practicing,” so to speak. That Budgie isn’t getting the respect she deserves because whoever does this isn’t interested in who she is and what she has to offer.

I love the little birds and I think they have just as much to offer as the big guys. They deserve our love, the best care we can provide and above all, our respect. Love them for what they are. We can learn a lot from small birds. But what we learn from them isn’t how to care for a bigger bird.

Just One of Those Days

Written by Patricia Sund. Posted in Humorous Essays

patricia sundI just didn't feel like it that morning. I didn't want to feed a bird, look at a bird, clean a cage, hear any incessant chirping or listen to anyone whistle the theme from "Andy Griffith" yet another time. I was over it. I'd hit the wall. I was done. I'd had it.

It was one of those mornings where I had declared to Parker and Pepper, "Okay, that's it. It's toast for everyone!" I would then toast some whole grain bread, spread peanut butter sprinkled with a fresh, fine ground veggie mix on it and slap it into the bowls mounted on their play stands. My birds love these mornings because they love toast. They pick up the piece of toast in their feet while they delicately and joyfully crunch away. It is truly hilarious to watch. Then I would feel guilty because I was a lazy caregiver. To me, if they were human, it would have been like handing them one of those microwave breakfast sandwiches to your kid. (Oh my God! They didn't get their broccoli! No flax seed oil! I forgot about their calcium supplement! I am a horrible person!)

I'm thinking to myself, "What have I done?" I never used to worry about who would take care of things when I was gone. I could work a trip at my job as a Flight Attendant, come back 3 days later and not worry or even care if the place burned down. My electrical bill is sky high in the summer because I have to run the air conditioning all the time just for the birds. Before I got my African Greys, I used to just turn the thing off when I left. No more.

I am constantly chopping up vegetables, cleaning up bird crap, showering them and doing laundry. I'm training parrots, reading about parrots, writing about them, cleaning their cages, feeding them, and sweeping up after them. Website surfing consists of surfing for articles about parrot training, behavior, and looking for the perfect toy.

I'm struggling to even pay my bills not because of money but because I forget to sit down and pay them. I worry about spending enough time with Pepper, my relinquished older Grey to get her better socialized while worrying that this time devoted to Pepper is neglectful to Parker, my first Grey. I'm concerned when they don't eat all their vegetables. Clearly, I'm an idiot. I worry about the hideous diet Pepper was on and I'm having trouble with transferring her over to fresh food. I worry if I'm ever going to get all of this right. I concern myself with whether I should audit that positive reinforcement training class to make sure I really know the material I learned the first time around.

I only have 2 birds and I feel overwhelmed. I keep wondering how my friends who run and work at adoption and rescue organizations manage to get anything done. How in God's name do my friends who work at parrot rescue organizations manage? How do Ann Brooks or Vicky Clem of the Phoenix Landing Foundation make it through the day? Where do Leigh Matejka and Susan Kray at the Cleveland Parrot Education and Adoption Center find the moxie to get up every damned day and handle such challenges with about a million more birds than I do? Why am I such a wimp?

A few months back, I flew up to Washington to pick up some Cockatiels from Vicky Clem who works with Phoenix Landing. I had found homes for them down here in Florida and I had flown up to bring them back to their new home. The birds were being fostered at a senior citizen's home and after picking them up, we went back to Vicky's house. If I remember correctly, she had 29 parrots living in her home, along with 2 dogs, 2 kids and some hamsters. I couldn't believe it. I was in awe as I watched her whiz around the kitchen and take care of things like this was nothing. The phone was ringing, dogs were barking, parrots were squawking, kids running in and out of the house, and she's happily slamming something into the oven for her children's dinner while yakking on the phone with a couple of Phoenix Landing volunteers and making reservations for us to go out to dinner. I just stood back out of the way, petting Topaz the Cockatoo while watching in absolute amazement.

That morning, I sat on the couch and looked at the birds while Parker and Pepper happily crunched away at their toast. I watched Parker fling the rest of his toast over the side of his stand onto the carpeting, (which of course lands peanut butter-side down) and climb down to the edge of the stand. He hovers, squats and then craps on the toast like he was a B52 Bomber making a bulls eye hit. Looking up at me, he proudly announces "Parker!"

As I got up to retrieve the heavy artillery cleaner from the kitchen for the carpeting, (I haven't gotten around to installing wood or tile, but at this point I'd be willing to strip it down to the cement...) I think about Leah, Susan, Ann, Vicky, and all the other people I've met that have endless energy, boundless ambition and the hearts of eagles. They would laugh like Hyenas at me for feeling this way. They would think the way I'm looking at things this morning is a waste of time and if I want to get over it and move on, I should do something about it.

Sharing your home with a parrot is a never-ending cycle of cleaning, feeding, training, and preparing food. They don't move out when they are 18. They can't take care of themselves. They depend on you, and that can sometimes become frustrating and overwhelming. That was the way I was feeling that morning. After a while I got over it and moved on like I usually do. I realized that sometimes life gets to you. You want to have birds in your life, but it gets to be a bit much at times. Get up, get out, get on and get over it. The feeling will pass just like it did for me that morning. I realized that the carpeting didn't care if it got crapped yet again, and to be honest, at this point I didn't really care either. What mattered most was the big picture.

Edna St. Vincent Millay once said: "It's not true that life is one damn thing after another; it's one damn thing over and over."

I get more happiness from having those two birds in my life than having a clean carpet. The carpet doesn't give a damn about me, but Parker and Pepper care very much about me and demonstrate that to me every day. If my big problem at the moment was the daily tedium of taking care of my beautiful companions, then I was indeed a very lucky woman.

Don't let that, "I've got the blues" moment get to you. It will pass. And if it's one of "those" mornings, just remember: there's always toast.

*******
Patricia Sund is a Columnist for "Bird Talk" Magazine and has a popular Blog called "Parrot Nation," where she writes about life, birds, and her adventures in the world of Aviculture, including volunteering as a Keeper at the Cincinnati Zoo. She has written for Phoenix Landing's "Phoenix Beakin'", "The Alamo Exhibition Bird Club," the AFA "Watch Bird,"as well as for the Rocky Mountain Society of Aviculture. She has written internally for American Airlines as well as having written, directed and produced a play called: "Loves People-Loves to Travel."

Patricia has completed Dr. Susan Friedman's online course: "LLP: Living & Learning with Parrots," and both Beginning and Advanced Levels of the "Natural Encounters" Companion Parrot Training Seminars.

Patricia Lives in Hollywood, Florida with her two Hoodlum African Grey Parrots, Parker and Pepper and her parrot-poop dodging, rescued ShihTzu: Mattie.

When asked why she has parrots in her life, she always responds the same way: "I've been a Flight Attendant for almost 23 years; I guess I'm used to serving food, repeating myself, cleaning up crap and getting hollered at."

What's the Point?

Written by Patricia Sund. Posted in Humorous Essays

patricia sundHaving a parrot in your life is a puzzling existence. I suppose you could agree with the idea that they provide companionship just as a dog or a cat does, but why in God’s name a parrot? Where did we ever get the idea that having a parrot would be a life enriching experience?

They’re loud, messy, demanding, pushy, selfish, self-absorbed, and whiney. Amazing isn’t it? We could have opted for the alpha-male position by having a dog. But Noooo! That would be too easy. We could have not bothered with any of it and found a cat in good need of a hearth and home. You know, A little fuzzy guy that wouldn’t be too much trouble and really didn’t care if we lived or died as long as the food train rolled around twice a day.

Oh no. We’re not having any of that. We had to go out and pay a big load of bucks for creatures that want our love, our undying attention, our free time, our not-so-free time, and our retirement fund just to keep them in toys, food, entertainment and a decent cage.

If they get upset, they scream, bite, or throw a hissy fit. They can develop behavior problems at the drop of hat, a towel, or anything else. They’re touchy, moody, needy, and sensitive.

They will play you like a violin, and strum on your heartstrings just to get that extra 10 minutes with you after you declared it was time for bed. They will sulk, talk under their breath, and work you to death to get what they want. They want something wonderful and they want it now!

On the surface, having a parrot as a companion sounds so neat. It’s exotic and different, but it doesn’t quite put you in the same exotic ballpark as the people who would like to introduce you to their Tarantula. That would be just a bit much for even your most seasoned average pet owner. Owning a bird, especially a big bird, is socially acceptable, and has become more prevalent. However, it’s still downright unconventional…it sets the person apart from the norm, but it’s not too eccentric. It tends to define who the perspective owner perceives himself to be.

So many misunderstandings and so many misconceptions about the practice of companion bird care are still rampant among the general public and it’s starting to make me wonder when we’ll all get it right. It wouldn’t bother me so much if parrot keeping weren’t on such an upswing in popularity. I’m not saying that having a parrot should be some exclusive little club where only those deemed “deserving” should be allowed to have birds. What I’m trying to express here is that sometimes the challenge of these creatures is too much for too many people.

I don’t believe the general public understands what is involved in having a companion bird. All parrot companions get the same statements and comments from people as to why they would love to have a parrot. Usually they want one just like mine, and I tell them that Parker is the result of thousands of hours of research, training and attention. Parker really isn’t an accident, and a lot of how he behaves, which is what makes him so endearing to people, is a result of all of this work. I have to explain to them that parrots don’t just show up on your doorstep and behave the way he does.

Parker isn’t particularly special or even that talented. He’s your run-of-the-mill African Grey. He looks like every other African Grey. He’s a parrot. He’s pretty good at it, this “being a parrot” business, but that’s what he’s made to be and to do. I don’t believe he thinks he’s a human. He’s really an enjoyable little guy, and quite fun to have around. He’s quite social, and doesn’t do anything terribly obnoxious. So far he doesn’t have any problems. It’s still early but I’m hoping it will all turn out well.

But many people simply state the following, and this is usually what I’m thinking:

“I’m different, I don’t follow the norm.”   (I don’t either, but I didn’t drag a parrot into the equation until I knew I could handle it.)

“I know I can handle the responsibility.” (Oh, really? I’d like to introduce a few birds to you. Say hi to Chopper, Chainsaw, and Drill Bit!)

“They’re so cute!”  (You betcha! Say hi to Chopper’s beak.)

“They not big animals and they don’t take much time to maintain.”   (This is a lovely poop machine especially designed to redesign your beautiful Berber carpet with an exotic Dalmatian pattern.  Keep them clean, train them, teach them, and feed them well or you will most likely end up living in a constant mess and with a sick or psychotic parrot.)

“You can leave them alone in their cage for a few days can’t you?”  (Sure!  Just pop your kids in there with him. You were going to leave them too, weren’t you? )

“What do they eat?”  (Did you ask this question when you decided to have children? If you’re asking, you haven’t done your homework.)

I end up spending more time talking people out of getting a parrot rather than the opposite. And the people who I think would make wonderful parrot companions are quite hesitant because they’re the ones who know what a vast undertaking it is and they doubt their own ability to take on such a big responsibility. These are the people that are thinking long and hard about the task. It’s the confident ones I worry about. These are the people that will obtain a parrot and think that all they have to do is feed it and clean it and it will sit there and learn all on its own.

I had a talk with a gentleman acquaintance that had a 9-month-old baby girl, and he stated that he wanted to get a parrot for his daughter. I asked him why.  His response was chilling. He said, “I can afford it. And I want it for my daughter. You know, a nice “toy” for her to play with.”

I kept my cool, and asked him if he thought his daughter was a lot of work. He agreed that she was a load of work, and that it was more than a full time job. I then asked him if he was planning on having any more in the near future. He told me no, he and his girlfriend weren’t going to have any more kids because they hadn’t exactly planned their daughter, and they just couldn’t handle any more.

I then politely proceeded to explain the work involved in raising a baby parrot: The time, the training, the diet requirements, the attention and the fully involved commitment. He was obviously stunned, and backed down from the thought. He got a little upset when I asked if he kept his daughter around because she was a nice “toy” for him and his girlfriend. But he got the point that I wasn’t too thrilled with his “toy” comment and we left it at that.

I have a theory. Unlike human beings, I don’t believe that anything a parrot does is entirely unreasonable because I don’t think a parrot can be deliberately deceptive with one exception: they will hide illness. I believe any unreasonable behavior is a direct result of a situation they cannot cope with. This response stems from a combination of their environment, and DNA. Their responses to stress are about as varied and different as how people respond to stress. I think they will respond to the same stressful situations just as people do. Not everyone will respond to the same situation in the same way. Millions of people fly on airplanes every day. Some people won’t even go near an airport. It all depends on how you’re wired, what your conditioning has been, and what your level of comfort or stress is.

It’s the same way with parrots.  I think that when a well-looked after parrot displays a negative behavior it is most likely a result of something that has changed, something that he doesn’t understand or fears, or it stems from a physical condition, such as sexual maturity, illness or pain. They want what they want, and like children, they don’t understand why they can’t always have their way. To paraphrase psychiatrist, R.D. Laing: “Madness is a sane response to an insane situation.”  Everything about this “living with people” lifestyle goes against their nature. It’s not a bad life for most parrots and they usually adjust to it so beautifully. But every once in a while, instinct raises its head and we have to somehow work out a solution that is workable for both parties.

Push them too far and they’ll push back and bite you. Push them further still and they will pluck, scream or self-mutilate. They will push back so far and so hard that they sometimes end up getting pushed out of a lot of homes.

But when it works, it is beautiful. God, they love you. Not only do they love you, they can actually tell you that they love you. This is where the beauty, the balance and the gripping artistry take hold of our hearts.

There is absolutely nothing like having a parrot sitting in your lap: this wild animal who accepts you as a flock member, and a friend. It is a cross-species relationship that transcends the natural order of things.  I think the fascination comes with the closeness of the relationship despite what nature normally dictates. It bucks what is considered “natural”. There is indeed a poetry and symmetry to this unnatural state, almost as if there were perfect balance required to maintain the relationship on a very long teeter-totter. But the balance has to be maintained or someone hits the dirt. A respect on both sides must be instituted or someone ends up crossing that line of balance, and it is a very thin line. You must give parrots credit. We never bother to learn their language. We force them to learn ours in order to communicate, and they are sometimes not considered to be cooperative or intelligent unless they learn our ways of communication. At best, we can follow some very rudimentary physical cues. Tail wagging; eye-pinning, preening, foot stomping and beak banging are about all we can follow. My, this is incredibly intuitive of us!

In the meantime, they are calling us by our names, asking for dinner, singing like Streisand, telling the dog to be quiet and attempting to answer the phone.

I love having a companion parrot. I love who Parker is and I have changed profoundly for the better as a result of our relationship. He didn’t have to change a thing other than learn a few simple rules about manners. He just goes on being a parrot and I am lucky enough to have earned his trust. My relationship with Parker has not only changed the way I look at the world, but how I feel about it. This still wild little creature has the ability to teach me so much just by waking up in the morning.

Unlike dogs and cats, birds have not yet domesticated themselves. They still have no need to and we certainly haven’t spent enough time in a companion environment to change their wiring. We chose to take on this relationship because we need them, not the other way around and I think we need to live up to it. By failing them, we fail ourselves. And that would leave us with having to admit that we were not worthy of the relationship in the first place.

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