The Magical Avian: Our 28 Years With a Talking Parrot
Debby Smith and Michael Smith
Charlie became a part of our family in 1992. We hadn’t intended to adopt a baby bird. Perhaps we should state that more strongly. We not only had no intentions of adopting a bird, we hadn’t even thought of it. We found out about this unusual bird store in downtown Manhattan, near where we lived. It was called the Urban Bird. We decided it would be an interesting Sunday afternoon destination, like a visit to a zoo, and headed off with our ten year old son Eli to check it out.
The store was in a neighborhood called Tribeca, a transitioning area. Not too fancy yet. There was still a parking lot across the street, a few bodegas and a diner, and the Urban Bird in a small building with a glass storefront.
THE AFICAN GRAY PARROTS
All of the baby parrots were standing on perches or sleeping in little cozy nests. No cages. Just young parrots, all kinds, sizes and colors.
Green ones from South and Central America, white ones from Australia, blue and scarlet ones from Indonesia, and gray ones with red tails from central Africa. No birds were stolen from the wild. Just domestically hatched adorable baby birds.
Charlie was an African Gray, featherless at the time having just hatched a few days before. He was living above the store in the nursery with other new babies, all having to be fed every few hours around the clock.
WHY “CHARLIE PARKER“
All of the birds in the store were young, with one exception. One old bird was living in a cage, hanging from the ceiling in the back of the store, commanding a view of all who entered. While Debby paused by the entrance to read a New Yorker article about this “only in New York” place, Eli and Michael walked in. The old bird spotted them. He was not a happy bird. He had been abandoned when the two guys who owned him split up. He saw us and yelled out “I’ve got a yeast infection!” “What?” said Eli looking up first at the bird and then at Michael. Before he could answer the bird shouted “fuck you.” Instantly Eli responded, “Dad, can we get a bird like that one?” And so we did. We named him Charlie Parker.
Why “Charlie Parker?” you might ask. Every weekday morning there is a wonderful jazz program on the Columbia University radio station, WKCR, hosted by Phil Schaap, a jazz maven to say the least. He knows everything about jazz, all the musicians, their recording sessions and gigs over the years, who played with whom and where.
The show, called “Bird Flight” was dedicated to the music of Charlie Parker, and only Charlie Parker, the great American alto sax player. Parker was nicknamed “Bird.” He originally was called “Yard Bird” because he loved chicken. “Yard Bird” was shortened to Bird. Eli and Debby listened to that program every day on the way to school. When it came time to name our bird, Eli suggested we call him Bird. But then we decided most people wouldn’t get the reference so we named him Charlie Parker, with love and reverence for a great musician.
Charlie was too little and fragile to bring home so we left him at the store for about ten weeks to be fed and cared for until he was fully feathered and eating regular food. When there is no parent bird, the babies are hand fed a mixture similar to what the parent would regurgitate into their little crops. This is done with a plastic syringe. There is a danger that the baby formula will be squirted into the trachea rather than the esophagus, hurting the baby bird.
We were not trained or prepared to take that chance. We knew nothing about African Gray parrots or any parrot, and had an oversized gray cat at home. But we were really taken with the adorable little creatures and felt we were up to the challenge, even if we didn’t quite know what the challenge might be. We learned quickly, but that is part of the story.
Males and females are monomorphic
The Urban Bird was not far from our law office. We went to visit Charlie every day at lunchtime to hold him and talk to him so he would get used to us. We purchased a beautiful big cage, toys, dishes, food, and at the age of ten weeks we brought Charlie home. Nancy Chambers, the owner of the Urban Bird, had raised Charlie thus far. She turned him over to us, gave us final instructions on the care and feeding of our new charge and has been our friend and bird counselor ever since.
Most Grays are about a foot long and weigh about a pound. Their brains are about the size of a shelled walnut. Males and females are monomorphic, that is they look alike. There are subtle differences but the only way to make a definitive determination is with a DNA test. We never bothered to do it, although we think he is a male. Eli says that if Charlie lays an egg we’ll change his name to Charlotte.
Charlie quickly became a part of our family, got used to our daily routines, including departures for work and school and to our habits at home. When he was one year old he said his first word… “hello”. He’s a great talker with a keen ear. That first word was quickly followed by many others.
African Gray parrots are very smart. In adulthood they are said to have the mental capacity of a five year old human, but the emotional development of a two year old. When he was young, Charlie went through the “terrible twos”. He was hard to be with. He bit a lot, which can be very painful. He screeched. We even considered giving him away. But we stuck with him and he grew out of it.
Parrots bond with one mate for life. Since we were his flock it would be one of us. The issue was settled when Charlie, sitting on Michael’s index finger, bent down and bit him hard. “You son-of-a-bitch”, Michael exclaimed and reflexively dropped the poor bird. Charlie never forgot it. He and Michael have long since patched things up, but Charlie bonded with Debby. He even tries to feed her, so that she will lay a good egg. Although she rebuffs his attempts, he still loves her. And when he is mad he still says “you son-of-a-bitch” in Michael’s voice.
This may be a good time to point out that having a bird is like having a toddler who is learning to talk. You have to be careful of what you say. Anything emphatic might become a part of his repertoire. And if Charlie really likes a phase, be it serious or a joke, he will learn it and never forget. As a teenager, Eli thought it would be funny to get Charlie saying, “I’m gonna kick your ass!” Charlie liked it…
“Clean my cage. Sweep the floor.”
Charlie has his habits and routines too. Once a day, in the afternoon, Charlie unburdens himself with every phrase and song he knows, going on and on until it could make you crazy or you leave the room. Sometimes in his rant he exclaims, “You’re an animal!” Eli tries to divert him by whistling, clicking or making kissing noises, all sounds Charlie likes and will imitate and interact with. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Like all parrots, Charlie loves to play and make conversation with words or sounds. And he loves to eat wooden toys and scatter the debris. In the wild, many bird species eat fruit and scatter the seeds, helping the plants in their life cycle. Charlie throws his food. He’s a messy bird whose surroundings are in constant need of custodial attention. Charlie has learned to command:
“Clean my cage. Sweep the floor.”
Eli says that Charlie likes to self-affirm daily, saying, “What a good bird. What a gorgeous bird. What a fine bird. Charlie fine bird.” Maybe we should all try this. Maybe we should have named him Charlie Feinbird?
Because Charlie lives in his big cage in our living room he is at the center of whatever is happening at home. He pays close attention to what we are doing. When Debby gets up in the morning and roams out to greet him he says “Hi, dear” in Michael’s tone of voice. If Michael coughs, Charlie clears his throat. If Debby is tired and sits down, Charlie sighs. Michael is hard of hearing and Debby has a soft voice. Often when Debby says something Michael will say “what?” It has gotten to the point now that when Debby says something Charlie says “what?”
But mostly he pays attention to meals. Charlie has a hearty appetite and a broad but distinct palate. If he really likes what he is eating he’ll pause mid-bite and say “Is it good? It’s delicious.” He expects to be fed first and get more if he says “want some” or “want some chicken”, chicken being generic for whatever he’s eating.
Wild African Grays eat flowers, fruits, seeds, stems, leaves, roots and soil for the minerals. Charlie eats seed cakes, pellets, fruits, nuts, vegetables and whatever we are eating; breakfast, lunch and dinner.
He loves chicken, just like his namesake, Charlie “Bird” Parker. It is his favorite food and the idea of it must run through his mind often. Speaking slowly one day, as though he had really thought about it, he announced “I love chicken”. We never taught him to say the word “chicken” – he picked it up on his own, out of shear obsession and combined it with the words “I love” which he had learned separately. He also taught himself to say “Want some chicken.” His culinary fixation is kind of sick if you think about it.
Do you remember the old days, before online food ordering? When you dialed the restaurant on your landline and placed your order for delivery? One night, Charlie kept asking for chicken, again and again, but Debby was busy and not paying attention. Finally he decided he would take matters into his own hands, so to speak. He would order out. He would do what he had heard us doing. First he dialed: “Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. Hello!”
“I want chicken” -pause- and then “945-xxxx” our phone number. “Thanks. Bye. Beep”. He was sure that in a half hour the Chinese restaurant would deliver what he wanted just like they did when we called. For a time when we would get home from work at dinnertime Charlie would say “Let’s order out.”
He has other food favorites. Charlie also calls out for apples and water, and says “want some orange juice” which he will drink from a spoon. He also asks “want a beer?” He’s never had that but likes to be hospitable.
Passover is a favorite meal. He likes matzo balls and brisket, gefilte fish and chopped liver, and salad with dressing. He’ll eat pizza and loves eggs, scrambled or over easy. It’s fun to watch Charlie eat noodles. He grips them like a bouquet and pulls them up through his claw as he eats, chomp chomp with his beak. Birds like Charlie can’t have chocolate, avocado, sugar, or drink coffee or alcohol. Otherwise he eats healthy stuff from our table. We even take a “doggie” bag home from restaurants for him.
In the 28 years that we have lived with Charlie we have shared with him many important life events. But until the current pandemic, none were more momentous and terrible than 9/11.
On the morning of 9/11 Michael was supposed to meet our friend R. John Pellaton for breakfast at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of 1 World Trade Center. They were to meet at eight o’clock. The first plane hit that building at 8:46. But R. John had a meeting and called just before to cancel the breakfast. So we were still at home in our building, just across the West Side Highway from the Towers when the first crash shook our apartment.
The reports were that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. When it shook it again we thought we were being bombed. We actually saw the underbelly of the second plane from our living room window as it banked over the Hudson River and flew north past our building and into the second Tower. We went down to the street to check things out as the first Tower came down. If it had fallen over sideways it would have crushed us. But it came down on itself. We scrambled back to our apartment.
The air filled with gray smoke, paper and particles were swirling around our apartment building. It looked like we were inside a tornado. We looked out the window but couldn’t see a thing. It was literally dark as a mine. Then it cleared. Everything was covered in a layer of thick white dust. Soon the second tower came down.
A second blackout. We were lucky to be home so we could shut all the windows. It was a beautiful September day and many people had left their windows open before going to work. They came back to ruined apartments, filled, inundated with toxic dust.
With Charlie and our big sixteen pound cat Moe we weren’t very portable, so we stayed put the first night. We were actually so freaked out we didn’t know what to do or where to go. We tried to get our car but the parking garage door was electric and wouldn’t work since the electrical generator has in building two of the World Trade Center. Everyone in our building left except for us, Moe, Charlie, and a blind bass player on the 6th floor.
The FBI rousted us the next morning demanding that we vacate, saying it was dangerous. There was also no electricity or water. We left large Moe for later retrieval, having been told there would be an animal rescue van we would have access to, packed up Charlie in his traveling cage, and headed up to the Village to our friends Michael Ratner and Karen Ranucci, who we reached by cell phone.
Everything was blanketed with a thick layer of toxic dust, the ash from the ruins of the buildings and their contents. We trudged north with Charlie swinging in his cage. “It’s O.K. It’s O.K.” he assured everyone we encountered along the way. But it was not O.K. We almost lost him. Five weeks later Debby and Eli, now nine years older and home for fall break from Oberlin College where he was a sophomore, noticed that Charlie kept closing his eyes and nodding out. He even fell off his perch.
We rushed him to The Animal Medical Center on the upper east side where – only in New York – they have a specialist vet who cares for parrots. She checked him out, put him on an I.V., and kept him overnight. This was serious. Think canary in the mine shaft. Parrots are very fragile. Because of their small size, high metabolism, lack of body fat, and efficient respiratory systems birds can die quickly when exposed to airborne toxins. By the next morning however he was doing much better and could come home. When we called to ask how he was doing the doctor said she guessed he was feeling better because he had just bit her assistant.
She also said, “That will be $900 please.” Michael replied, “But he was a victim of terrorism.” “Just a second,” said the doctor, and hustled down the hall. She came back to the phone and informed us that she had consulted with her superior and that a fund had been set up for animal victims of terrorism and that “there will be no charge.” She gave Debby some antibiotics to administer and Charlie was nursed back to health. Moe the cat died of cancer three years later. Charlie still asks “Where’s Moe?” and meows. Michael got cancer too. He was diagnosed in 2011, had radiation, two surgeries and is now fine.
We later learned that Christine Todd Whitman, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, along with Rudy Giuliani who fashioned himself as “America’s Mayor” knew that the area was poisonous but misinformed the public, announcing that it was safe to return. Why? Because they wanted to get Wall Street up and running.
Our office was kitty-corner from where the World Trade Center used to be. After 9/11 we lost it for a year. Contamination. We could have found another office downtown, but we could not get phone service. So six weeks after 9/11 we moved all our files out of our office building and took them home. A big strong police officer from Staten Island with a tattoo on his arm and a flashlight in hand helped us schlepp them all down from a darkened fourth floor suite and we took them to our apartment several blocks away in Battery Park City on the other end of the World Trade Center ruins.
We practiced law right there in our living room, with all our files stacked up near Charlie’s cage. Running an office with Charlie as a participant was really a challenge. Every phone call was an opportunity for him to say “Hi, it’s Mike Smith, how are ya?” Or recite our phone number. One day Debby was on the phone with an insurance adjustor trying to settle a case. The guy was giving her a hard time. He was loud and rude. Charlie loves Debby. He is very protective. He heard the guy on the phone and was getting increasingly agitated, pacing back and forth on his perch. He couldn’t stand it. Finally he yelled out, in Michael’s tone of voice, real loud so the guy could hear him, “I’m gonna kick your ass, you son-of-a-bitch.” The guy said “What?” But Debby said she didn’t think they had anything further to discuss and hung up on him, figuring she wouldn’t amuse him with a story about a bird who was right on.
Without wanting to be tiresome, there is one other “son-of-a-bitch” story to tell. Charlie sings. Not whole songs, but good chunks of them. He knows parts of the old rock ‘n roll number “Get a Job…get a job, dada, dada”. Our building’s superintendent, Louis, a gentleman, but like most supers, not that busy, was up in our place one morning fixing the radiator. He walks in and Charlie spots him and says “Get a job, you son-of-a-bitch.” Louis was both genuinely insulted and amused and went around the building telling people about the Smith’s bird. We felt bad about it. When we got home that night every neighbor we met said “I hear Charlie called Louis a son-of-a-bitch!”
He also sings “You Are My Sunshine”, a song written and made popular by a former governor of Louisiana who was also a country & western singer in the 1930’s. It goes “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray.” Sometimes Charlie telescopes phrases, truncating them. Hilda, who comes to clean on Tuesday mornings is a big fan of Charlie’s and he looks forward to her arrival, asking “Where’s Hilda?” A religious person, she goes to Catholic church every morning before work.
Hilda comes in the apartment door, down the hall and into the living room. Charlie is sitting up high, on top of his cage. “Hola, Charlie,” says Hilda. “Hola, Hilda,” says Charlie. Perhaps Charlie was thinking of “You Are My Sunshine” when he then intoned, “You are my son, my only son.” Like the annunciation, but this time from a parrot. Hilda says Charlie is full of surprises.
Charlie knows he is a bird, and he likes the word “bird.” He uses it where he can. He taught himself to say, “Charlie is a bird.” Charlie also sings “Home on the Range,” but doesn’t quite get it right. “Home, home on the range, where the antelope bird is heard” and then he trails off in a kind of whistle. He also does one bar of “I’m an Old Cowhand”. Michael tried to teach him “Istanbul was Constantinople”, but he would break down into a paroxysm of guttural “ka ka ka ka” sounds every time he tried Constantinople. He blew the hard “K” sound in “The Internationale” as well, to the disappointment of our household. He would try “‘Tis the final ka ka ka ka”. He just couldn’t get “conflict” out of his beak. But he redeemed himself by learning to whistle the song, out of tune like Michael, but passably and recognizably. When our friends Bill Schaap and Ellen Ray were over visiting, Charlie started whistling that great anthem of the international working class and they were incredulous, exclaiming, “He’s whistling ‘The Internationale'”, as we beamed pridefully.
Debby thought it would be a good idea to teach Charlie a new song. We settled on “Down by the Riverside.”
“Gonna lay down my sword and shield,
Down by the riverside,
Gonna study war no more”
Debby sang this to him endlessly. But alas all he would do is yell out “WAR, WAR”. So we abandoned the project.
Michael tried to teach Charlie the Bessie Smith song “Give Me a Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer”. Around that time, Eli brought his young friend Jeremy Kohn home from grade school. As they walked through the front door, Charlie unburdened himself with the only line in the whole song he had mastered, “Check all your razors, and your guns!” Jeremy shook his head saying to Eli, “only at your house”.
Today, as both Michael and Debby are getting into the movies at the senior rate, Charlie on occasion reflects philosophically and lamentably, “enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think, the years go by, more quickly than a wink” – the chorus of another old favorite pop song.
When we leave town and can’t take Charlie with us, we bring him over to Nancy Chambers, our friend who used to own the Urban Bird. She is an excellent and passionate aviculturist and tells Charlie she is “Aunt Nancy”, of course, because she nursed him along when he was featherless and just out of the egg. Charlie likes to go over to her apartment which has a place set aside to board birds. We say to him, “Want to go see Aunt Nancy?” and he raises one foot. He’s ready to go.
‘YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE‘
Charlie has a friend over there. Rusty. He’s an African Gray, ten years younger than Charlie, and under Charlie’s influence, if not wing. Charlie has taught Rusty some of his repertoire. When Nancy’s phone rings, Rusty yells out “Hi, it’s Mike Smith, can you hear me?” in Michael’s tone of voice. Like Charlie, he also says “tickle, tickle”. Charlie raises one wing and commands “Tickle my pits”, but Rusty isn’t there yet.
One night we drove back from somewhere and Debby retrieved Charlie at Nancy’s apartment. Charlie and Debby took the long elevator ride down to the lobby, making frequent stops from Nancy’s high floor. Charlie was in a friendly mood, secure in his small travel cage, saying “hello” to people when they got on and “goodbye” when they got off. But if that wasn’t enough to cause a stir in the crowded elevator, the entrance of a dog started Charlie meowing, which he learned from Moe, the cat.
His mischief making didn’t stop there. When Debby got off the elevator in our building and started carrying him down the hall towards our apartment, they passed a young delivery man who was delivering food from the local diner to a neighbor down the hall. Debby knew him because he delivered food to us too. As she was walking past him, Charlie, concealed in his little carrying cage, started making kissing noises. Debby apologized, saying it was the bird, but the man was incredulous and didn’t know what to believe.
When Charlie was nine years old, we decided to buy an old farm house in the Catskill mountains, north of New York City. We had friends in the area and thought we would all enjoy having this funky little place where we could hike, bike, swim and have an organic vegetable garden. Six months later came 9/11 and we were very grateful that we had this haven to escape to for a while. Of course we bring Charlie with us and he lives in the kitchen where there is a lot of action.
From his cage he can see if company has arrived. One of his favorite guests is our friend Karen Ranucci. When he sees her approaching the back door he starts to jump up and down and sings “Get a job, dada dada “. By the time she is in the kitchen they are both singing and jumping up and down. Charlie loves Karen.
Charlie is not allowed in restaurants. It is against the health code. But we recently found, on our way to the farm, a good Portuguese fish restaurant and a Jamaican one down the street with tolerant owners who are not uptight, are fond of birds, and look the other way when we bring him in, in his little traveling cage of course. Charlie has so far been a good dinner guest as long as we share our meal with him.
Not to perpetuate a German stereotype of officious rigidity, but this unfortunately was the case when we took Charlie into a mountain brauhaus roadside restaurant in the Catskills while we were driving up there one cold winter day. We couldn’t leave Charlie in his cage in the car. It was too cold and we were really hungry. We thought we would just put him in his little carrier, sneak him in, cover him and hope he’d keep quiet. All went well at first. We were seated and we ordered. Debby had Charlie in his carrier on her lap covered by the table cloth.
All of a sudden Charlie erupted yelling out “Where are you?” Again and again. He sounds like Michael. People from all over the restaurant were looking at our table, wondering who is that crazy man making such a racquet? The very officious manager came over to question Debby. He was not happy. He asked her “Madam, what is that you have on your lap?” She tried to explain: “We were hungry. This is such a nice restaurant. It’s cold outside and I thought our little parrot would be quiet inside his carrier.” This didn’t fly. “It’s against the health regulations.”
Debby: “But he is inside his carrier!”
Manager: “I will let you stay because you have already ordered. But never again!”
He was right. We never again went there.
Charlie appreciates company, the more the merrier. So when we were asked by a friend who had been the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union and was running for Public Advocate if we would host a fundraiser for him we said we would be happy to. We just hoped Charlie would behave himself as the speaker would be standing in front of his cage.
The evening arrived and we were ready; wine, cheese, standing room only for about 60 people in our living room. It was packed. Charlie paced back and forth on his perch, occasionally fluffing his feathers and jumping up and down. He was happy with the turnout. And so was our friend. It looked like a promising night.
Debby welcomed everyone, spoke of the importance of the Public Advocate office in a big city like New York, and hoped everyone would give generously. Now it was our friend’s turn. He listed his past accomplishments and his qualifications for this office. He explained his platform. He is a serious person and his delivery was, well, serious. With emphasis he said he would make a very good Public Advocate. He paused. Charlie said sarcastically, “Sure.” There were a few little laughs in the audience. The candidate went on to summarize his considerable qualifications for the job and ended up saying with great feeling, “I will make the best Public Advocate because I know what the people want!” Charlie, with equal feeling and emphasis chimed in, “Want some chicken!” Our serious friend was not amused, “I didn’t think I would be competing with a bird”. Our guests howled with laughter and in fact are still talking about the night Charlie added his version of “a chicken in every pot” to a candidate’s program. Although we raised some serious money for his campaign that night, our friend didn’t win, but he went on to advocate for and represent poor New Yorkers for the rest of his legal career.
As you would expect, Charlie has a whole nighttime routine when he’s ready to go to sleep. When he’s tired at day’s end he says “Wanna go sleep”. He will say it repeatedly if he has to. In fact, he’ll also say “Wanna go sleep” during the day to get us to come over to his cage. But at night he gets weary. Grays sleep a lot, they are not night owls. So around 9:30pm he’ll command “wanna go sleep” and the routine starts. Then he’ll say “want some water” so we change the water in his dish. He’ll command “sweep the floor” and “clean my cage.”
Then he commands “cover my cage” and then “turn out the light”. Before we cover his cage with a faded green cotton bed sheet, he hangs onto the side and demands,”tickle my nose, tickle my toes, tickle tickoes.” Sometimes he’ll say, “Wanna mushky” (rhymes with push) which means a scratch on the head. So we’ll tell him to “put your keppe (Yiddish for ‘little head’) down” which he does immediately and waits for the mushky. Other times he’ll demand “tickle my pits” and lift his wings so we can tickle him under his wings. When we put the sheet over his cage he asks “where are you?” We’ll then raise the corner of the sheet and he says “peek-a-boo.”
One night Charlie was especially imperious with Debby, ordering her around. “Clean my cage” and “want some water” and “sweep the floor” and “turn off the light”. Debby was exasperated. “What am I, your slave?” she asked. In the 1950s there was a horrible segregationist racist named Earl Long, who was the governor of Louisiana. He was a little demented. Actually more than a little. He was having an affair with a stripper named Blaze Starr when his wife had him committed, twice. The marvelous comedian Lenny Bruce satirized him without mercy. He did a bit about Long in his Louisiana home with his African-American maid. In those days being the “colored maid” was one of the few roles open to Black actresses. The very talented Hattie McDowell had to take the part. She played a maid named Beulah in “Gone With the Wind”.
Bruce made up a story about the Governor at home. Hallucinating and off his rocker he tells the maid “Yo free Beulah”. So when Charlie was ordering Debby around Michael yelled out “Yo free Beulah.” The name stuck in Charlie’s brain. Now he calls Debby “Beulah”.
Charlie loves company, interaction and dialogue. Generally our guests are fascinated by him and greatly amused. They sing, talk and whistle to him. When Michael’s cousin Natalia visited from Budapest, she sang “Some Where Over the Rainbow” to him. He learned it with her accent… “Some Vhere ohvair ze Rainbow”. Our friends Gayle and Paul are great singers and Gayle is a terrific whistler. Unlike Michael who can’t keep a tune, she taught Charlie a melodious rendition of The Internationale and for the summer they stayed with us Charlie whistled it perfectly.
Every day is an adventure with Charlie. It is a bit like living with a small child. You have to pay attention and make sure they’re ok, especially if there is another pet in the house.
Having a bird and a cat together may seem like not the best mix. But Moe was so lazy and self absorbed that he didn’t pay much attention to Charlie. He also wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box. Charlie seemed to know this and he teased Moe a lot. He’d whistle for Moe and say in Michael’s tone of voice, “Come here Moe, come here,” as though he had a treat for him. One morning Moe did go over to the cage and Charlie beaned him with a tasty bit of scrambled egg. Let’s be honest, Charlie pooped on Moe too. But even Moe had his limits.
This was evident the day Debby saved Charlie’s life. One morning we both were still in bed. Charlie had figured out a way to dismantle the lock on his cage and he got out. We could hear him outside of our bedroom door desperately pleading, “Wanna come up. Wanna come up!” Debby knew something was wrong. She jumped out of bed and ran across the room to the door, flung it open, and there was Charlie, one foot raised to come up, with Moe roused and ready, right behind him, about to pounce. Debby grabbed Charlie just in time and he got a new lease on his long life.
A story came out in the Times of London some years ago about Winston Churchill’s parrot. It seems that after Churchill died the parrot was passed from person to person but the reporter was able to track it down. It was then 102 years old and still talked in Churchill’s tone of voice, gruffly stating, “Fuck the Nazis.” Churchill must have been very proud of his bird.
The world of parrot intelligence is no longer so unknown thanks to the studies of Professor Irene Pepperberg and her co-workers at their lab at Harvard. She has worked with many birds, but her longest and greatest collaboration was with a Gray named Alex, short for Avian Learning Experiment. Pepperberg taught her bird Alex to identify shapes, colors, count up to six, add, subtract, identify objects, recognize and understand Arabic numerals, and amazingly enough the concept of “none”. Alex understood the concepts of bigger and smaller, same and different. He did not just mimic or follow Irene’s cues. Dr. Pepperberg’s research with Alex proved that parrots are not mere mimics, that they use words appropriately, that they really know what they are saying.
Alex’s level of comprehension was on par with that of a chimpanzee or a dolphin. Irene demonstrated through experiments with Alex that, as she wrote in her book “Alex and Me”, “animal minds are a great deal more like human minds than the vast majority of behavioral scientists believed”.
Intelligence comes in endless forms. Animals use instinct, but also think and feel. Commonsense told us that but many scientists were opposed to the notion. Pepperberg wrote, “Alex taught me that we live in a world populated by thinking conscious creatures, not human thinking, not human consciousness, but not mindless automatons sleepwalking through their lives either.” Bird brains are different structurally from humans. Bird and human brains diverged evolutionarily more than 300 million years ago. Birds don’t have a cerebral cortex. They possess cognitive abilities despite having a brain that is non-human and non-mammal.
Alex was not only intelligent but possessed emotional depth. He could express thoughts about the world we shared with him. The last night he was with Irene, as she was locking up and leaving the lab he said, “I love you.” He passed away later that night.
But our bird Charlie, who we don’t train per se, is just a member of the family and picks up what interests him. Sometimes it seems his verbal ramblings reflect a great deal of consideration. Like the day he announced thoughtfully, and all on his own, “I love chicken.” Something he never heard from us, but he does love chicken. Or more amazing was the day he said “Biting is ROICE.” “Roice” we thought? What is “roice?”
Then it came to us. He sometimes bites and we say firmly “No biting. Biting is wrong.” We also tell him that he is a “nice bird.” “What a nice bird you are” and we pet him. What if he knows that biting is wrong but he wants to do it nevertheless and gets a certain satisfaction from biting? Well then, biting is wrong but also nice -hence- “roice”, a combination of both his feelings and words. This is called a “lexical elision”. Alex did the same thing by putting together “banana” and “cherry”, coming up with “bannery”. It was what he called an apple.
Parrots pass on their knowledge to younger birds, even when that knowledge comes from a human source or human society. Birds across the globe, including starlings, warblers, finches, mocking birds and even the fawn-breasted bower bird of Papua New Guinea have begun mimicking human sounds, such as car alarms or construction noise, and teaching it to their young. In Dr. Pepperberg’s lab, Alex would tell younger Grays to “talk better” when they mumbled their words.
Since Charlie has bonded most closely with Debby he covets her time and attention. If we have company and he sees others getting more of this than he thinks they should, he pulls the tried and true two-year old approach. He squawks, then he whistles his most shrill annoying smoke alarm whistle. If she was too dense to realize he needed her attention surely she will understand it now, right?
Last fall Debby slipped and broke her hip and was taken to the hospital. Charlie was bereft. Debby had been photographing butterflies. Monarch butterflies for years flew north from Mexico to the Catskill mountains of New York where we have our little farm. But a terrible storm nearly wiped them out when it hit the valley in Mexico where they settle in millions over the winter. Their habitats are also being destroyed. Only recently have a few Monarchs returned to the Catskills. We grew milkweed for them to feed on, where the caterpillars spin their cocoons.
The caterpillars had emerged as butterflies from their chrysalises. Debby was thrilled and took photos of them first in the backyard and then followed them around to the front where she slipped on a walkway flag of slippery bluestone, breaking her hip. She ended up in the hospital for six days.
Charlie kept asking for her. “Where is Beulah ?” “Where is Beulah?” Then it came to Michael, Charlie needed to hear her voice. So Michael called the hospital on his cell phone, got Debby on the line, and put the phone inside Charlie’s cage. Charlie cocked his head and was soothed by her voice reassuring him that she would be home soon. He settled down.
We wanted to sell our apartment in Battery Park City, retire, take the money, and rent a place in Brooklyn near Eli. So we put it on the market. No takers. We lowered the price. Finally we got some interest. A well off young couple from South Africa who worked in finance and had two young children came to check it out. We were not allowed to be there for the showing but we heard the story from our real estate agent.
The couple walked in accompanied by their little girl. Charlie was in his cage in a corner of the living room. They came in the door, turned right, and walked down the hallway into the living room. Charlie said “hello”. The little girl approached the cage. Charlie looked down and asked, “do you want a beer?” She was enchanted.
When they left Charlie said, “goodbye”. They wound up buying the apartment. We had to disappoint the little girl, advising that the bird did not come with the sale.
April 10, 2017 was Charlie’s 25th birthday. Why not have a big party to celebrate? Trump had just gotten elected. We felt we needed to do something silly, even ridiculous. So we did. We threw a birthday party for Charlie at the Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Charlie was on stage, unfazed and unflappable, fluffing his feathers and happily bobbing up and down.
We put it together with our friend Ellen Ratner. She loves Charlie. Ellen got a commemorative birthday T-shirt designed and produced with Charlie’s photo on the front announcing, “Laid in Miami; Hatched in New York. April l0, l992”. And on the back, the motto “Birds of a Feather”. We distributed the shirt at the front door as people walked in to the theater.
Charlie loved being the center of attention. Stella, age 3, unexpectedly sprang up on the stage next to Charlie and welcomed everyone. There were about 70 people there. Then a number of children came up on to the stage and circled Charlie, peering in to the cage. He remained unfazed, enjoying all the attention.
Next, Eli stood near Charlie and prompted him. Together they sang two of his favorite songs, “You Are My Sunshine” and “Home on the Range.” Charlie singing his version, “Home on the range where the deer and the antelope bird is heard”. It all ended with the traditional happy birthday song, Charlie’s favorite number. He likes to sing “Happy birthday, bird!” We served an Italian three colored cake, custom decorated for the party with Charlie’s name in bird seed and we made a champaign toast: “Here’s to Charlie”.
Every day has its predictable rhythm with our bird. When we get up and uncover his cage he says “Hi, dear” or “Want some orange juice?” After he is fed he insists “Wanna come up.” We carry him around and share some of our breakfast. He loves fruit, toast, scrambled eggs, or a bit of blueberry muffin. If we are going out he knows the signs. He starts saying with resignation “Well, o.k., goodbye.” Charlie has keen hearing, as well as eyesight and smell. He can hear people outside our door in the hallway. Our neighbors tell us that Charlie interacts with them while they wait for the elevator by whistling, singing, or asking them if they want a beer.
Sometimes he’ll take a bath, jumping in and out of his water dish like a Russian Kazotsky dancer. He soaks his feet and splashes water under his wings, and everywhere else. He really likes it.
Charlie looks forward to dinner and is an enthusiastic diner. We like to share meals with him, he so enjoys himself. Soon after we clean up Charlie gets tired and says, “time to go sleep.” Then the nightly cleaning and bedtime ritual begins.
The ritual ends at last with his saying “nite nite” under the sheet. Charlie stands on one leg, puts his head under his wing, closes his eyes and sleeps. But if we stay up too late making noise in the living room he’ll command, “Eli, go to bed.”
Twenty-eight years ago we had no idea we would be spending the rest of our lives with Charlie. African Gray parrots in captivity can live a human life span.
The common ancestor of parrots and humans lived in a different era of our planet in distant geologic time. That’s when our branches split. So to be able to talk meaningfully with Charlie across that great chasm is magical indeed.
Koko the gorilla died in 2018 at age 46. She was an icon for inter-species communication and empathy. She learned sign language and understood some 2,000 words in spoken English. She could easily keep up with a conversation.
Irene Pepperberg’s wonderful bird Alex has also died, in 2007 at the premature age of 3l. His amazing abilities became well known across the globe. When he died thousands of people wrote to Irene with expressions of solidarity for her loss, and theirs. It was extraordinary how Alex touched so many lives.
In the USA Grays are one of the most popular species of bird pets. Across the planet parrots have been pets for more than 4,000 years, although they were never systematically bred like dogs or cats. There are images of pet parrots in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Noble Greek and Roman families had pet parrots. Alexander the Great had one 2,300 years ago. So did Henry VIII. Portuguese sailors liked their company on long voyages. In 1866, Edouard Manet painted one of his favorite models, posing with a Gray parrot.
Devastation is being visited upon much of central Africa from east to west where Grays come from. They are victims of limitless greed and desperation. The economic whip drives poachers in Nigeria. A wild African Gray can bring hundreds of dollars. Now there are very few Grays left in the country. Today, Grays retail in the USA for at least $l,500.
It has been illegal to bring trapped wild parrots into the USA since l993 and it is also illegal under international law but they continue tobe exported from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. One third of parrot species worldwide are endangered.
Wild fires raged in Australia bringing a fiery end to 2019.
Scientists estimated that over half a billion creatures were killed including many Australian magpies. As the fires tore through countryside the magpies were heard pitifully making the sounds of rescue vehicles, but to no avail. Their habitat went up in flames so powerful that the inferno could be seen from space. Human have induced rapid climate change and the threat of a mass extinction of species, not seen since the end of the Cretaceous period 145 million years ago. At this critical time, we are intensely aware of our commonality and interconnectedness with other beings and with nature.
THE STEWARDS OF NATURE
Cats, dogs and farm animals have been truly domesticated for more than 10,000 years. Human breeding has changed their behavior and morphology profoundly. Our life with Charlie has highlighted the interconnectedness we have with a nearly wild animal, in captivity for only a couple of generations, a descendant dinosaurs, a non-mammal whose shelled walnut sized brain evolved separately from ours.
Humans since Aristotle have placed themselves on top of the animal hierarchy and apart from nature. We thought we were different and superior. This false belief has philosophical and ethical implications. After 28 years of life with Charlie our family now better understands that we are stewards of nature as well as companions of a magical avian.
For additional reading, we recommend, Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg
To fund Dr. Pepperberg’s work, please visit:
To fund wild parrot rescue and habit rehabilitation please visit:
story copyrighted by Debbie and Michael Smith
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