Excerpt: Bite Me
Feigning Julie Andrews, and Life with a Psycho Bird
If, way back when, someone had suggested to me that I would find myself playing a bizarre game of chicken repeatedly throughout each day for twenty-plus years, I’d have laughed and rolled my eyes.
But that was before a gangly, patchily-feathered and terrified baby African Gray parrot plopped ungracefully into my neat little life. Despite it being the worst possible timing -tasked as my husband and I already were with a newborn-we took on the responsibility of raising not only a demanding parrot, but a demanding wild parrot, which, at times, is akin to attempting to domesticate a rattlesnake.
It hasn’t been all snake-charming, however. Sure our parrot brought with her some unexpected challenges, but she’s added plenty of laughter, along with the angst and bird poop. This is the story of an unlikely alliance, of a creature who arrived at our doorstep by default. Like a stubborn adoptee who resents the family who chose to bring her into the fold, our parrot has taught us much about acceptance, about the importance of commitment, and frankly, about how much bird excrement is tolerable on one’s living room floor before it’s time to get scrubbing.
Let me give you a sense of what I mean by “playing chicken.”
It’s bedtime-the hour at which a mother tries to lure her children to bed, a task often met with resistance. In normal households, you might sing a lullaby to a petulant child to calm them down. So it’s not a stretch to consider singing one to a petulant parrot.
Exhausted from a day of being a mom to three kids, a wife, and the one-in-charge of our two dogs, a cat and a bird, I close up the house for the night, eager to go to sleep. The doors are locked, lights (nearly) out, kids are in bed, but the most daunting task still awaits me. I wander to our parrot Graycie’s cage and brace myself. She is happily ensconced on her very own tree, one that takes up some quite prominent real estate in the middle of our home and that we put there to appease an annoyingly intelligent bird completely bent on dissing us every which way to Sunday if she doesn’t get what she wants. (Not that we let a bird control us. We’d be crazy to do that, right?)
My strategy-and there must be a strategy, in the interest of salvaging my digits-is thus: I extract the food and water bowls from the cage, rinse and fill them with fresh food and water, then replace them in the cage, hoping to lure her in with a meal. And then I gird my defenses: I butt the cage up to Graycie’s special tree (her daytime residence) and tell her it’s bedtime. Then I wait. If after a few minutes Graycie doesn’t take the hint and meander on over to the cage-her de facto prison for the past two decades-I then have to tempt her. With myself. I tap on the cage, hoping the noise will lure her over. But often she’s perfectly happy to just hang out on that tree, thank you very much. So I move onto plan C: I stick my fingers through the cage and wiggle them, making loud note of the fact that my finger decoy is there, like a human fishing lure taunting that elusive bass. Always, always, always, that does it. Graycie is off like a shot, moving toward me faster than a kid on the lunch line at a fat camp, hoping to take a fortuitous chomp out of my exposed flesh.
But I’m not one to let a tiny little bird-half my age and I won’t even go into how much less than my weight she might be-get the better of me. I retract my fingers. She’s right there, awaiting my next move. As if engaged in a violent game of chess, I have to outwit her every maneuver, and this is the most important moment in the match: closing the cage.
Often I’ll divert her attention to the other side of the cage by whistling her favorite tune, feigning indifference. I’ve learned over the years that my perceived indifference toward her breeds ambivalence toward me. This knowledge is a precious weapon in my arsenal. She shoots like a snake toward the side I’m on, and I quickly hop back to the other side, placing my two very vulnerable hands atop the cage, squeezing the metal openings together, and slamming the top down for the night, always careful not to crush her claws in the process. I manage this just in time for her to thrust herself back where I am, seemingly apparating from place to place faster than the speed of light, her beak jamming at every angle through the cage, hoping to get one more stab at me.
Cage safely closed, I can soon retreat to bed without yet again having to seek the omnipresent first aid kit.
But first, a little lullaby.
I toss the dark sheet atop the cage-this being the one thing that will encourage a comfortable sleep for Graycie, and a good eight hours of peace for the rest of us. Then I lift up one side of the sheet, position my face up close to hers-but just out of pecking distance-and begin to sing:
So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night…
Julie Andrews, I am not. But within two notes, Graycie’s curious head is cocked my way. Her aggression has given way to enthusiasm. She tempts me, tipping her head forward and offering up the back of her feathered neck for a little scratch, among friends. I resist, knowing as I do that such a gesture could be intended as a bait-and-switch as much as it could be a charitable peace offering. I don’t dare take her up on it. I continue singing:
I hate to go and leave this pretty sight
Do doodle do do do do do Do oodle do do do do…
By the first “doodle” Graycie has joined in with her own doodle doo, and we’re singing in unison. The captor and the captive, the hunter and the hunted. You decide which is which. I continue:
So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu
Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu
Do doodle do do do do do Do oodle do do do do…
And now Graycie is bobbing her head, moving to the beat, thoroughly entranced with the tune. I can practically see her in a dirndl skirt, hands politely clasped, pin curls tight in her hair (make that feathers).
So long, farewell, au revoir, auf wiedersehen
I’d like to stay and taste my first champagne
Do doodle do do do do do Do oodle do do do do
Graycie is rubbing her head against the cage. Come on, Jen, pet me she seems to say. She joins along, “singing” in murmured tones that sound like background din at a cocktail party:
I leave and heave a sigh and say goodbye – Goodbye!
Do doodle do do do do do Do oodle do do do do
I’m glad to go, I cannot tell a lie
I flit, I float, I fleetly flee, I fly
Do doodle do do do do do Do oodle do do do do
Finally, I can’t help myself. I’m too tempted by the Siren’s lure. With apprehension I reach a finger toward the nape of her neck, ever so carefully proceeding to scratch. For a fleeting second I think she’s going to relax and enjoy the gesture. But like a quick-tempered husband, apologizing for the back-hand he’s about to give his wife, she twists her head and clamps her beak down, so fleeting an action that anyone less savvy about her nature would have been instantly victimized, but I am prepared, and pull back just as the bite is made. Thwarted, she seems disappointed. But I am gleeful and belt out the end of the song, knowing that it also means I’m that much closer to my bedtime.
The sun has gone to bed and so must I
So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
I make a loud smooching sound with my lips and she returns the audible kiss. I finish with, “Say goodnight, Graycie. ‘Goodnight, Graycie’,” my own little inside joke, a nod to comedian George Burns, then cover her up for the night, turning off the lights, both of us retreating to a peaceful slumber.
The crazy ritual is complete, and I head to bed with a sense of accomplishment, but knowing that tomorrow will bring with it more of the hunt.
And it does. Only this time, she gets me.
In the morning, I greet Graycie in my usual way, speaking phrases with enough repetition in the hopes that she will pick them up (though I’m still waiting): Good morning, Mr. Plumber! What up, homie bird? Buon giorno, Graycie! Come estai lei? Bene? Benissmo? Ah, va bene. I have a thing for the Italian language. Plus I’d rather she repeat these phrases than some of the more unsavory words she’s heard uttered from my lips. As I open the cage, she’s there. Bright-eyed, refreshed, and ready for volatility. Before I even have a chance to dodge her, she clamps down hard on my thumb.
The pain is deep and unmistakable, as if someone drilled into the bed of my thumbnail with a power tool while scooping out the other end with a razor-sharp melon baller.
Instinctually, I pull my thumb back quickly, enabling the completion of the bite, the chunk of flesh now missing from my thumb apparently lost to the bird’s bloodlust for me.
“SONOFABITCH!” I scream, grabbing a dishtowel to staunch the stream of gushing blood.
I’m a serial curser on a good day, and only need the bidding of some life trauma or stress to ratchet up the level of gutter talk to epic proportions.
Luckily only one of my three children is nearby to bear witness to this reactionary tantrum of mine. But then I realized the true error of my ways. My impulsively-spewed invective is bad enough being belted out in front of an impressionable child. But worse still in the presence of an even more-impressionable parrot with a gift for mimicry, who still, sixteen years later, is asking my once-toddler daughter on a daily basis, “Kendall, do you want some strawberries?” A question the bird heard us ask our daughter occasionally when she was a year old.
Great. Not only did the bird achieve her perpetual goal-maiming with intent to injure permanently. But now I’ve upped the ante and given her a lovely little word to repeat to complete strangers for the next sixty years.
I’m sure this less-than-blissful tableau has caused you to question: why, oh why, would we subject ourselves to the crazy behavior of this parrot for so long? Why, too, would we be so cruel as to imprison a bird-the very symbol of freedom-in a brass cage? And why continue to tend to a creature that is at worst vicious, and at best entertaining but untrustworthy?
The short answer is because it’s the right thing to do. We made a commitment to Graycie long ago. And to us, a commitment is a commitment, in good times and bad. Just like in any relationship between living creatures, things do not always go according to plan. But the right thing to do is to roll with it and do your best to work things through. Did we want to imprison a wild bird for her whole life? Of course not. But once here, she became our responsibility.
The longer answer is that Graycie is as much a part of us as we are of her. Sure, she might be feisty at times. But who isn’t? Would you unload a grumpy grandpa just because he’s prone to temperamental outbursts? Graycie knows us, she speaks to us, she’s lonely when we’re not home, and happy in her own unique I-vant-to-suck-your-blood kind of way when we’re in her company. Whether she’s yelling at the dog or answering the phone or bobbing to the beat of the kids clapping for her amusement, she’s one of us. Our parrot, petulant or not, is a member of our family for the long haul.
But how exactly did this all came about? How did we fall into the unexpected world of unplanned parrothood? Let’s just say that it was a bit like a couple deciding to no longer avoid getting pregnant, just to see where it would lead. We weren’t exactly trying to become parrot-owners, but we also weren’t trying not to. To answer that question more fully, I suppose we have to refer to another song from the Sound of Music.
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start….
The Man in the Yellow Hat
“Look. Don’t blame me because you were kidnapped from the jungles of Africa.”
This sounds like something the man in the yellow hat might say to Curious George. But in my case, it’s a mantra. Something I repeat daily–sometimes ten, fifteen times –to Gracyie. In fact, it’s a wonder she doesn’t repeat it back to me.
Graycie has been a member of our family, albeit a reluctant one, for over nineteen years. She was a gift from my brother-in-law. A gift, I’m fond of saying, which keeps on giving.
Our African gray came to us the Christmas of 1990, shortly after we’d moved into our very first home in Springfield, Virginia, a bedroom community of Washington, DC, four months after the birth of our first child, who was still waking every two to three hours at night, thereby assuring a personal mental incoherency unmatched since. This was back when we were still cloaked in the stupor of new parenthood, bleary-eyed and sleepless, unable to get a handle on one needy two-legged individual who counted upon us for virtually everything, and suddenly, we found ourselves with yet another. Only this one had beady gray eyes, a beak that could snap my finger off, and a wingspan that would eventually extend a full eighteen inches, end to end.
It’s not that we didn’t want Graycie. We did. But as parents of a newborn, we were already wondering if we could trade in the exhausting baby for a pre-trained child with good posture and even better manners. We couldn’t deal with the parrot starter kit that would require multiple all-nighters for assembly: we wanted this sucker neat, sweet, and ready to tweet. We needed a maintenance-free bird–one that would regale us with its uncanny mimicry and not make too much of a mess. I realize now that this is like expecting a baby that never cries.
We probably owe our fascination with parrots to my husband’s childhood in Rio de Janeiro. Scott lived with his sister Laurie, brother Mark, and parents Mia and Keith, in Brazil for several years after his father’s job took him to South America in the late 1960’s. While there, Mark got a green Amazon parrot for his thirteenth birthday. Mengo was a beloved family pet, whose untimely demise prompted Mark to stuff the thing and mount him so he could be perpetually remembered. Now, we currently live in Central Virginia, outside a small city that is surrounded by plenty of quiet countryside. Because of that rural influence and commensurate hunting culture, it’s not at all uncommon to encounter all sorts of dead critters on display in folks’ homes: deer, squirrels, rabbits, even the occasional bear. But I think I can safely assume that Mark’s visitors routinely did a double-take upon encountering the corpse of his soulless parrot staring down at them from the wall of his DC-area home, back when the cadaver used to be on public display.
I suppose I came to the relationship with a modest interest in parrots thanks to my Uncle Bill, who bred parrots years ago and had raised a stunning aquamarine-colored macaw from an egg. This parrot was imprinted from birth by my uncle, and despite his imposing size-macaws can grow to be a foot and a half long with a nearly four-foot wingspan-was an extraordinarily gentle creature. Billy took that bird with him everywhere: to the retail store he managed, on joy-rides in his convertible, on the golf course. He loved it as if it was his child, and the bird reciprocated those feelings: Billy was his father, for all intents and purposes.
So perhaps when Scott and I ended up together, we were both just curious enough about parrots that it was inevitable that, with the help of one generous relative, a feathered friend (or foe) was in our future.
Scott and I met while undergraduates at Penn State through mutual friends. We were dating other people at the time, and didn’t start going out until we were both living in the D.C-area the year after we graduated. I was working on Capitol Hill as an assistant press secretary for a U.S. Senator, and he was working for a federal government contractor for the Agency for International Development. Before we actually started dating, we’d run into one another at social functions all the time and say “Hey, we should get together some time!” But each time we set something up one or the other of us would cancel plans at the last minute. Such was the lifestyle of young professionals in D.C. When we finally got together we realized all that we had in common; we couldn’t figure out what took us so long.
Early on in our relationship I realized that Scott hailed from a pet-friendly family. When I encountered the menagerie of creatures at his parents’ home, where he was living when we first started dating, it included two old and smelly golden retrievers and a couple of cats. Then I met his brother’s latest venture in parrothood: some type of green Amazon parrot named Plato who had the personality of sheetrock and entertained no plans of talking. Plato was best known for cowering and trembling in a corner of his cage. He did not talk, coo, growl, chirp, whistle, or sing. He simply existed. Oh, and crapped a lot.
Meanwhile, I was living with my sorority sister and good friend, Tammy, in Alexandria while working on the Hill. We had a fabulous time rooming together, occasionally threw amazing parties, and greatly enjoyed our yuppie lifestyle. But after over a year of dating it became apparent that it made more sense for me to move closer to Scott, who’d moved in with his two best friends in Arlington. When I wasn’t at work, I was spending my free time at his place, and my costly condo rent on a very meager Congressional staffer’s salary didn’t do my wallet any favors. It didn’t take me long to relocate. I learned that a room had become available in a group house where Mark lived, just minutes from Scott’s townhouse. The house was cozy, cheap and a quick commute into the city, so I jumped at the chance to move in; once I became pseudo-roommates with Scott’s brother (he lived in the basement in a separate unit) I got to spend plenty of time around Mark’s parrot.
Each morning as he left for work, Mark would turn on a parrot training tape for Plato’s education/entertainment. Poor Plato got to listen to that tape, on which Mark had recorded two words on an endless loop, for hours. Even I got sick of hearing “pretty bird” as the words drifted up through the air ducts, and to this day I can still hear Mark’s voice ringing in my head saying that mind-numbing phrase.
I’m fairly certain that Plato had been driven insane by the time he moved in with Scott and Mark’s parents when Mark moved to Africa to work in the embassy in Zaire a couple of years later. And when Mark eventually got married, Plato–still alive, but without much of a life–was soon relegated to Mark’s isolated upstairs office, where he was left to keep company with Mengo, high atop his death perch. Of course Mark was very fond of Plato, but after a while, what do you do with a scared bird who won’t come out of his a cage?
The icing on our parrot-shaped cake came a year or two later when Scott’s parents celebrated their thirtieth anniversary by taking the family (by then Scott and I had married) to the Caribbean to sail on a hand-hewn schooner, skippered by a prototypically bearded captain named Ed and crewed by a sleek white cat and a yellow-naped parrot with the improbable name of Barnacle Bill, who did a damn good job of replacing a television in our lives during that week on the high seas.
No better or simpler amusement can be found than while in the company of a gregarious parrot. I think the sheer unexpectedness of conversation from a lip-less creature enhances the entertainment factor. Barnacle Bill had the requisite parrot patter that any seagoing parrot worth his salt could say: yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum, polly wanna cracker, and the like. But his repertoire reached far beyond the basics. He had us all in hysterics as he repeatedly sang “It’s the Pirates Life for Me” and the refrain from So Long, Farewell from the Sound of Music, complete with the doo-doodle-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doodle-doo-doo-doo-doo. (I admit it. I filched the idea from Captain Ed.)
Captivated, we simply had to have a parrot. Scott and I were like young newlyweds upon seeing a tender baby sleeping peacefully in a mother’s arms. “Oh, how sweet,” we said. “We definitely need one!”
Those words would come back to haunt us. Upon returning from Mia and Keith’s anniversary trip, I set out to buy my husband his very own parrot for his birthday. Back then, unsavory merchants conducted a steady trade in wild-caught parrots, and only the really ethical vendors went to the trouble of breeding parrots domestically (though unfortunately today parrot mills are common). Raising birds from eggs is tough work. In fact, not too long ago they could only even sex birds surgically, so it was a bit of a chore just getting to the fertilized egg stage. Once hatched, infant birds have to be fed practically hourly by dropper. If you think a newborn baby’s hard to keep alive, just think about nursing a scrawny, naked, defenseless little parrot.
So I researched the big purchase, and found I could get an imported bird for roughly the price of a really expensive dinner out, which worked with my limited budget, but not with my morals. I couldn’t have it on my head that I’d contributed to the demise of a species, as these inexpensive birds were caught en masse by poachers who clear-cut trees in the jungle to get baby birds still in their nests. The mortality rate was high, as was the suffering: birds by the hundreds would be jammed into small crates with little food or water, ultimately bound for clueless consumers in the U.S. who, like us, wanted an amusing pet.
Well, I couldn’t support that. I’d have no part in gratuitous cruelty for the sake of the almighty buck. Alas, there was no budget for a hand-raised parrot, which would cost roughly the same price as our week in the Caribbean.
So instead, we got a dog.
Unbeknownst to us, there was still to be a parrot in our future. Just not quite the type of parrot we had envisioned.