Author: Cornish, Rick

The Rescue of Albirdio
Once, when my youngest son Peter was just a little guy, he was playing ball inside the house and broke a window. I’d been out in my shop and didn’t hear the crash and Peter, not wanting to deal with the situation, just skipped over to a friend’s house to play. When I found the broken window a while later and confronted my son, he readily admitted to being the culprit but didn’t see as how he’d been the least bit dishonest by not telling me about it. I remember so vividly sitting him down and explaining, slowly and methodically about “lies of omission”. I was adamant that having a truth and withholding it was just as serious an offense as telling a lie. It was as much a sermon as an explanation--I was that convicted by what I was saying. Peter got it. His brother Phillip, who’d been listening, got it too. We were all on the same page—you don’t hold back information when you know it’s important. Period.

Now let me tell you the story of our parrot’s escape and rescue.

The story actually starts about six years ago. The evening dishes are done and we’re sitting in front of the TV watching NOVA-- a one hour special on birds…..parrots. Big ones, little ones, caged, wild. Mid way through the show we’re introduced to Alex, the famous African Grey parrot at the University of Arizona’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Dr. Irene Pepperberg has taught this bird to communicate, actually to read, and as Lynn and I watch we’re mesmerized by the intelligence of this tiny creature. The narrator tells us that Alex has the intelligence of a two-year-old child. Amazing.

The next morning Lynn and I exchange e-mails from our respective offices at work.

Me: Hey, what did you think of those parrots last night? Pretty incredible. Ever thought you’d like to get a parrot for a pet.

She: No. We have all the pets we (which actually means ME because I take care of them) can handle.

Me: Ah, come on now, admit it. Wouldn’t it be cool to have one of those African Greys? It’ll be more like having a little feathered friend than another pet. How hard could it be to take care of a little bird? I’ll bet they don’t eat much.

She: No more pets, Rick. Not even little feathered ones. No.

I backed off, but that was just the first volley. My wife loved animals and I knew she would get a kick out of owning an African Grey parrot, I just had to help her realize it. This took a week and a half. On the way home from the breeder, (a woman whose life was so obviously and completely interwoven with the lives of her birds that it should have given me some pause), we named the bird Albert. It was just a little bit of a thing, maybe two-thirds of its adult size, but by the time we pulled into our driveway the parrot had pierced me on the finger and on the wrist with its beak, drawing blood in both places. (With parrots, which have needle sharp beaks, the word is “pierce”, not bite.) The parrot didn’t pierce Lynn at all, though he had plenty of chances. I remember thinking that was a little odd.

And so began what slowly and inexorably grew into one of the truly dark periods of my life. I say slowly because the bond between Lynn and the parrot didn’t form overnight. Nor did the bird’s obsessive, all-consuming hatred of me. Days turned into weeks and I still found myself amused by his antics. Weeks turned to months and amusement turned to indifference. Gradually the bird began imitating birds he would hear out in the yard. Jays, mocking birds, doves. He did doves so realistically that sometimes they would coo back to him. Then, roughly six months after Albert moved in, he began to talk. The darkness began to settle in quickly from there. His first word was Doh, ala Homer Simpson. The next word was Albirdio. Yes, the African Grey parrot had renamed himself. It was a chilling….I remembered with smothering irony what I’d said to Lynn six months before….” It’ll be more like having a little feathered friend than another pet.”

I began to fully grasp the magnitude of what lay in store for our household a couple months after Albirdio began talking. I was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal when I suddenly heard a commotion in the family room. As I rushed in, I saw our dog, Alex, running in circles around the room, knocking over a lamp, up-ending an end table, and barking hysterically. And there, on his perch, safely above the fray, was the African Grey parrot, repeating, in precisely my voice, over and over, “Alex, do you wanna go for a walk? Alex, do you wanna go for a walk?” And there, standing in the threshold of the family room, I remembered what the MIT researcher had said—African Grey parrots have the intellect of a two year old child. And then in a sudden rush, I remembered every unpleasant experience I’d ever had with a toddler…..two to three year old humans whose universe revolves solely around them, who have not yet learned right from wrong, whose happiness depends entirely on pushing the buttons of those around them. And I realized with a dark shudder that Albirdio was intellectually a toddler and that he would remain a toddler for his entire parrot life, which could last as long as eight-five years. This sociopathic bird would out live me.

A few months later, in the middle of the night, one of the smoke detectors downstairs went off. I got up groggily, went down stairs and found that, rather than a fire, we had a detector in the family room with a failing battery. I got a ladder, replaced the battery and went back to bed. (The alarm couldn’t have been on for more than 30 seconds.) Two nights later, again in the middle of the night, the smoke detector went off again. But this time, as soon as I turned on the lights downstairs, the detector went silent. I found the ladder and checked out the alarm. The battery looked fine. The connection seemed okay. I went back to bed. No sooner had I fallen asleep than the alarm went off again. This time when I trundled back down stairs I didn’t turn the light on immediately….instead, I listened to the sound of the alarm. It wasn’t coming from the family room’s smoke detector. It was coming from the bird’s room, which didn’t have a smoke detector. I shuddered.

In the months that followed Albirdio mastered many other sounds, all of which had one thing in common….each sound possessed the power to “activate” me. I’d be outside and the phone would ring inside. We’d be watching TV and the doorbell would ring. Eventually he even got Lynn’s voice down….”Hey, Rick”….and I’d go from upstairs to downstairs, downstairs to upstairs.

All the while the parrot was honing and perfecting his little sadistic pranks, he was getting closer and closer to Lynn. He loved her. She loved the bird, bought him the best of everything….toys, cage, food. They would coo at each other…..sometimes he would even regurgitate his food for her—the ultimate show of affection from a bird. And over time they developed their rituals. When Lynn would shower and put on her make up in the morning, they would call to one another, have what seemed like conversations, sing songs together—Jingle Bells was their favorite, she singing the words, Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way, he doing his chicken imitation, Cluck cluck cluck, cluck cluck cluck, cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck. Later, before leaving for work, Lynn and the bird would prepare his breakfast in the kitchen. On the weekends the parrot would ride around on her shoulder as she did her housework mimicking the sound of the vacuum cleaner.

When I complained about her bird, Lynn would explain patiently, as if to a child, that he was just a tiny, innocent little bird, less than twelve ounces, she would say. I was a grown man, an adult, surely I could accept his “little birdie nature”. And then, for good measure….”Remember, it was you and not me who wanted this bird. Now that he’s my bird, I have a commitment to him. A lifetime commitment. Learn to live with it.”

A turning point for t
Posted:  9/18/2005

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