Bird Words by Susan Glave
I share my home and, my life with a sulfur-crested cockatoo. This cockatoo has developed a rather large vocabulary. She adds, deletes, and combines words uncannily to express her needs. My cockatoo seems extraordinary in this capacity. I'm not sure if she has superior linguistic skills, or if this is a common feature of well adjusted cockatoos. You see, you have to actually live with a cockatoo before they reveal their true personality. I have befriended dozens of cockatoos, but this is the only bird who has been part of my household.
My cockatoo is a captive raised bird, hatched in an incubator in a suburb near Portland Oregon. Hand-fed for a few weeks by the bird breeder, she was then shipped, as a fledgling, to the gentleman I acquired her from. She has not spent one day of her life in the wild. My family, for all practical purposes, is the only family she has known; we are her flock.
In pleasant weather she enjoys going outside on the patio. She sits on her stand and watches the coming and goings of crows, starlings, sparrows, house finches, magpies, and hummingbirds. She talks to these wild birds. She talks to them in English.
My cockatoo is a hen. An inconsequential fact other than, like most domestic parrots, she shows a decided preference for opposite sex members of her human family. She adores my husband; she is madly in love with my adult son. I am the one who feeds her, gives her water, changes the papers in her cage, and occasionally provides entertainment when no one else is available. In matters of grave importance she is inclined to rely on male members of her family to provide solutions.
Often, on Sunday mornings, I am the first to rise. The cockatoo and I read the paper allowing my spouse to peacefully sleep late. One early May morning I had the Sunday paper spread all across the living room floor. The cockatoo was sitting quite contentedly on her parrot stand sorting through safflower seeds in the feed cup.
Suddenly she began excitedly bobbing up and down, frantically calling, "Dad, come here Dad! Help me! Help me!"
It took a few minutes to discover the cause for her excitement was a commotion occurring behind the glass doors of an idle fireplace. A mourning dove had fallen down the chimney and was now fluttering around frantically amongst last winter's ashes trying to find its way back outside.
"Dad, Dad, help me!" the cockatoo cranked up the volume of her pleas by several degrees.
I thought perhaps, this was a job better suited for two people. The cockatoo and I made our way down the hall to the bedroom. Loudly, she rousted my husband from his morning sleep.
"Help me, please help me. Come here, come here Dad."
"The cockatoo needs your help," I told him.
"What wrong with her now?"
I don't think he was enthralled to be rousted out of bed in this exact manner.
"There's a dove trapped in the fireplace." I tried to explain over the voice of a now ranting cockatoo.
"Come on Dad! Help! Help me!"
"Sounds like she's serious," he said, pulling on a pair of sweatpants.
Armed with an old bath towel, we managed to extract the dove from the fireplace without injury, and with out frightening him too badly. We dusted him off, took him out side, and set him free. He promptly flew to the fence, perched there, perhaps trying to get his bearings, then flew away, no doubt pleased to see, once again, the spring sun against a brilliant blue sky.
"You're a smart bird," my husband told the cockatoo when we returned to the house. "You helped rescue a dove."
Her reply was, "Thank-you, oh, thank-you."
That summer, the dove returned often to our backyard. We could tell, because he never entirely lost the sooty reminder of his fireplace misadventure. If the cockatoo were outside on her perch she unfailingly called to the dove-in English-"hi bird."
When I am in my office, writing, or reading, or studying, the cockatoo is my usual companion. Sometimes I will give her a handful of pistachio nuts. They are her favorite. She has to crack them open to get the coveted meat. Not an especially daunting task for a cockatoo beak, still it keeps her amused-and quiet-for a while. It gives me time to my thoughts without her noisy interruptions. I hear the clunk, ping, clunk that means a pistachio has bounced on the bottom of her bird cage stand and consequently onto the floor.
"Stupid bird," the cockatoo says in her most demure voice.
I take the bait, turning my chair around to face the cockatoo. She is on the bottom of the bird stand looking at the pistachio lying on the floor.
"You're not a stupid bird, you're a pretty bird," I reassure her.
"Pretty cockatoo." She holds a foot up reaching for my hand, her head tilted in her most innocent pose, her wings held in a perfect angle so she appears to be some beaked, feathered cherub we both know she is not.
"Pick me up," she says.
I cannot resist; I pick her up. She plasters herself against my chest and I can feel the gentle beating of her heart. She nestles her head beneath my chin and I scratch her cheek. She has gotten what she really wanted.
It is true my cockatoo knows how to play the game, knows how to get what she wants. She uses words, words to ask for what she wants. "Pick me up." She is not afraid to ask for what she wants, to get what she wants. Not bad for a dumb animal.
Susan Glave lives on an acreage outside Caldwell, ID with her husband, two terriers, one rescue kitty, an opinionated cockatoo, and occasionally some visiting Angus heifers. She is a graduate of Boise State University with a degree in English. Her writing has appeared in Cold Drill, Standing, Forged in Fire--Essays by Idaho Writers, Bourne on Air--Essays by Idaho Writers.
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