Sharing Your Life with a Parrot

Companionship with a parrot is more than just the right care. It is the right emotional investment as well.

Sharing Your Life with a Parrot

There's a room in my house, which used to be my parents' house before they passed on, with a mural on all four walls depicting a large park. It begins at the entrance to the room and you can follow a path through the park, past trees and a bridge and a waterfall and a stream, and everywhere are birds. Birds that don't necessarily flock in the same places. It was painted by my mother over several months and she loved birds. Realism in species wasn't necessarily important. She wanted variety. And she called that room “the birdcage.” 

When we moved in, that room actually became a “birdcage.” I filled it with the cages and toys and boings and belongings of my flock of babies, which at the time included two budgies, two cockatiels, two Quaker parrots and a pigeon. At our former house, they were squeezed into the dining room, a much smaller space, and had to be locked up in their cages if we were moving band equipment in and out (we're musicians) because of the open door or if we had friends over or for a multitude of reasons related to their safety. Here was a room where they could be out all day every day. The door to that room was replaced with a screen door built by my husband, who's a carpenter, so there would be light and air movement and to keep the dogs out, and they could have complete freedom. I made sure that room was safe for them to be alone in unsupervised. I have since added fish tanks, mostly for me because I like fish, but also in case watching fish would entertain the birds. A row of plastic jugs holds the various foods for that many different species, with their names on the lids in case someone else should ever have to feed them in my absence. I should note that when Someone Else did have to feed them once, when I was in the hospital overnight, Someone Else gave everyone cockatiel food instead of filling their dishes with the proper food for their species, but since they all steal food from each other's cages anyway, no harm done. The floor is linoleum, laid by my mother, so the inevitable plops under cages and perches and swings are more or less easily disposed of. 

A friend redecorated her kitchen, which had been done all in a birdhouse theme, and gave me her collection of birdhouses. So I added those to the room, and the tiels like to perch on and chew on them. I have a chair and ottoman so I can sit around being an organic perch, where Clyde, Benjy and Maggie hold court and the others come and go in the course of Bird Business of an evening. I spend a lot of time cleaning, with six birds free to roam at will in that room. Maggie is a messy eater so there's always food on the floor, and sometimes they all decide to molt at once, which makes a perfect storm of feathers and fluff. Ever tried to sweep up fluff? Especially when a pigeon flies past just as you get it all in a nice pile? 

It's a nice room and I enjoy spending time in it with my babies, but here's the rub of having a houseful of parrots. You can theoretically find someone to watch your dogs, or pay a kennel to board them, if you want to go somewhere for the weekend or take a vacation and you don't have my dogs, who are socially inept. When you have a room full of parrots (Maggie the Pigeon Queen is an honorary parrot), nobody will do that. You can't haul them off to a kennel, supposing such a thing existed, and even your close friends look horrified and flatly refuse when you want someone to parrot-sit. Parrots bite, they say. I don't know anything about birds, they say. What if I can't make them go back into their cages, they say. (Turn the lights down low and leave the room. They'll sleep somewhere, I promise. Maybe not in their cages, but that's what curtain rods are for). 

As a result, except for that night in the hospital, I haven't spent a night away from home since 2008. No vacations. No weekend trips. I rarely even go somewhere that will keep me away from home all day and evening (other than work, but that's a whole story in itself). I go to work. I go home. I go to church. I go home. I run errands. I go home. Parrots demand time and attention and they must have it. You have work, friends, hobbies. They only have you. 

Then a friend who runs a licensed raptor rehab called. They had a starling. Raptors eat starlings. The starling was not safe there. Did I want “him” (who turned out to be “her”)? Silly question. Of course I wanted that bird. Except … that bird and the parrots were not a good match. Ringo, named while I still thought she was a he and because I couldn't resist the temptation to have a Ringo Starling, could not live in the Birdcage. Maggie, due to her size and personality, lives there quite contentedly. The parrots give way to her and other than a daily standoff with Johnny the tiel, who is the self-appointed Bird Police and tells her off any time she is doing something he doesn't think she should be doing, Maggie ignores the other birds and goes her Merry Pigeon Way. 

So Ringo has the spare bedroom, where I keep my clothes and dressing table and the posters and Bee Gees records and stuffed animal collection and Batman curtains that my husband would rather not trip over, and it, too has a screen door, and Ringo is out of her cage all day long in her room. Rocky 'Too lives in the living room because there was no other place to put his giant cage, and when I'm not at work, I gravitate from one to another so they all get some Mom time even if Mom doesn't get any Mom Time to herself. This is also part of bringing birds into your life. A dog needs your time and your love, but your dog is willing to snooze at your feet while you do things. You don't have to hold him in your lap and give him your undivided attention. He's happy just to be in the same room. 

Birds are not happy to just be in the same room or even to sit on your shoulder. They want to CHAT. They want to play. They resist allowing your attention to wander even for a moment. You want to watch TV? Clyde's favorite trick is to sit on my head and bend down in front of my eyes so there's an upside-down parrot face between me and the screen. Read? Ha. Good luck. Parrots LOVE to tear paper.  I used to keep my piano in Ringo's room and when I tried to practice she would stomp up and down on the keys, peck my fingers, and tear corners off the music book. Now the piano is in the living room and Rocky enjoys music, so he doesn't interfere with practice … much. I still practice the flute in Ringo's room, and she sits on my shoulder and sings along. Sometimes she sits on the flute, which makes it difficult to play. It's also difficult to play songs that are not the Andy Griffith theme, because that's what she sings when I'm playing. 

Birds are jealous of your time and attention. Theoretically, I have enough room on and around my person so all six of the birds in the Birdcage could use the Organic Perch at once, but Maggie and Clyde disagree about which part of me belongs to which of them. Sometimes they disagree vehemently and I have to referee. Benjy has permanent custody of my left hand and Clyde my right, but if Maggie wants to be petted and I have birds on both hands, that makes petting her somewhat problematic. Clyde likes to preen my hair and eyebrows, but Maggie likes to preen me, too. Benjy objects to Maggie and buzzes around her head like a blue budgie-shaped mosquito. Jade doesn't want to be touched but she does want to be talked to, except that Clyde disapproves of Jade and doesn't want me to talk to her. I might get my ear chomped as he expresses his displeasure. The tiels Freddie and Johnny have much pressing Tiel Business to do, but occasionally swing by and sit on my knee for a moment or two until Clyde or Maggie chases them away, but not before one of them has left a nice little plop on my pant leg. 

Ringo and Rocky don't have to be jealous of other birds, as they're the only bird when I'm with them, but in the Birdcage, it's a constant juggling act. 

Parrots consume your life and your time even when you're not physically with them. When I'm kept late at work, and that happens a lot when you're a journalist, I worry about not having adequate time to spend with the birds before their bedtime. Trust me, bedtime is important with birds. A grouchy bird who hasn't had adequate rest chomps, and short nights turn into hormonal days and you definitely don't want that. But it's not just grouchy and hormonal. It's emotional. They need time with me. I need time with them. Ringo is a zen bird and she might be a bit more clingy if Mom's had a busy week and not much time, but she's not chompy and not grouchy. She's happy to see me and that's that. Clyde will bite and he wants to do damage if he feels he's been shorted on time and attention. So far, Rocky 'Too is just sad and needy if I come home late because if there's anything a parrot excels at, it's pushing your buttons. He can put more expression into those black eyes and half-open beak than an Oscar-winning actor. 

“Don't you LOVE me anymore??? Where WERE you? I missed you! I was lonesome for you! Do you know how I worried while you were gone? Why didn't you call????” 

It's not like he's home all alone and locked in his cage. His dad's there. The dogs are there. The TV's on because the TV is ALWAYS on. The Birdcage denizens have each other for company. Ringo has the leopard gecko, Rex, though he's not much company, but she enjoys sitting on his tank and staring at him or in the window where she looks at wild birds or beating the heck out of her toys. She's really good at entertaining herself. 

But I still feel guilty. Those are my birds and my responsibility and I'm their world and I know it. We all just do the best we can.

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