April 19 marks one year since Rocky 'Too joined our household. One year since my friend and I rescued him from a bad home, who sold him on a rummage sale site on Facebook, a home where the man of the house blew marijuana smoke in his face and thought it was funny to “get him high.” One year since we first took him to my friend's home – her long-lived and much-loved parrot had passed on a while before – but she immediately realized that her small granddaughter and Rocky in the same household were not a wise match. Not Rocky's fault. The granddaughter could not be trusted with him because she firmly believed he was a plush toy. A year since she called me two days after we liberated him and said she couldn't keep him; would we take him?
Yes, we would. But that started a journey that has had its ups and downs. Some of the “ups” were really high and some of the “downs” were horribly low and there were times, many times, when we despaired of success. When Rocky screamed without ceasing for so long at a time that our dogs tried to get out the door and we weren't far behind. When he chomped Hubby so hard and so badly three times in the same week that Hubby has yet to work up the nerve to have Rocky step up again – though he still pets him and plays with him. He just doesn't pick him up. When we realized how very destructive a cockatoo can be and had to figure out ways to prevent him from dismantling the entire house. When he had a bad stretch that made him impossible to handle, even for me, his chosen person. While we learned his body language and his cues and the difference between a raised crest that means “wonder what that is?” and one that means “I've HAD it with YOU.”
We learned that crest up means you don't want to pick him up, even if he's in the mood to dance and be silly, because he's also unpredictable and could suddenly chomp. He learned that “put your head (feathers) down” means he won't get picked up until he calms, and he dearly loves to be picked up. He can and will visibly calm down to get that. We know now which shriek means “it's bedtime, cover me up” and which one means “Jack is barking and I have to do my fair share!” and which one means “I just like to make noise!” even though they sound, to the layman, exactly alike. He has a habit of gesturing with his beak that's a prequel to screaming and means, “Come pay attention to me!” He dunks his pellets so his water has to be changed three and four times a day, but his Quaker sister, Jade, does that, too, so I'm used to that.
Some things that once terrified him only make him tense now, and some things, like the broom, don't scare him at all anymore. He hates curtains and they all must die, so we had to figure out what to do about that. We covered a window with plexiglass and hung the curtain on the other side, on the enclosed porch, so he can't chew up the woodwork or tear down the curtain. We replaced the curtains on another window with mini-blinds, which bear many beak marks but at least keep the neighbors from seeing in at night. He's gone from being afraid to be out of reach of his cage to riding me around the house regularly, helping me make coffee or get fresh water for him. His daddy wrote a song for him with nonsense lyrics, but he likes it, and we sing songs with the word “rock” in them so he can dance because, of course, all those songs are about him, too. If necessary, we rewrite the lyrics to make them about him. Rockabye Rocky. Rockin' Rocky instead of “Rockin' Robin.” And, I apologize to Elton John, but “Rocket Man” is now about Rocky “burnin' out his fuse up here alone,” too.
I know where he likes to be scratched and he loves nothing more than snuggling with mama. He would spend hours like that if I had that much time. His daddy calls me Rocky's “organic play stand.” He's brave enough now to get down on the floor and waddle over to play Towel with his daddy or insist on sitting on my lap. He demands so much time and attention that I have to struggle with guilt about the other birds, who were there first, who aren't getting as much attention as a result. I actually watch the clock so I can spend this much time with Rocky, the same amount with the flock in the Birdcage, and end the day with a session with my starling, whose interactions with me mostly consist of her using me for a landing pad as she zooms around her room doing important Starling Things. Standoffish Jade, the Quaker who dunks pellets, has never wanted anything but verbal attention and not much of that, but since Rocky arrived, she has become, for her, clingy. I keep thinking it's because she doesn't see as much of me as before, in spite of my clock-watching and trying to parcel myself out fairly. Even Ringo Starling spends more time actually sitting on my arm or shoulder than before, possibly for the same reason. Mommy Guilt abounds. Yet, when I am at home and out of Rocky's sight, he is likely to shriek for me and will not be soothed by anything other than my presence. That makes it very difficult for me to leave the room to spend time with the smaller birds who would not be safe with him and must live separately. And parceling myself out to seven birds in three different rooms means that time spent on my own pursuits – practicing music, reading, crocheting – is shoved aside far more often than I'd like. Ringo will allow flute practice and crocheting in her presence, though she insists on “helping,” but the Birdcage denizens will not allow anything other than interaction in theirs, and Rocky will actually hold onto one hand with one foot and the other hand with the other foot to prevent me from doing anything other than holding him.
Now that he's brave enough to clamber down to the floor and come after me if I don't come after him, I can't sit in my own living room without him unless he's locked in his cage, and except for first thing in the morning – when I can't function because I am most assuredly not a morning person – or after he's gone to bed at night, I have to hold Rocky if I'm in that room.
A couple of weeks ago, I was standing by his cage petting him and reached up with both hands at once to pet his face. I do this with my Quaker, Clyde, and did it with my dearly departed pigeon, but had never done it with Rocky. He flinched and pulled away. I don't know what memory that dredged up, and I realized afresh that I have to always keep in mind that the things that are normal and pleasant for the other birds sometimes have to be gently introduced, or tossed out, when dealing with Rocky. But I thought he would enjoy this if he could learn that it's not a threat, and little by little I have shown him that, so that this morning before I left for work, when I reached up with both hands to stroke his cheeks and kiss his beak, he sat perfectly still with half-closed eyes and soaked it up.
Though the screaming sessions are still painful for our ears and the dogs', and two of the other birds (so far) have learned to mimic the screaming in their own way (Ringo Starling's version is almost musical and Jade, I suspect, is making fun of Rocky with hers), we have mostly learned to withstand them until he stops. He does always stop eventually. It's part of life with a 'too. I can no longer imagine life without a 'too. I've had several nasty bruises from pressure bites. We have some mangled woodwork. He broke a ceramic goose the other day while I was at work and he got brave about sitting on a magazine rack next to his cage, on a table where the goose used to sit. His daddy didn't have the nerve to pick him up and put him back on his cage, and Rocky couldn't figure out how to get back to his cage on his own, so he had to wait for me to come home.
Some of my clothes now bear holes in groups of three thanks to the 'too beak. He likes to burrow into me and grind his beak and if he can get a piece of my shirt into his beak before he starts grinding, it gets perforated. I've learned to greet The King of All Toos when I come in from work but not to pick him up until I've changed into bird clothing so he doesn't destroy work outfits.
He likes chamomile tea, which I got for him as a consolation prize to keep him out of my coffee. He really likes coffee, and since the others ignore it, I didn't think to keep it out of his reach until the first day he clambered over my arm and dove in beak first and had a nice long drink of it before I could convince him to stop. I hoped it was the warmth that drew him in and when I gave him tea, he sampled it and then dove into it beak first, so maybe that was it. He's quite willing now to sample almost anything I offer him. He doesn't always like the new things, but he'll usually taste them.
He still won't take proper baths. I've offered misting, and that kind of scares him. I suspect he was sprayed as punishment, so I don't push that. I've given him every sort of container I can come up with, from a plastic dish tub to ceramic, metal and glass baking dishes, with water warm, cold and lukewarm, and he rejected them all. He takes baths in his water dish and obviously can't get his whole body wet like that. I take him into the bathroom and offer the sink and the tub, with and without the water running. Nope. He is getting less wary of the mister, and maybe he will eventually approve of that. It took a while for the other birds to approve of it, too, and now they see the bottle and come running for their “showers” and shove each other aside to get their turn.
This weekend, he overcame a major hurdle. He often gets to share some of my food, because I take it to him, not because he demands it. Even when he climbs down and waddles on the floor, he has invisible barriers he won't cross. But Saturday we were in the kitchen having a late lunch, and Rocky not only crossed the barrier between living room and kitchen, he marched right up to me and held up his foot, and he helped me eat my lunch. It was more of a social event than hunger, because he didn't eat much. He just wanted to sit with us while we ate. He repeated that performance yesterday when we had supper. Apparently, meals are now a communal affair.
In many ways, Rocky is like a small child, whose language skills are shaky at best, and who is very needy of time and attention, both offered very gently due to the bad times he's had in the past. I don't expect him to forget, but with every passing day he trusts us more and learns that here he doesn't have to fear the humans in his life.