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Birdies in the Background: Life With Three Playful Parrots

Athlyn has shared her life with four parrots, written articles for avian publications, and helped owners address troubling parrot behaviors.

Muggles, Beaker, and Dino on their tree perch.

Muggles, Beaker, and Dino on their tree perch.

What's Going on There?

“What’s going on there? Do you have a small child in the background?” asked the lady from Sears. She sounded puzzled and with good reason.

I’d been trying to place a catalog order over the phone. I say "trying" because my African Grey parrot, Bailey, had been hamming it up big time. He kept interjecting, “Peek-a-boo. I see you. Gim-me a great big KISS!” (accompanied by loud smacking noises) into an otherwise normal phone conversation.

Far From Normal

Of course, “normal” is a relative term. Those of us who share our lives with parrots have developed the unique ability to talk and hear over decibel-breaking background noises. As a mother of two young children, I’d honed my skill of tuning out to what I thought was an accomplished level, then I took this sanity-saving skill into the “masters” arena when I became a parrot parent. I could quite comfortably talk to anyone, in any situation, obliviously—forgetting I had feathered friends listening in and eagerly adding in their two cents' worth.

Bailey sharing knee time. He always adds his two cents to our conversations.

Bailey sharing knee time. He always adds his two cents to our conversations.

Naughty Child or Naughty Parrot?

This "oblivious skill" was brought home to me in a most embarrassing fashion during a conversation I had with a schoolteacher. He’d called to tell me my son had the intrusive habit of interrupting to discourse to the rest of the class. The teacher said that, while they appreciated my son’s enthusiasm and eagerness to share his views, the consensus was that he had to learn to give others a chance to talk.

Reading between the lines, I knew the man viewed my son as a motormouth but was too polite to come right out and say so. The teacher was warming to his topic when he stopped, clearly frustrated. “It seems you have another little boy who loves to talk,” he said, his tone positively oozing reproof. “In fact, I can hardly get a word in edgewise.”

“Oh no,” I confidently assured him, "I’m home alone.” I could tell he thought we were a problem family and I was focusing in on this, not really paying attention to what I was saying.

Upon later reflection, I realized how foolish this must have sounded—because one of my parrots had been yapping up a blue streak in the background!

Beaker was missing a few feathers when he came to us as a rescue bird.

Beaker was missing a few feathers when he came to us as a rescue bird.

Beaker and His Jekyll and Hyde Transformation Around Guests

Another Grey parrot of ours, Beaker, came to us from rough circumstances. At first, Beaker was rather quiet, but he showed that he, too, enjoyed playing to an audience. He underwent a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type transformation whenever company came to visit. Beaker would wait until conversation was underway, then engage in a stellar performance, giving a gravelly sounding rendition of a smoker's cough: "Hoo-wuh! Hoo-whu! Hoo-wuh!" leading visitors to express concern over his health.

Poor Beaker came from a rough background.

Poor Beaker came from a rough background.

Beaker Had a Gravely "Boozer" Voice

Beaker recently gave us some startling insights into his former home life. A telemarketer contacted us one evening, phoning right around supper-time. The marketer started into her sales pitch, but her words trailed off, when Beaker, in a voice that would have made any bar patron feel right at home, said leeringly. "Want a . . . drink? Need a drink. Well, come on . . . gim-me a drink!"

"Is there a . . . problem?" the telemarketer asked archly.

I tried to explain that it was only my parrot talking, but I don't believe she was convinced.

I've learned that parrots, like children, have an uncanny habit of saying things at the most inopportune moments. Vying for attention, they rise superbly and instinctively to occasions when attention is focused elsewhere, outdoing themselves with verbal acuity.

"Get your exercise! One-two, one-two . . . "

"Get your exercise! One-two, one-two . . . "

Bailey Insults a Guest

I remember when Bailey insulted my husband's sister, Merilee. She stepped through the doorway and Bailey sang out in a cheerful voice, "Hi-ya tubby." At least, that's what Merilee thought she heard.

Bailey had taken to greeting visitors by saying, "Hi-ya lovey" to them, which we tried to convey to Merilee, but she remained convinced that Bailey had commented on her appearance. She said with resignation, "Huh, even the bird notices I'm overweight."

She took a seat on the sofa and pointedly ignored Bailey. He must have sensed her reserve because he postured and vocalized, outdoing himself trying to capture her attention. Finally, he eyeballed her sternly, bobbed his head up and down, and commanded, "Exercise. Come on, get your EXERCISE! One-two, one-two."

Merilee's head snapped around and she glared at Bailey. "That's it!" she said, absolutely floored. "That bird is too knowing somehow." Merilee said Bailey gave her the creeps. She has never forgotten Bailey's disparaging remarks and avoids him whenever she comes to visit.

A Prayer and a Lovestruck Parrot

In another incident, we saw that even sacred moments could have a humorous side. My sister, Dee, dropped over, bringing an impromptu dinner. We were standing in the kitchen giving a blessing, when Bailey, who was smitten with her, revealed his true feelings during a pause in the prayer. "I missed you, Dee," he declared tenderly. "I love you, Dee." My husband, stunned, lost his train of thought; my sister giggled; the rest of us, all composure lost, cracked up, laughing helplessly, the prayer completely forgotten.

Goofy Miss Muggles

The newest addition to our family, a Moluccan Cockatoo named Miss Muggles, (who, in hindsight, I believe, should have been called Miss Snuggles) puts on her goofy act whenever visitors come to call. She puffs up and pretends to be menacing, then, when this has lost its effectiveness, she dances, bobs, and lurches drunkenly from side to side, trying to recapture attention. When nervous visitors understandably back off, she chastises them by launching into an unintelligible round of loud scolding.

Most people retreat to the safety and hoped-for quietness of our living room, but Muggles then calls out insistently, "Hello? Hello? Hello?" I know the best course is to bring her into the room, allowing her to see our company. I try to temper her enthusiasm but am often hard-pressed, because she'll launch into an ear-splitting cawing—until I allow her to run across the rug and up the nearest leg!

Muggles snuggling with a visitor.

Muggles snuggling with a visitor.

Insane Asylum

The other evening, I was again on the phone, foolishly thinking my office would be a quiet place to conduct an interview; however, I made the mistake of leaving the door open. I shake my head at my failure to learn from past experiences. Muggles and Beaker decided it was happy hour—and all the better because "mom" was on the phone.

Muggles started laughing. Beaker, not about to be outdone, joined in. Muggles laughed back and Beaker copied her. The volume increased. "HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH!" Soon, the walls reverberated with maniacal laughter. The fellow I was speaking with, said, "Good grief It sounds like you live in an insane asylum."

I had to agree with him. I've learned that days and nights are never dull when you've got birdies in the background.

A Great Film About Parrots

In "Look Who's Talking," parrots sing opera, play catch, open and close doors, slide down banisters, demolish a car, and engage in other playful and naughty behavior. One of my all-time favorite documentaries about parrots, as seen in their colorful beauty in the wild and in homes around the world. How these birds interact with their owners is especially touching and downright adorable. An invaluable addition to the home library.

© 2014 Athlyn Green