Paula and I cohabit with four demented psittacines (your new word for the day—it means "parrots"). This column's about our nine-year-old male African Grey, Elmo, who we've had for a bit over two years. (Some other day I'll tell you about Opal, our tool-making budgie. I am not joking about that!)
One of Elmo's previous owners developed "bird-handler's lung," a.k.a. bird-fancier's lung or bird-breeder's lung, an allergic reaction that can cause permanent lung damage and be fatal. There is no cure except to avoid the allergen, and African grays are powdery birds that naturally create airborne dust.
Coincidently, our Nanday Conure, Tinker, died at 25 of old age. We found ourselves reflexively preparing food dishes for her at dinner time, expecting to hear her shriek when we drove up to the house, etc. After a month I turned to Paula and said, "Omigod, we are suffering from empty nest syndrome...literally!"
Off we went to our local high-quality bird store, looking for a bit larger bird to hand-raise. Elmo was being boarded there. He was cordial but a little bit stand-offish and reserved with us. Obviously not the right match. After several visits, we had pretty much settled on one of their hand-raised babies, when we got the back story on Elmo.
Elmo wasn't an older juvenile as we thought—he was seven, and he'd been hand-fed and raised by his owners his entire life, just the three of them. Now he was separated from them for the first time and surrounded by strange birds and strange people. Just a little reserved and standoffish?! He had to be the most well-adjusted African Grey on the planet; a common reaction would be nonstop screaming and feather plucking. It was hardly surprising he wasn't treating us like his best friends.
After a great deal of dithering, we decided Elmo needed a good home a lot more than we needed to raise a baby bird.
Shortly, two things became apparent:
1. Elmo is one hell of a talker. The way he'd expressed his distress was by shutting up. I should have been keeping a log book of his utterances; I only started doing so at the beginning of this year. He's got at least 150 different vocalizations, and it's probably more than 200. He tends to run "playlists," six to twelve different utterances which he'll use quite frequently for several days to several weeks; then the playlist will change to a different one. These will get mixed in with the dozen vocalizations that he does routinely as part of his basic repertoire.
2. The social relationship with an African Grey is extremely complex. Best description of our first couple of months? Highly bipolar. Imagine you adopted a teenager who'd been suddenly orphaned. Would there be mood swings? Understatement! Elmo oscillated between, "Oh, I love you I love you I love you thank you for rescuing me I love you I love you I love you!" and, "You're not my mommy you're not my daddy these aren't the rules I have to follow I hate you I hate you I hate you!"
We consumed many, many Band-Aids. African Gray bites won't crush bone, but they will draw blood. At first, several times a day. Then we got it down to once a day, then once a week, and now he bites (defined as drawing blood) less than once a month.
We understood what was going on but thought it was a good idea to talk to one of his previous owners after a month or so, to learn what his behavior had been like with them. He assured us that Elmo was a total sweetie and that they had never, ever had any trouble with him biting. Okay, they doted on him, so we didn't entirely believe this, but we took it for what it was worth.
Fast forward to last winter: I'm in the living room with Elmo, packaging up dye transfer prints. Elmo's on his perch, running his playlist for me. There's a momentary lull followed by this, all in the previous owner's voice:
(One second pause)
"No bite. No bite."
(Two second pause)
Elmo returns to the program previously in progress.
I look at Elmo and say, "You are so busted!"
Elmo looks back at me and clucks happily.
Photograph of Elmo and Ctein © 2008 by David Dyer-Bennet
Featured Comment by John Sarsgard: "I had a friend with a Grey several years ago. It picked up several vocalizations not in its own best interest, such as 'here, here, kitty kitty.' "
Featured Comment by Paul Amyes: "We have a Weiro (the Aboriginal name for a Cockatiel) name Diego, also known as el grumpy. He also has an amazing repertoire of words but his main talent is mimicking the noises of machinery. He does a very convincing telephone ring which is followed by 'Hello Cheeky' when you find you've been suckered yet again. His main fault is his need to ride on the mouse as I work in my home office. He had a fascination with the wires and chewed through quite a few before I went cordless. I'm now waiting for Microsoft to make a cordless mouse with a built in perch."