Saturday, July 11, 2009


In my stepdad's house we had three cocker spaniels - PeeWee, Smoky, and Dutchess. They were fabulous, personable, thoroughly loveable dogs. I had to mix a pound of dry Purina dog chow with one can of canned dogfood-of-the-week in the Kitchen-Aid in the closet/tool storage in the garage. That was ok. Then I had to scoop up the result of that food preparation the next day from the back yard. That wasn't all that much fun.

When I moved out I set up my own household, with cats. Cats are ever so much more fastidious than dogs. But I never had a dog climb a three story brick apartment wall to get at a bitch in heat. They were cute kittens, though. And I still had to seive through the kitty-litter with that slotted aluminum spoon to clean things back up.

For the last more-than-a-dozen years I have taken the Indian names Whistles-With-Birds or Dances-With-Cockatiels, depending on where I am at the time. This is because I really enjoy talking with "my" cockatiel. One owns a bird about as much as one owns a child or a even a spouse. Our flock talks about all manner of things with whistles, clucks, chick-chicks, rhythmic hammerings on horizontal surfaces, because all of those are more dignified than baby-talking to a stupid bird.

Cocker Spaniels are delightful to roll up in a ball with and scratch their bellies and backs and behind their ears. It is hysterical to watch them dip their ears and jowls in the water bowl and inundate the linoleum like a bosun's mate with a swab. Cats are exquisitely, graceful in their focused curiousity and studied movement, cleaning their whiskers (don't you love the word "vibrissae"?). But a cockatiel is . . . well, a cockatiel is just flat smooth different.

Naming a bird, "fer chrissakes", is difficult. But daughter Jennifer pointed out that a cockatiel is a 'small Australian parrot,' right? So let's call him "Cockatiel Dundee." We did, and we pronounced it "Dundy." Crushed by her dying eggbound, we laugh today remembering her antics. Did you know, for instance, that a cockatiel, having landed in a pan of uncooked brownie batter, cannot generate enough lift to flap herself out? I had to scoop her up with two fingers under her keel, whereupon she flew to the safety of the kitchen cabinet tops. When we moved from that house the inverted bird trackes in brownie batter were still up there. They might be to this day. Or were you aware that a bird keeps a layer of very fine dust (sort of like the sublime Gold Bond Powder) in her feathers to keep her dry. We learned that when Dundee tried to fly to freedom through the fixed glass beside the fireplace at our last house. We never washed that window, either, because we wanted to preserve the perfect dusted-on image of a cockatiel in full flight. I'm laughting through tears as I write this.

The present landlord who sublets to our family is named "Sir Galahad" because he was given us at Four Winds Renaissance Faire. I had not realized you can here this bird's call across a four- or five-acre field. He goes by the less formal "Galahad," or most often, just "Bird." This creature talks more than my ninth grade student girls. Yes, friends and neighbors, that's a lot. And he expects you to answer him, bigod! So we do. The whole family. When you come in the door, he bellows - whistles a Falstaffian "Hello!" very emphatically. Well, shoot fire and save the matches, we all reply with the same emphasis. Or he'll thrust out his breast at the dressing mirror, and do his Schwartznegger "guns" impression and sing what we beak-challenged members of the flock call "woogewoop". That's pronounced "woogewoop," incidentally. Or he will sing "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean." Now, you have to understand that scientists say a cockatiel has the intellect of a two-year-old child. That's about how he sings it. But Kate Smith couldn't do better. And it's a solo number, too. He does not appreciate interruptions . . . remember the way your fourth-grade teacher snapped on a bad day? Same thing (in whistle).

The hardest dance we share with this bird is his whistle-rap. He will perch on the kitchen curtain rod, lean waaay over, call once - sharply - and bang with his beak like a five to seven round burst from an M-16 on the wooden becket that holds the rod from the wall. Everybody (that's everybody) in the kitchen replies with one short twoot and a stacatto rapping on whatever surface is closest. It's difficult to bake when you're rapping in the flour. It's difficult to twoot with a mouthful of hashbrowns . . . But this is serious communication, serious quality time, with a fellow-member of this flock, and we all reply. Galahad has a way of fixing you with one birdy beady eye to see if you have any manners at all. He also does this atop a computer monitor, from the towel rack in the bathroom, and in the bedroom on the wall closest the street. Twoot-rap sessions have been know to last five minutes and more. They can be as brief as a first kiss.

It's necessary.

And we talk back.

Galahad is a free-range cocktiel. Have you ever seen one of these beings fly? I mean really fly, not flutter around in a cage. He has full run . . . flight . . . of our story-and-a-half house. It was a little rough at first while he was figuring out the ceiling fans - a whack upside the head tended to knock him right straight out of the air, and those whacks leave marks in the form of discolored feathers where the skin grows back in. But now he avoids those. The first time I saw him really fly was at an adult Scout Leader training. I had slipped off his leash (yeah; he's got a leash; red nylon) and we were walking around inside this acre of dining hall when he leapt from my shoulder like a Stinger missile at an adversary helicopter. Four or five of us just pivoted on our heels as this little gray and orange rocket whipped around the room. It was breathtaking to watch. By that time a wild bird would be out of sight or behind some trees, but Galahad was confined by the four walls. He made four laps in less time than it takes to tell, then he went for the night-black glass "exit" and left the air with a flat thud and a flutter behind some folding chairs. We-ho-have-no-wings rushed to his rescue. He had whanged himself pretty good, and, stunned, he did not resist the leash to take him home to the tent for the rest of the night.

I have stood at the top of the stairs and watched him fly to my finger. I say that; actually he ignores my finger lands atop my shining dome; then I put my finger up under him and he steps up to that. I have stood at that same step and watched his back as his wings and tail flare for a landing on the back of his favorite chair. God in His Heaven; but that is a beautiful thing to see. I have watched him stretch his left wing then his right, the flights separating, then the secondaries . . . This silly little bird, who lives in my house, is a marvel of rare beauty and delight.

He's also a sassy little twit . . . whacking whoever is in his way going through a door. Getting smacked by a bird's wing in flight is startling. And you do laugh at the improbability of it all.

But the deeper issue is that of diversity. Planetary diversity. I really don't care what color anybody wears on their skin. It's all melanin ratios anyway. But I have found myself aware of cardinals and robins and jays. Of waxwings and orioles and doves. And I find myself silenced by the youngest mockingbird. I try to talk back to them, to respond to their overtures. And then I feel foolish. And then I feel . . . aware on a deeper, richer level. And I grin at myself, and I keep tweeting and twooting .

And when I get back in the house, Bird and I have a conversation, and I tell him about my day.

1 comment:

Zak said...

"This silly little bird, who lives in my house..." I just loved this post.