They’re Not Actually Birdbrains

Blinky with my dad (I was perhaps 10 years old when I took this Polaroid shot; Dad would have been about 42)

Most of my friends and family love dogs and cats. My preference, however, has always been birds, the parrot family in particular. I’ve always thought it would be cool to have a beautiful, comic macaw or a wonderfully intelligent African gray. However, that would clearly have required more work and commitment than my parents (when I was a kid) and I (as an adult) were willing to take on, which is why I’ve never had a large bird whose need for attention is said to rival that of a toddler. However, as a boy, I did have parakeets (budgies); more recently, cockatiels. (Truth in advertising: Today, Sandra and I have a Maine coon cat.)

Actually, I had two parakeets. The first one I named Blinky because he’d often blink his eyes. When he died of a tumor after several years, we acquired a replacement, whom my mom named Dudley because, when we first brought him home, he was so frightened that he cowered in a corner on the floor of his cage, leading us to think he was going to be a dud. Fortunately, like his predecessor, he turned out to be a chirpy, friendly member of the family.

Psittacines – the fancy word ornithologists use for birds of the parrot family – are certainly amusing, and little boys (assuming I was a typical example) can be adept at finding ways to bring out this trait. I would entice both birds into the traps I set for them with a little yellow dish we used for their favorite food – a mixture of sweetened seeds sold as “Treat.” I’d pour a small daily portion of these seeds into that dish. They loved the stuff so much they wouldn’t stop nibbling when they’d emptied the dish; they kept going, eventually gnawing a big chunk out of the dish’s hard plastic wall.

When I let either bird out of the cage, which I often did after I got home from school, all I had to do was take the yellow dish out of its place between the cage bars, walk across the room with it and wave it in the air. The bird would fly straight to me, perch on my finger and start nibbling at the dish. It was a Pavlovian lure into mischief. One of the tricks I played on the little guys was to place the dish near the center of a phonograph record. I’d get Blinky – and later, Dudley – on my finger and then place him on the record to play with the dish. Then I’d switch on the turntable. The dish would hurtle off the edge of the record and the bewildered bird would fly away.

Another trick I liked to pull was to hold a string taut between my hands. At the same time, I’d hold the Treat dish in my fingers, encouraging the bird to fly to me. He’d try to land on the string since it looked like a perch, but – because it was too thin for his feet to get a good grip – his forward momentum would immediately turn into rotary motion. He’d then go flapping and flipping around a few times, like a gymnast on the high bar, before letting go and flying to a steadier perch.

Despite these shenanigans, both birds were very friendly. Blinky used to get excited when he heard the crunch of tires on our gravel driveway. He knew it meant my dad would soon be walking into the room. Both birds would jump from the left perch inside the cage to the right one, or visa versa, following any of us as we walked past.

Thanks to an accident he suffered early in his time with us, Blinky tamed more quickly than Dudley. Not too long after we’d acquired Blinky, I was playing with him, outside the cage, in our den. When my mom called me to lunch from the kitchen, I left the room, being careful to close the door behind me to keep the bird from flying into the kitchen where he could get in trouble with things cooking on the stove. I failed to notice that he was flying toward me as I was closing the door, my back to him. The door could have killed him, but luckily it caught only his outstretched foot. Eventually one toe turned black and fell off.

While he was recovering, being unsteady on his injured foot, he was unable to preen some areas of his belly. To help him out, my dad, in his cupped palms, would hold Blinky on his back, allowing the bird to preen feathers near the injured leg that he couldn’t otherwise reach. That got him accustomed to being handled. Then, he’d even let us put him, head first, into a shirt pocket, where he’d turn himself around, poking his head out to survey the scene before flying off. Very cute!

Manu Iki and Pteechka

Fast forward to adulthood – mine, that is. While we were living in Hawaii, Sandra and I acquired a cockatiel, whom the kids named Manu Iki Me Inoa Nui – Little Bird With Big Name. I taught Manu Iki to whistle the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I’ll return to his imitative accomplishments below, but his schooling – and his time in our family – was cut short one night when a strong breeze blew open our improperly secured front door. From muddy footprints we saw the next morning, a cat had apparently walked into the living room during the night. It must have frightened the bird who – roosting on top of his cage, as we often let him do – panicked and flew out into the night. We never did find him.

Manu Iki with Sandra

Manu Iki’s successor was another cockatiel, whom we called Pteechka, Russian for “Birdy.” He started off very sweet. The afternoon we brought him home I sat near his cage and he appears to have bonded with me starting right then. Unlike Manu Iki, who liked everyone equally, Pteechka was especially friendly to me. When I was out of the house, he’d spend time with Sandra, but he’d usually ignore her when I was home.

Once he hit puberty, however, Pteechka – who had till then been a Dr. Jekyll – turned into a Mr. Hyde. He remained fond of me. Too fond, as will be evident from some of the alternative names (see below) that I later considered bestowing on him. But he grew increasingly intolerant of other people, sometimes advancing across the floor to nip their toes and even dive-bombing Sandra. He drew blood on several occasions, and I finally had to return him to the pet store (which, we were told, found a good home for him with a family that had an outdoor aviary).

Pteechka’s behavior prompted me to think up some other possible names for him (Caution. Not all of these are fit for a family-oriented blog):

  • Basil Dillbreath (he loved both herbs, and celery too, and you could detect them on his breath if he’d been gnawing on them)
  • Knuckle Fucker (a post-puberty moniker)
  • Engelbird Humperfinger (ditto)
  • Horny Bustard (take a guess!)
  • Birdzilla (what we started calling him after he got aggressive)

The best bird name of all, however, will forever be linked to Manu Iki. Often, as I’d pass his cage, I’d say “Hello, Birdbrain.” One fine day as I walked into the room, he showed off his new linguistic achievement, greeting me with “Hello, Birdbrain.” That feathered genius sure got my number!

Pteechka (aka Birdzilla)

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