Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Parakeets and Budgies

Parakeets are parrots. Most small parrots, with pointed tails, are typically referred to as parakeets. When we talk about parakeets in the United States, we are most often referring to a specific species of parrot called a Budgerigar. Budgerigars are known to the rest of the world as "budgies." In 1840, budgies were imported to England from Australia. In exchange for the birds, England sent Australia convicts. The English immediately fell in love with these friendly, cute, spirited little birds. The Brits rewarded the birds' friendliness by capturing thousands more of them from the wild and imprisoning them in cages.
Fortunately for the wild birds, the budgie-exporting craze didn't last long, because it was soon discovered that budgies would easily breed in captivity. Captive breeding provided millions of birds for Woolworth's and spinster aunts all over the world. Wild budgies have green bodies, checkered backs and a yellow face. Evidently, that look wasn't good enough for the breeders, because they soon went about trying to improve on nature. Over the years, many flavors of budgies have been produced, including gray, blue, yellow, violet and tons of colors in between. Once, even bright red budgies were imported from breeders in India. The British couldn't figure out how the Indians were able to breed red birds, until the red birds began to molt. It turns out the Indian birds weren't red at all, but had simply spent the afternoon at the hairdresser. Yes, it was a dye job. Once the molt began and the birds weren't able to touch up their roots, the jig was up.

The wild Budgerigars are native to the grasslands of Australia, where they fly in large flocks. The name Budgerigar comes from an Aborigine word meaning "good meal." When the Aborigines came upon a tree filled with roosting budgies, they would snag a few and roast them on the evening's fire. One of the earliest known Aussie fast foods was fresh budgie on a stick.
Most North American songbirds breed in the spring, but budgies don't follow the seasons like our birds - they breed based upon food supply. Much of Australia's interior is dry and whenever rain does arrive it produces wild grasses and other seed-producing plants that budgies love. At the first sign of rain, the birds stop what they are doing and shift into breeding mode.
Typically, birds don't set on their eggs until all the eggs are laid. They do this in order for all the eggs to hatch at once, so the young birds grow and fledge at the same time. Budgies, on the other hand, never have a reliable food supply. They can't afford to waste time. They start incubating as soon as the first egg is laid. The baby birds that hatch-out first are fed first, while the later hatching birds have to wait for whatever food is left. This way at least a few offspring survive if the food source dries up. It's a cruel but necessary method for raising young. Perhaps, this may explain why, when I was growing up, I was always much thinner than my older sister

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Scraming is for the birds, namely parrots

She used to just squeal and chirp and squeak and burp like a tiny feathered sailor. She used to just make adorable little noises like a moderately hyperactive little monkey holding a banana, looking at the sky and talking to the clouds.
But not anymore. Now, the SO's African gray parrot Anaya -- 1 foot tall with 2 feet of wingspan and 1 solid pound of tiny-boned flesh, and cuter than a drunken squirrel -- this bird, now nearly 2 years old and maturing a bit and moving away from her fledgling awkward vocal confusions and into a more adult phase of happy confident incessant noisedom, has learned to scream. Like a girl. Exactly like a girl. And also chat on the phone. Sometimes at the same time.
Parrots, you should know right now, are enormously weird. Surreal. They bring with them a bizarre sense of wild and unfamiliar nature, and you cannot feed them or watch them move or preen or and waddle awkwardly down the hall without this sense of trippy otherness; you cannot hold a parrot in your hand and stroke their funky, tiny, pencil-thin neck bones and not feel like you are in the presence of something just a little out of the human range of cosmic understanding. Personally, I think it's the wings that do it. Or the black tongue inside that shockingly powerful beak. Or the eyes, black and sharp and eternally vigilant.
I am here to tell you, large parrots make for the most fascinating of pets, entirely rewiring what you think a barely domesticated creature is supposed to do because they so easily flout and mock any and all of the things a dog, cat or hamster would do -- which is to say, they can talk, they can read your meek little human mind, they will only get angry if you get angry and will only laugh and shrug and nip at your feeble attempts at punishment and will stare at you in utter unblinking fascination as you have sex -- because large parrots and especially large African gray parrots are: a) preternaturally smart, b) creepily observant and c) neurotic as a Jewish comedian on meth.
Plus, of course, parrots mimic. Especially grays. Especially well. They are legendary for it. Did I mention they can live for 50 years? And that this bird isn't even 2? It's a long haul, baby. You'd better love the bird thing. Otherwise, it's all "Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," you know?
In fact, the weird-crazy-beautiful parrot Anaya is sitting on my shoulder as I write this, right now. She is making strange gurgling noises to accompany the Arctic Monkeys. Also, smooches and wolf whistles and long, sustained raspy sounds like pineapple being dragged across a cheese grater for 10 solid seconds. This is normal. This is to be expected. After a while, you barely notice and the SO and I can be watching TV or talking in the living room and the bird will be yammering away in her own little world, conversing with the spirits for a solid half hour, and unless she chimes in with a crystal-clear "I love you" or "Hello" or "What's up?" you just sort of tune it out the way a parent, I imagine, tunes out the sounds of the children imbibing lighter fluid and stabbing each other with little plastic forks.
Unless, of course, she screams. The screaming is new. It is piercing and startling and, well, surprisingly cute, probably because it sounds exactly (and I do mean exactly) like my girlfriend.
See, parrots go through phases of mimicry as their tongues and brains and observational skills develop, and this particular bird has recently added to her astounding orchestral repertoire the exact same high-pitched, ear-rattling, neighbor-alerting yelp emitted when I jump out from behind the door to scare my SO (which I do frequently, as a way of keeping the relationship fresh and snappy and ever on the verge of, you know, murder). It is, in a word, uncanny. Hilarious. Adorable. The screaming, I mean. And, I suppose, the girlfriend.
She will scream without provocation (the bird, but also the girlfriend). She will scream as part of her normal, twice-daily verbal gymnastics wherein she runs through every noise she knows and rearranges them on the fly, like her own built-in GarageBand. She will scream when you leave the room. She will scream when you enter the room. She will scream whenever she hears a woman scream on TV, a sort of scream-a-tĂȘt. Thankfully, she does not scream so often, or so loudly, that we have to consider duct tape and a sedative.
But, then again, screaming is not her favorite thing. Not by a long shot. For that, we have the telephone.
Parrots, as I said, are terrifically weird. Parrots are highly unpredictable. Parrots attach to random things and are utterly freaked out and terrified by other random things (Example: Wave a big broom in front of Anaya and she just looks at you and rolls those tiny black eyes and yawns. But bring a simple toothbrush within 5 feet of her, and she will jump, flap her wings and growl like you're a drunken Dick Cheney carrying a shotgun), and there is little explanation for it. Telephones are, for now, just her thing.
She is amazed by them. You will be talking and laughing and muttering into the handset, and the bird is leaning way in and cocking her head sideways and watching every ... single ... syllable ... as it passes your lips. She is absolutely mesmerized. She is taking it all in. Recording. Studying. Analyzing.
Hence, she can now imitate, with freakish precision, the exact tone and cadence of the ring of my SO's home phone. She will ring the phone two or three times, answer it with the exact same beep as the on button, say, "Hello, how are you?" in pitch-perfect girlfriend intonation, proceed to have a full conversation in human-pitched bird gibberish (with all appropriate pauses and cadences), say, "OK, OK, bye-bye," and hang up with another perfect beep. She will do this over and over again. All day long.
Parrots happily, effortlessly smack around your normal perceptions. Parrots make you look at the world anew, every single day, perhaps more than any other sort of pet, though I've never owned a potbellied pig or a miniature pony or a three-toed Republican, so I can't speak with absolute authority. In fact, we don't even know for sure if Anaya is male or female (requires a special blood test we have yet to get around to) and so in about six years, if she lays an egg, we will know for sure.
Hopefully, she will scream when it happens. And so, probably, will we. How much fun is that?