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Of pets and parrots

Patricia Pereira-Sethi

From childhood, I have always been fascinated by animals and birds. Along with friends, I helped tend to wounded and hungry creatures fallen by the roadside and in the adjacent park, much to the consternation of members of my medical family. They worried aloud that we would pick up some dreaded disease. Nothing of the sort happened. Once cured and restored, the little ones were off on their way. This penchant to enjoy the presence of the tiniest and most humbling of all of God’s creation continued through adulthood. I had an assortment of dogs, seven in all at various times, from tough German shepherds to tiny chihuahuas, and a bevy of birds which included budgies, a cranky mynah who loved to crib under his breath, and a trio of whacky parrots.

One of the two birds that stood out most was a little blue budgerigar, Pipo, who wriggled his way in through the kitchen window – and refused to leave. He would sing and dance when I called out his name or tickled his tiny mane and lived a most spontaneous and joyous life till his death suddenly, of
a heart attack, at a ripe old age by budgie standards.

The other little gem was my parrot Rebecca. Becky was bequeathed to me when she was five years old. A psychiatrist friend inherited her from a patient who had committed suicide, leaving the bird in limbo. The good doctor offered her a home, but they never got on. Most of the time Becky would sit up in a tall tree near the bungalow and shriek if anyone crossed the imaginary raasthey roko line she had drawn around the tree trunk. At night she would descend imperiously to enter her cage and stay there till the next morning. Somehow Becky took a shine to me because, whenever I would visit, I would go out into the garden to offer her a treat. She would fly over to take the peanuts from my hand,
then promptly regress to her perch in the treetop.

A sudden storm which blew in changed all that. The tree was mangled, Becky was thrown off her pedestal and almost squawked her last. The doctor in desperation made a deal with her, go and live with your pal Patty. I can’t handle you anymore. Becky grasped the situation clearly – and acquiesced. She moved in with me and Pipo.

The relationship between humans and parrots can be surprisingly profound. They are extremely social creatures. In the wild, they live in flocks; in captivity, they like to cuddle and be spoken to by humans, and will even “purr” and “gurgle” when held close to your chest. If you ignore your pet, however, it will misbehave like a spoilt child craving attention, gnawing on wood or ripping out feathers to demonstrate disgust. Parrots also attach themselves to one person and that continues for life. Becky and I soon became one, she only had to hear my voice and she would call out my name and sing little ditties.

She had picked up the musical notes from my opera classes. When the professor ran me through my scales, Rebecca would sit in the living room near the piano and listen carefully as my voice waltzed up and down the octaves. And through a repertoire which included Purcell, Mozart and Puccini. Her big black eyes were glued to my face and sometimes she hummed along softly. Her favourite was the Puccini aria ‘Un bel di Vedremo’ from Madame Butterfly: especially when I screamed out the phrase “lo aspetto” which concludes the piece. Rebecca would scream as well, then collapse in peals of parroty laughter. An amazing character indeed.

She became so attached to me, she panicked every time my doctor friend visited. Becca was obviously afraid that my friend had come to retrieve her and take her back to the bungalow from whence she had come. Becca would scramble out of her open cage and clamber up the railing to my bedroom to hide under the bed. The dogs would bark excitedly when they saw her cowering there. I would plead with her to come out, as did the doctor, but she adamantly refused. Once my friend left, and she figured the coast was clear, Becca appeared again.

She loved riding around in the car. As soon as the car pulled out of the garage, she plunked down on my shoulder, nibbling at the earring in my ear, and we went for a quick ride while she stared at the surroundings and several fascinated pedestrians standing at street lights stared back. When I would ask her for a kiss, she would plant her beak quickly on my lips, then screech out “delish” (for delicious) with a
loud cackle.

Scientists contend that parrots are among the most intelligent of the bird species. The research of Harvard professor Irene Pepperberg, whose ground-breaking work with an African Gray named Alex has proved this; it has also shattered long-held tenets about animal intelligence. Alex was a veritable avian genius, with a vocabulary of 150 words and an advanced level of cognition. He did not merely imitate human speech, he understood it.

University of Alberta neuroscientists have also identified the neural circuit that underlies the intelligence in birds. It is not the pontine nuclei as was originally believed, but the medial spiriform nucleus (SpM) located in a different part of the brain. Using samples from 98 bird brains, including those from chickens and waterfowl to parrots and owls, the scientists compared the relative size of the SpM (the medial spiriform nucleus) with the rest of the brain. They determined that parrots have an SpM that is two to five times larger than in other birds. The SpM realises the same action as the pontine nuclei: it circulates information between the cortex and the
cerebellum–a loop crucial to the
planning and execution of complex bird behaviour.

Becca‘s conduct was always sophisticated and savvy. She died at the age of 25 of a bacterial infection, when I was out of town and the maid delayed taking her to the specialist for a dose of antibiotics. I miss her even today. Fly high Rebecca, fly high among the stars where you belong!

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