Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Feathered friends

I was sad to learn one of my stepmother's parrots died. And surprised -- these animals have human-like lifespans, and this one was only in his 20s.

Living with tropical birds has its ups and downs. I know. My stepmother has kept two, three, four of them since I was a kid. They are very pretty, and their mimicry is striking. But they also can be plain noisy, and I'm a guy who likes his quiet. They also can be temperamental and suspicious. I always wanted at least one of the birds to like me and sit on my shoulder, but they mostly cowered from me and, if I got closer, bit.

The mimicry of parrots can be so funny, though -- funny because pointed mimicry is always funny and uncanny. We laugh at Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin partly because the jokes are good, but especially because the imitation is so keenly observed. So when a bird talks and sings and whistles like a person -- or like a garbled, Auto-Tune imitation of a person -- we can't help but laugh with delight. It's really remarkable, miraculous. I was always struck by the fact that when we had a guest in the house and that person spoke, the birds would get very quiet. They were listening and learning. The birds are always listening.

Indeed, tropical birds will surprise you with their listening. You can teach them phrases, of course, through sheer repetition. But the birds also pick up tics and habits, things you say all the time that you don't even know you're saying, household sounds so familiar you've ceased to consciously hear them.

Tropical birds are like fun house mirrors in that regard. One of the birds picked up my dad's habit of regularly clearing his throat. Another mimicked the low, vaguely wary way Dad answers the phone. All the birds repeated our names over and over, because people in families say each others' names all the time. I think all the birds could whistle the "Andy Griffith Show" theme song because, well, ours was a Griffith-loving family. We watched that show all the time.

What most unnerves me is to visit home now and hear one of my stepmother's birds making a sound from the house we moved out of 20 years ago. We had a phone that rang with a distinctive electronic warble. A bird still mimics it. We had a sliding glass door that probably needed oiling and made an odd little chirp when opened. A bird still mimics it.

I remember that house. So do the birds.

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