Michael & Debby Smith write about 30 years of living with a parrot whose intelligence and emotional awareness challenges our human-centric world view.
Why did I write about living with a bird for 30 years? Usually I write about things left-wing, like law and politics. But last August OR Books came out with Parrot Tales: Our Life With a Magical Bird, which I co-wrote with my wife Debby. But it’s not such a departure after all and herein lies the tale, so to speak.
It all started in 1992 on Sunday morning when Debby and I took our 10-year-old son Eli for a visit to a pet shop in Tribeca called The Urban Bird.
The owner sold only baby parrots. All kinds. All colors, from all over the world. Except they were hatched here in the United States as mandated by law.
When we walked in, the birds in the store were young, with one exception. An older bird was living in a cage, hanging from the ceiling in the back of the store, commanding a view of all who entered. He was evidently not a happy bird. He had been abandoned when the couple who owned him split up. He spotted us and yelled out, “I’ve got a yeast infection!”
“What?” said Eli, looking up first at the bird and then at me. Before I could answer, the bird shouted, “Fuck you!” That was it. We decided then and there to buy a baby bird. We still have him. We called him Charlie Parker after the great saxophone player whose nickname was “Bird.”
Charlie is a sentient creature with intentional speech. He’s not a tape recorder or a mimic. We have a relationship.
Charlie used to say “Let’s order out” when he was hungry. Now he says “want some chicken,” chicken meaning any kind of food. When he is sleepy at night he says “wanna go sleep.” He follows up with “sweep the floor,” “cover my cage,” and finally “good night.”
When he is sleepy at night, Charlie says “wanna go sleep.” He follows up with “sweep the floor,” “cover my cage,” and finally “good night.”
We lost our downtown law office due to toxic pollution after 9/11 and had to practice out of our living room where Charlie lives in his cage. Debby was on the telephone with an aggressive insurance adjuster. Charlie could hear him. Charlie loves Debby and is very protective. Charlie got more and more agitated listening to the abuse of the aggressive insurance adjuster. He was walking back and forth on his perch. Finally he could not stand it any longer and yelled out, in my tone of voice, “I am going to kick your ass you son-of-a-bitch!”
“What?” said the guy. Debby hung up on him.
The stories we tell are laugh-out-loud funny. But that’s not all the book is about. The James Webb Space Telescope has so far revealed 4,000 planets much like ours circling around suns. This is likely the basis of extraterrestrial intelligent life. It will not be human. Communicating with Charlie is an example of what it might be like when there’s contact between the creatures of Earth and those of distant planets in outer space.
Astrophysicist Carl Sagan speculated on what kind of brain intelligent creatures who could think would have. It could be something like Charlie’s. No cerebral cortex. But packed with neurons. Humans and parrots split from each other evolutionarily some 300 million years ago.
Charlie weighs about a pound and his brain is the size of a shelled walnut. He is an African grey parrot whose ancestors came from the Congo. Charlie was laid in Miami and hatched in New York.
The most famous African grey was Alex, an acronym for avian life experiment. Alex worked in a laboratory at Harvard with pioneer scientist Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Her groundbreaking studies proved that African grey parrots have the intelligence of a seven-year-old and the emotional development of a two-year-old.
She demonstrated that Alex had the capacity for abstract thought, knew the concepts of bigger and smaller, knew the concept of none, could add and subtract up to seven, knew colors and shapes, and had feelings and emotions. The evening before he died, as Irene was leaving the lab, Alex said, “I love you.”
When Dr. Pepperberg started her studies 45 years ago she was ridiculed by nearly the entire all-male scientific establishment. She could not get grants or a position in the university. Her husband supported her for a dozen years, finally telling her he thought she was “a failure” and she should get a job teaching high school science. They divorced. She is now world renowned. Her book The Alex Studies is sold at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Parrots live on six continents. They are being obliterated due to poaching, habitat loss and climate change. Devastation is being visited upon much of Central Africa where greys come from. They are victims of limitless greed and desperation. The economic whip drives poachers in Nigeria. A wild African grey can bring hundreds of dollars.
In Australia, wildfires brought a fiery end to 2019. Scientists estimated that over half a billion creatures were killed, including many Australian magpies. As the fires tore through the countryside, the magpies (who belong to the same family of highly intelligent birds as parrots, crows and ravens) were heard pitifully making the sound of rescue vehicles, but to no avail.
Their habitat went up in flames so powerful that the inferno could be seen from space. Humans have induced rapid global heating and we face a threat of mass extinction of species not seen since the end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago. At this critical time, we are belatedly becoming more intentionally aware of our commonality and interconnectedness with other beings and with nature.
Humans since Aristotle have placed themselves on top of the animal hierarchy and apart from nature. We thought we were different and superior. This false belief has philosophical and ethical implications. After 30 years of living with an African grey parrot, and especially living with him over the last three being isolated by COVID, I better understand the interconnectedness of species and our part as stewards of nature.
Michael Smith is the author or co-editor of seven books including Lawyers for the Left and Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA. He is a co-host of Law and Disorder Radio, which airs Mondays at 11 am on WBAI-99.5 FM.
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