The Birds of Pandemonium
Life Among the Exotic and the Endangered
Michele Raffin
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
We have no doubt that Ms. Raffin will admit to being a bird-brain, if that implies one who is screwball crazy about birds, will willingly turn her house and surrounding terrain into a jungle, will put up with squawks, cries, croonings, buzzings, hoots, whistles, and an assortment of screams, sometimes getting very close to maybe screaming herself. Here she tells about her latest love, a "magnificent blue and gold macaw."

    He was about a foot and a half tall, with glossy blue-green feathers, a saffron-colored belly, and black and white stripes running cross his cheeks.

Raffin met him at a local bird shelter, but he was in the doghouse, in the back room because he was dangerous. You'd go in and he would say, "Come here!" and when you were close enough he would give you a nasty nip on the fingers or lips or ears.

How had he gotten to the bird shelter? This is stuff right out of those 19th century Orphan Tales, babies left at the nunnery late at night. Someone had deposited this gargantua of the bird world in a shoe box at the door of the bird shelter. And run off. Scared he was going to fly after him screaming "Come back here you son-of-a-bitch!"

"The person who left him clearly wanted to off-load the bird fast, and without a trace of ownership. He was unadoptable, miserable, and a liability to the shelter." So, Raffin, being a sucker for anything with wings, with only 200 other exotic birds roosting in her house, knows she just has to take in this noisy brat.

She explains that these guys not only use their beaks to nibble on your forefinger, they use them to explore other species and for balance. If you pull away from the nibble too quickly, you can get slashed. "The best way to handle a beak closed on a finger is to push inward or use the other hand to carefully open the beak." That's what she says.

Pandemonium is packed with handy bird lore like this, and I appreciate her sentiments, but my own reaction would be to strangle the little bastard until he gives up or passes out. That's what sets me apart from a bird lover, I guess.

§   §   §

However, in my own defense, let me say that I went through my avifauna phase not all that long ago. But instead of picking say, as Raffin does, a turco, finch, macaw, dove, pheasant pigeon or, god forbid, an East African crowned crane [see above], I contented myself with a bird that could at least, offer me breakfast every morning or if they insisted on picking on me, I could cook her up as fricassee for lunch. Me: I did chickens.

This is not the time for me to tell you my many many bird-brain stories --- but I do know, a bit, where she is coming from . . . like the satisfaction of looking some winged beauty dead in the eye while she is perched on your index, turning her head this way and that whilst shitting on your shoe.

The author tells us that she is committed to birds who are physically or mentally damaged, and Tico the macaw certainly falls into this category. Who knows why he likes nipping someone who wanted merely to take care of him? It might have something to do with noise. Parrots can be noisy. Noisy as hell. And nasty.

Raffin explains it. It's known as "sport" biting. Premeditated. They sweetly entice you into their purview, and then bite the hell out of your finger, and then do "a short victory dance once he'd hit home."

    One crucial fact unknown to most new avian owners is that parrots adore their own noise, along with any reciprocal racket from other birds or humans.

Yell at them for shrieking, "and they will scream louder at the encouragement. Shout 'ouch!' when the bite you, and they'll be tickled pink and eager to try it again."

    To a parrot, a loud, emotional response --- even if you turn the air blue with the vilest of curses --- is the equivalent of applause and calls for an encore performance.

Pandemonium is filled with other rather surprising facts. For instance, when you buy a parrot, be expected to go through an extensive training program. No, not you training your florid new friend, but him or her training you. One Amazon that Raffin's family had taken in immediately adopted her son Nick.

This was a bird that had been in and out of so many homes that he was considered to be impossible to place (adopting a bird can be an exhausting procedure, not unlike taking on a new baby people.) After meeting Raffin's son, the Amazon immediately decided to train the boy to be his slave, charming him to death. "Did anyone expect me to believe that a bird with a brain the size of a hickory nut had planned this clever ambush." But the vet that had helped Raffin through a variety of adoptions told her,

    He probably decided that this time around he was done with bad placements. It could be he was determined to get a boy, someone young he could train.

Amigo moved in under Nick's bed, and "began to amuse himself with a curious Socratic monologue. "Why? Why not?"

"Hearing that small voice inquiring from underneath the bed was pretty cute the first five times the family heard it. We called him our philosopher-parrot. But after a few hundred times, we were muttering about a cup of hemlock. Even Nick had had enough of the tedious recitation.

    One day, after Amigo's first, "Why?" Nick interjected, "Why not?"

    There was silence for a few seconds. Then quietly, from beneath the bed: "I don't know."

--- Pamela Wylie
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