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Dear Parrot

Nobody knows how the birds began. Not even the Parrot remembers. Ornithologists base their theories upon the fossils of extinct birds and of creatures that came in time before the birds—eons and eitons and alautons ago. Like all scientists, ornithologists are learned men, but not so wise as the philosophers and the poets, who taught the scientists what to think. Aristotle, for instance, the ancient Greek who may have been the greatest thinker who ever thought, was so impressed by the parrots his pupil Alexander the Great brought back from the conquest of India some twenty-three centuries ago that he wrote a fine description of this bird for future ornithologists. As for the beginnings of life on earth, here are a poet’s lines which describe them more intriguingly than any scientist has done:

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
One night when the moon was blood,
Then surely I was born.

That is from a poem about the Donkey. He resembles the Parrot only in that ignorant people have made both the subjects of tiresome jokes. A smaller relative of the Horse, the Donkey has ears that are supposed to be too long for his head and his head too long for the rest of him and therefore he has been considered funny-looking or strange or weird. That could explain why the poet makes the Donkey’s birth under a blood-red moon seem a little scary, like Halloween. Nowadays figs grow on trees, but the Parrot remembers when figs grew on thorny bushes and it was difficult to eat one. Back in the Jurassic period the forests didn’t actually walk, of course. Sometimes it looked as if the forests were walking—or, anyhow, jumping around a bit—because they were full of dinosaurs and brontosauruses roaring about and knocking down the trees.

That Brontosaurus was a lizardlike beast, about as long as a middle-sized airliner and as heavy. When you visit the Natural History Museum, look for a reconstructed skeleton of the Brontosaurus or for a replica in plastic large as life with his eyes and gigantic mouth grinning down upon you. Think: when this animal roamed the earth he made a roar like thunder and the oldtime Greeks, who must have learned about him from their prehistoric ancestors, named him Brontosaurus, which meant Thunder Lizard. He ate trees. His jaws were big enough to hold a rubber tree without much trouble; his teeth were sharp as spears and big as fire hydrants. He waddled through the primordial forests and just chomped on trees when he got hungry. Picture a herd of twenty or thirty Thunder Lizards slouching along with their mouths full of broad-leaved trees which they have pulled out of the ground roots and all. No wonder it looked as though the forests walked. That’s what the poet meant and what the Parrot saw, the first Parrot, for surely he was there among the fishes that flew.

Not the flying fishes we know that skim over the tropic waves—fishes that really flew over the land, the jungles and the rain forests. Most ornithologists believe the birds were reptiles or scaly fishlike snaky things that lived in the ocean until they crawled ashore and learned to fly. Ornithologists believe that uncountable centuries ago when these reptiles began to be birds they turned their scales into feathers.

The Parrot, like any other bird, still keeps his scales upon his feet. Should you have the luck and the good taste to have a pet parrot of your own, he won’t mind your examining his feet. The Parrot has been on earth so long that he is closer than most birds to the reptile, and this must be why he is so smart: he knows the secrets of the tortoise. If you invite your parrot to perch on your wrist, his leathery toes upon your skin will feel a trifle snakelike. If he and you are the friends you should be and you really trust each other, he will snakestep his way along your outstretched arm and perch upon your shoulder. Probably the Parrot’s favorite spot is upon his friend’s shoulder. While he’s there you may take a close look at the bright little feathers that grow in delicate layers ever littler as they near his eye. The patterns of these feathers, each so intricately placed to overlap another, are the patterns of the scales of a fish.

Doubtless your parrot likes to have his head scratched. He will lower his head, rest his beak on your shoulder and close his eyes in rapture as you gently scratch. Nothing, not even a mate to share his lonely cage, gives a tame parrot more pleasure. He will puff up his neck feathers so you may run your finger through his undercoat of downy feathers and bristling tiny pinfeathers. When the Parrot molts and renews his plumage, the old feathers drop out and the tightly rolled pinfeathers sprout and unfurl as ferns do and exactly where they belong in the feather pattern. It’s something like and yet a lot more complicated than the way your new teeth replace the old ones.

Instead of teeth the Parrot does his biting with a strong, curved beak. He does not chew his meal of fruits and greens and seeds; he grinds it down with grains of sand or gravel he stores in a compartment of his throat known as his crop. A tame and trusting parrot will eat right from your mouth. Place on your lip a sunflower seed, making the correct parrot noises as you do so. The courtly bird, who could easily with a careless thrust of that sharp beak mangle your lip, will pick up the seed so softly you hardly notice it.

Offer him a peanut roasted in its shell and a parrot accepts it with his foot. The foot becomes a hand and his toes fingers to hold the peanut while he munches it, the way you’d eat a cookie. (If you know another bird that can do this trick, I’d like to meet him.) The Parrot breaks the peanut shell and while his thick black tongue spews shell fragments on your shoulder, he nonchalantly swallows the nut. He offers no apology for the mess; he knows it’s the natural thing to do. In his tranquil fashion he will chomp up a carrot or a celery stalk; he will demolish a pencil or any other wooden beaksharpener, and the shreds and splinters will drift down onto your carpet as if it were the rain forest’s floor. It is the same with old feathers he plucks out while molting, the same with his excretory functions which he indulges whenever the urge is on him, no matter what he splatters with his wet green and white droppings, or whom.

The scaly feet are fine for perching too—for holding tight to a branch during a tropical storm—and for climbing. The Parrot is yoke-toed: two toes point forward and two behind. His beak serves as a third hand when he climbs a tree or a vine in the wild or, in captivity, a rope. In your own parlor he will climb just as efficiently up an upholstered sofa or a curtain to the very top, hitching himself up there with beak and toes.

Those feet are very bad for doing just one thing and that is walking; they simply weren’t designed for pedestrian use. The Parrot loses all his style when he must move flat-footed across a floor with a slightly foolish rocking of the body. The claws that dig so well into cloth or a tree’s bark only encumber him on a horizontal surface. He cannot scamper like a sandpiper or waddle like a web-footed duck. The best he can manage is a droll flock-flocking walk as his curved claws strike and slide uselessly on the boards.

Sometimes when he’s out of his cage and feeling at loose ends, a house parrot flock-flocks his solitary way down the corridors, searching for his friend. His eyes are keen but since they are set on either side of his head, he cannot see in front of him. To find out where he’s going he has to turn his head to and fro, using one eye and then the other. When he comes to an open door, he cocks his head sideways to see if his friend is in the room. To make his presence felt he will commence to bite at his friend’s shoe or subtly nip his ankle. He wants up on the shoulder: to make this perfectly clear he may well dance and shuffle a foot or two from side to side and fan out his tailfeathers. That’s what he used to do in the rain forest to impress his mate with the elegance of his plumage. He keeps on with the parrot dance from side to side and cocks his head up at his friend. Now the pupils of his eyes shrink and dilate in black dots centered in the yellow circle of the iris. The black expands and contracts upon the yellow so wildly the effect is fairly psychedelic. This is the Parrot’s way of winking at you and an important part of the whole performance that ornithologists call the courtship display. All of this activity is accompanied by a serenade of clucks, whistles, laughs, and croaks that only say Pay attention to me. I want up on your shoulder.

Why all the fuss? you ask. Why doesn’t the bird just fly onto the shoulder? If he’s a healthy bird and his wings aren’t clipped, why won’t he fly? Because when a parrot gets used to a cage he loses the habit of flying. There is no excuse for the wicked practice of clipping a bird’s wings and no reason for doing this to a bird born in an aviary. An aviary is an enormous cage, roomy enough for a number of birds to fly around in and pretend they are free. Often an aviary contains trees or imitation trees with hollow trunks for the Parrot to nest in as he is accustomed to do in the wild. Captive birds have to lay their eggs somewhere and they use these contrivances, which do not fool the Parrot one minute. Still he is an adaptable bird and plucky; he has the pride of his ancestors, he refuses to feel sorry for himself. He finds solace in knowing some parrots have lived more than one hundred years in captivity, and that is a lot longer than human beings who put him there.

A tame parrot flies the swift, direct flight of his brothers that dart through the tops of the rain forests. He is lazy, though, about flying; he had rather ride around on his friend’s shoulder or even flock-flock along the floor than fly. The reasons he uses his wings at all are instinctive: A) he feels neglected and wants attention; B) he loses his grip while climbing; C) a sudden noise, no more than popcorn popping, startles him and he takes to the air. The time to tell for sure that you are a parrot’s friend is when the panicked bird is flying about the room in search of a safe perch and you stretch out your arm and he lands on it.

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