Hope Is Not A Thing With Feathers.



When Mrs. G. was four, she and her family went to Busch Gardens—at the time, a small scale theme park in Florida. She doesn’t have too many substantial memories of the day, but there are photographs of her at Busch Gardens, smiling and wearing a sunny yellow, smocked sundress with her hair hitched up in crooked dog ears.


Family legend has it that midway through the day, Mrs. G. begged to stand in the long line to have her photo taken with a large cockatoo. When Mrs. G. finally made it to the front of the line, the bird handler helped the cockatoo waddle onto her small shoulder. The bird appeared sweet and docile—it gently bobbed its head up and down. Mrs. G. reached to stroke its yellow crest with her index finger and within seconds, the cockatoo flicked its freakish black tongue, snatched her finger between its beak and proceeded to crush it like a Brazil nut.


Mrs. G’s mother, honest to a fault, recalls that initially (only seconds) the family thought the situation was amusing, but as Mrs. G’s face began to change colors and her eyes began rolling back into her head, the hilarity waned. The other children, still in line, screaming, “IT’S KILLING HER! IT'S KILLING HER!” added further gravity to the scene. The bird handler was no help. He kept trying to move the cockatoo off Mrs. G’s shoulder, but the bird refused to go without taking Mrs. G’s finger with it. He radioed for assistance and another guy showed up with some sort of metallic “Beaks of Life” contraption which he used to try and pry Mrs. G’s finger from its peril. It was only when a third guy showed up dangling what Mrs. G’s mother describes as a cheeze doodle in front of its face that the bird released Mrs. G. mangled finger from its maw. Mrs. G. still has a crescent shaped scar on her right index finger.


Black tongues, sharp beaks, khaki safari uniforms—it was like a Stephen King short story from which Mrs. G. never recovered.


Fast forward five years to Mrs. G’s grandfather’s living room, where on Tuesday nights, he never missed an episode of Baretta, a TV show about an unstable, plainclothes cop whose roommate and sidekick is Fred, a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. Mrs. G. didn’t mind Baretta blowing away bad guys and innocent bystanders in the streets of Newark, because as Baretta often said with a cigarette dangling from his lip, “Dat's life. Dat's da name of dat tune.” Blood, guts, breasts referred to as jugs…whatever. It was Fred that inspired terror. Whenever Baretta had scenes with Fred, particularly the ones where he fed the cockatoo food from his mouth, Mrs. G. closed her eyes and envisioned two potential outcomes: facial reconstruction and lip grafts.




Fast forward twenty or so years later to any pet store Mrs. G. and her children ever visited that housed a cockatoo in a cage. Mrs. G. would see feathers and instantly stiffen with fear; her kids would mutter in skeptical solidarity, “We know, we know—they’re killers.”  Mrs. G’s daughter always had a soft spot for the cockatoos that were partially bald because they, for whatever reason—and really, who cares, plucked out their own feathers. “Look,” Mrs. G’s daughter would say, “I feel so sorry for it.” Mrs. G. would fake a sad face, eyeball the bird and think cry me a river, you sorry bastard—sure that without innocent, vulnerable fingers to attack, the cockatoo had been forced to turn on itself.


So the day Mrs. G’s best friend Kay found out she was relocating to Boston and asked Mrs. G’s kids (without a word to their mother) if they would adopt her two cockatiels is not fondly remembered. “Please, Mom, please!” they begged. “You don’t need to be afraid of them,” insisted Mrs. G’s daughter. “They’re the smallest species of cockatoo, the easiest and most universally popular to keep as a pet. They’re like the Shetland Pony of Horses—small, harmless!”




Mrs. G. caved but never spoke to Kay again.


Mrs. G. lived with those birds for many, many years. She fed them, she bought their overpriced cuttlebones, she put $44 antibiotic eye drops in their beady bird eyes. She never liked them but she tolerated them for the sake of her children. Occasionally, when she had to handle one of them to clean out the cage, she would take it’s head gently in her hand and briefly consider crushing its tiny skull.


Oh relax.


She didn't.


Both Sweetie and Chancie died of old age.

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Reader Comments (36)

LOL, Oh Mrs G!
Once at a wildlife park a blue tounged lizard bit Denver. As blood was pouring down her finger the handler said, 'Wow, THAT hasn't happened before.' Helpful.

April 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHay

My sweet docile, scaredy cat little dog just bit the electrician. So you never know where animal danger will come from. But Kudos to you for taking care of those cockatiels.

April 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Paul

Our neighbors around the corner had two parrots, when I was growing up. I remember hearing the constant screeching of "Red top! Red top!" which was one of the bird's names. I used to think it would be cool to get a parrot and teach it to say the things my grandfather used to say, like, "Hiya, Mac!" or "Who slammed that screen door?" But I'm much more a dog person. I'm actually not so fond of the feathered set for pets, either.

April 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

what we do for our kids......
that is facing your fears out right.
On another note- I dreamed I was at your house, I had won some contest and flew out to stay with you.
after 3 days you were ready for a break.
After all I was walking around in one of your and Mr. G's matching robes-
I had to tell you that I was well over 21 give me a map and directions and I could go explore.
The next thing i knew I was at a movie house - which served wine- and Mark had joined me.
We had great fun tasting wine and trying to find a movie to go to.
Sorry about the robe.......

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermeredith@whynot

Dear Mrs G. , as sulfur crested cockatoos, 20 or so of which visit my garden every day in order to further demolish my lemon trees, can live for 80 years, your nemesis is probably awaiting your return. If ever a kiving creature was a disciple of Old Nick it's the cocky.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFran

What we do for our children! I salute you for overcoming such a trauma and taking on those birds.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenter*m*

An apartment-mate and I once babysat a cockatoo over winter break. I've hated the things ever since.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersuburbancorrespondent

Ick, ick, ick! I'm not very fond of birds, myself. Shifty little bastards!

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterfluffy

I'm amazed you took them in and then never even cooked in a teflon pan around them.

The captions on the photos made me aspirate my morning coffee.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterrudeek

You are a brave and caring soul. I once wanted a bird as a pet, then I was in a home where they had them. All the work and no cuddle. Meh, I'll pass.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLes

@ Meredith, that dream is funny!

My father in law has some sort of birds. I don't like them. They will never come to live with us!

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA Different Ashley

You're right there is something creepy about their black tongues.

I am not fond of birds. They seem...mechanical to me. I have another friend who experiences actual fear and repulsion about birds - she claims they are dinosaurs' direct descendents.

My husband's family was torn asunder because their pet cockatoo flew away when the screen door was opened by some pushy Jehovah's Witnesses, but that's another story.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAunt Snow (g)

Thanks for the morning laugh!

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrightside-Susan

"Beak of live." I love you.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterProf. J

I'm with Fluffy - I hate birds. My mother raised cockatiels. They too were nasty ass buggers. They would plan all nice and wanted you to scratch their head, then when you weren't looking, they would grab your skin and rip it off. More than once I just wanted to open the doors and let them fly free...I never. But I wanted too.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShannon

Mrs. G. the memories! When I was around eight, walking downtown with my dad we came across a guy selling birds. "Want to touch them?" he asked me. "They don't bite" Oh, but I knew better. Maybe it was some kind of sixth sense of the feathered kind or something, but I refused to come close to the damn things. My dad --wanting to be prime example of love for animals, of course-- went ahead. "See, they don't bite..." he said while putting his finger in the cage. "There's nothing to be afraid o... AAAARRRGGGHHH GAAAHHHH IT GOT ME, LET GO YOU M***** F***$%&^ THING!!!"

Ah, yes. Years of amusement that that bird has given us, and we didn't even have to buy it. *smirk*

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCaro

Had your injury happened to a family today it would've been likely lawsuit fodder. In fact, it strikes me your emotional trauma hasn't abated and ought to be compensated. Just sayin'.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMiriam

LOL! Thank you for this! Haven't laughed this hard in ages.

PS - I think I owned the pony in the pic. "Does not play well with others. My gawd, THAT was an understatement. Shetland ponies are evil. "Short horse syndrome." You have absolutely MADE my day!!!

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershepherdess

Sheer happiness at this post, Heather. Thank you! What an awesome way to start the morning...

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteraphrodite

Thank you so much for the laughter this morning.

You know how you asked everyone to state what they are good at? I noticed you didn't mention you are a good writer in your statement. I hope you know you are. Blogland is filled with decent writers but you are really talented. When I see you've written something new I feel a jolt of excitement.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLea

What a hilarious story! Thanks for a great laugh on a yucky gray morning!

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlurky mommy

Funny! You might be happy to know that our fruit farmer friends in Far North Queensland don't like them at all and routinely eliminate them.

My kids and I were inside a free-flying bird enclosure feeding lorikeets little cups of syrup when one landed on me and began trying to excise a large raised mole on my shoulder. I didn't want to attract any more attention than I already had, horrified kids watching blood run down my back, so I gave it a good hard flick in the head and sent him off.

Another time a friend and I were watching a magician perform next to a caged sulfur-crested when the bird decided he just did not like us. We only had to make eye contact with him and he screamed -- a horrible head-shattering noise so loud we finally had to leave as it disrupted the entire show.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterL

I have been chased by a turkey. I HATE big birds. *shudder*

Also, we had a love bird named Peachey for a few years. And we ALL hated him. I mean, hated him. He squaked incessantly, and we used to have to cover the cage just to get some peace. Took him on for someone who had to move away. NEVER NEVER again.

When he caught cold and we woke up to a stiff bird one morning, I don't think anyone was sad. Terrible yes?

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBecky

As preschoolers, my kids had a lesson in swan fear. They refused to return to that park.
Your tale only solidifies my stand against allowing my youngest son to have a pet snake.
No dinosaur descendants allowed in the house!

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkcinnova

I just don't think birds belong in cages. Even though in the past I had a canary. But now I think it's wrong.
And like Becky, I was chased by a guard turkey - at a Pharmacia in Sayulita, Mexico. I'm not kidding-it was a guard turkey, doing what it was supposed to do, but I was terrorized by it-hid behind my friend who kept telling me that the turkey wanted to show off his feathers. I don't think so.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterknittergran

I feel that birds, as a species, are generally sinister. May you never again have occasion to use the "beak of life"!

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRima

And now for something completely different.

It probably won't help to gently explain that cockatiels are not cockatoos. They aren't even closely related. The little crests on their heads are parallel evolution. They are also among the gentlest of birds. If you put an average cockatiel in a cage with a flock of budgies half its size, the budgies would beat the crap out of it.

As you may have guessed, I love birds. One of my stepfathers imported "birds" for a living. I put that in quotation marks, because the birds were basically a cover for the other lucrative items that can be imported from South America, Africa, Australia and the subcontinent. It was my job, at eight years old, to look after the actual livestock.

I became an expert in the care, feeding, breeding, taming and training of all manner of tropical bird species. That is why, whenever I see something like the situation you describe, with a one-pound wild animal who has been locked for six months in a shoebox with holes (importing and quarantine), then taken out, drugged, starved, and abused into submission (traditional training techniques), and then made to spend its entire day being poked at by small, nervous children, it makes me want to open a whole can of Oglala whupass on the entire Busch family and its descendants.

I've been bitten like you describe. Several times. A full-grown cockatoo or macaw can take the finger right off a small child. I still have scars. I knew, however, that the only chance those poor, stupid, wild animals had of survival in their new home was to become docile enough to handle, at least for a few seconds. So I let them bite me. I also woke up every two hours to feed Gerber's High Protein baby cereal to newly hatched clutches of hideous baby parrots. With a turkey baster. I scraped up the incredibly awful droppings of fruit-eating lorys and minahs. Come to think of it, much of my childhood was probably against the Geneva convention.

The laws have changed since you and I were little, Mrs. G. It is no longer legal to import birds in the way it used to be. It is still legal to breed them, however. The industry thrives because there is a market. There is also an accompanying network of rescue organizations dedicated to finding homes for all those tiny omnivorous predators once their original (ill-informed, trendy) owners discover that most hook-billed birds are, in fact, the proud descendants of velociraptors. They do not take well to being caged. Or poked. Or displayed as decorative items.

Unfortunately, without the first world breeding industry, many species of parrots would no longer exist. Their rainforests have been burned. Their food plants have been tilled under. Or, like the Australian cockatoo and American coyote, they have adapted to living off the detritus of human civilization and are now slaughtered, wholesale, with impunity.

Alex, the African Grey parrot made famous in the work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg, demonstrated to the scientific community a clear command of language. Adapted tests showed him with the cognitive IQ of a four year old child.

My point? It isn't to guilt you out of your feelings for psittacines. The truth is, your instincts are correct. These animals, for the most part, don't belong in cages, on fingers, or to live their lives as animated party favors to be passed out at theme parks. Many of them really are out to get us. Wouldn't you be?

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersungmanitu

I'm always amazed when I see those birds perched on strangers. We had a medium sulphur crested cocakatoo for 17 years. My husband despised the bird and the bird hated my guts. We finally rehomed him and keep in touch with the new owners. I think he's a lot happier. Still have an African Grey and a Military macaw. Two budgies who are much filthier than the big birds. Anyway, my point is that the Grey is totally my bird and would rip my husband apart if he could. The macaw adores my husband. I can handle him but I have to be on my guard the whole time as he will take a hunk out of me at the slightest provocation. Yes, I too have scars...

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterms martyr

So funny! Great post. I have a morbid fear of birds, no thanks to Alfred Hitchcock. The beaks! The beady eyes! Can people not see how menacing they are??
My sister on the other hand loves birds and is a magnet for wounded birds finding her. Sounds like a nightmare to me.
You are very brave to have taken on cockatiels AND cleaned their cage! And you're totally right about Shetland ponies. Meanest suckers in the corral.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMiss MoL

Not a fan of birds.....but loved the story. You're always good for a laugh! Thanks Mrs. G!

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterms. e

LMAO - your too funny! Our bird got caught in the washing machine and died! ack.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary

For about a year and a half, we had a pet duck. In case you were wondering, I can confirm that pet ducks do not make good house pets. You can't paper train a duck, no matter what my husband says. It is not 'funny' to feed the duck potato chips just so you can see his big webbed feet flop all over the kitchen floor when he hears the rustle of the chip bag (ok, maybe it's just a little bit funny). We got rid of Quackers after he chased me around the back yard nipping at my heels, and bit my son's arm hard enough to leave a bruise. Quackers now lives on a farm, sharing a dog house with a lop eared rabbit and a fainting goat. I dislike birds intensely, and am now patiently waiting for Re-Pete the parakeet to meet his maker. Your bird story makes me want to stay away from Busch Gardens forever!!

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKelley

Gawd bless ya for your pet caring ways.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHerImperialMajesty

"Occasionally, when she had to handle one of them to clean out the cage, she would take it’s head gently in her hand and briefly consider crushing its tiny skull."

Fucking Awesome!!!

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKacey

We had a bird, a BIG one---a macaw, taken in when his owner couldn't care for him. We had him for YEARS, with a cage as big as a Volkswagen in the house, and another one outside. He was loud, he was grumpy, and he would. not. stop. biting.

Then, when our GrandBaby came to stay with us, we found him a home with an abjectly-grateful family whose own bird just like him had passed away. They left with bird, toys, cages, food, a total disclosure of his habits and history, and my fervent prayers for their well-being and LONG life

I'll see you that finger-scar and raise you about five more---one a BIG bite on the inside of my wrist which looks exactly like that V on the alien TV show title.

April 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterracheld

Oh my, this is hilarious! I loved it!! Large birds freak me out too. They know too much. And I sympathize with you, caring for those two cockatiels. I've cared for a cockatiel, a mouse, a rat and an endless succession of goldfish simply because -- who else was going to do it? And it wasn't their fault they were boring, gross and unwanted.

April 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBellwether Vance

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