For parrots, freedom’s just another word

I teach English at a city hospital that has a small zoo on its grounds, including an outdoor aviary full of parrots from Brazil. I like to observe them on my breaks. My version of a bus driver’s holiday is trying to get the parrots to speak English.

By Elliot Silberberg (LIFE)

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Published: Sat 23 Apr 2011, 9:53 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:44 AM

So far it hasn’t worked. At most, a few of the parrots stare at me and crank out hearty squawks. I’m not put off. They remind me of certain students and, compared to a few, appear to be trying harder.

I end up watching the parrots flit and flap around. Their colours, deep reds, blues, greens, oranges and yellows are a stunning relief from the dull gray that pervades the city. Looking at them is like gazing into a living kaleidoscope. It’s startling to consider that these colours provide camouflage at home in the Amazon.

Recently, late for class and rushing by their cage, I did a double take when I glimpsed a small yellow and green parrot perched on a chain link fence just outside the aviary. It was chirping beak to beak with a parrot inside.

I had no idea how it managed to escape. At first, I considered searching for a zoo custodian, but decided not to. The little parrot was free as a proverbial bird and I didn’t want to be responsible for having it locked up again. After class, I went back and spotted the parrot crooning away, high up in a big nest in a tree next to the aviary. It had made a home for itself close to the home it knew best. Free or not, it didn’t want to soar into the unknown.

The next day, at sunset, I saw the parrot swoop down from its nest, land on the wire mesh of the aviary and start gnawing on the four pieces of metal that framed a square hole. The thick wire wouldn’t give but the parrot finally stuck its head in the hole and, to my surprise, after strenuous effort, squirmed inside.

So, the bird is leading two lives. I can only guess what it has on its mind, deciding to be free by day and return to its cage at night: that it has romantic interests in captivity and prefers the company of the other parrots in confinement; that free food beats having to hunt for insects and dig up worms; that captivity is the life it’s used to, while, on the outside, where cats prowl the concrete jungle, a brightly coloured parrot is like, well, a sitting duck.

Another darker thought is that the bird’s coming and going could be a sign of schizophrenia created from living trapped in a zoo. More sweetly, considering the nest it made, it’s nice to suppose the parrot has a natural urge to have its chicks born free.

In the end, all I can do is wonder about it in limited, merely human terms. The parrot’s less-than-total adventurousness has me reflecting that limits to freedom are as important as freedom itself. That parrot makes me remember opportunities I’ve turned down, risks not taken and compromises accepted, while surmising my life may be as rich or richer all the same.

The bird’s coming and going also tells me there’s nothing to be ashamed of in staying close to home and hearth if that’s where the heart is. Now, when I see the bird trying to stuff itself back inside the cage, I no longer think about teaching it English to parrot back. The bird is much more than a colourful, recording machine.

I’ve code-named it Columbus. The other, larger parrots jabber when the little explorer squeezes its way back to keep them company. The racket they make sounds warm, upbeat and welcoming. But what do I know? They may be grousing that, with the sky the limit, the bird is crazy to come back home.


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