Oscar the Grey

170px-African_Grey_Parrot_(Psittacus_erithacus)_-held_on_handI moved into my new office space yesterday…felt it was time to take business out of the bedroom and dedicate that space to relaxation.
I put my washer and dryer out in the newly remodeled garage which is now a studio and a wash room. The move freed up a small utility room downstairs off the deck. I removed the cabinets, painted it, installed a new wood floor and moved in my old oak roll top which was in storage.
Today is the first day to write in my new space.
It smells of linseed oil and turpentine from the refurnished desk.

Oscar, our African Grey, is sharing the space with me. He has a roomy open door cage and a nesting box and I think he is very happy to have the companionship. As long as I am in my chair he is content to stay up on his perches. If I sit on the floor he immediately climbs down and comes over to see me. He wants me to pick him up but I know the unpredictability and considerable power (think cracking walnuts) of his beak so I steer clear of handling him. Wild animals are unpredictable and I never know for sure what might trigger his fear and cause him to take a chunk out of me. Better safe than missing a finger when it comes to parrots.

I didn’t raise Oscar. He belongs to my boyfriend, G. G used to hand raise parrots as a side-line job and the breeder offered him a bird in payment for his services. They are worth a couple of thousand dollars and he loves birds and animals so he took him. That was thirteen years ago. Greys live to be fifty years or more. Guinness lists 72 as the longest living Grey in captivity. G is 63. Oscar is 13. This is a lifelong relationship for G and something for anyone considering a parrot to think long and hard about.

Oscar is a Congo Grey, one of two recognized sub-species. Living with a Grey takes getting used to and I have done well in four years. Wild animals are not capable of full domestication. They may tolerate some training but their instincts rule and their person should never forget that. They tend to bond with one person and G can handle him without incident but anyone else who attempts to touch him is at risk of a painful experience.

Experts regard Greys as one of the most intelligent birds in the world. Irene Pepperberg wrote about her Grey named Alex. She scientifically demonstrated they possess the ability to associate simple human words with meanings, and to intelligently apply abstract concepts such as shape, color and number. According to Pepperberg and other ornithologists, they perform cognitive tasks at the level of dolphins, chimpanzees, and human toddlers. Oscar has a fear of white trucks, not other colors, just white. If he is riding in a car and a white truck pulls up beside the car he lets out a shriek! I wonder if he associates to something frightening from his past.
One notable Grey, N’Kisi, was said to have a vocabulary of over 950 words and was noted for creative use of language. When Jane Goodall visited N’kisi in his New York home, he greeted her with “Got a chimp?” He had seen pictures of her with chimpanzees in Africa.

Wild African Grey’s often whistle, click or make other sounds. Oscar’s vocabulary is around 100 words. He says, “Hello” when he hears a phone ring and even when you pick one up to make a call. He can mimic anything he hears and it only takes once! G’s ex-wife wasn’t fond of Oscar. When a woman now walks past G’s cage you may hear him mutter under his breath her frequent words to him when she walked by and he would be trying to grab her, “mother-fucker.”

In the evening when he is put in his cage area for the night, he whistles a typical dog whistle and calls for G’s former dog, “Here Scooter.”  When he hears a door close he often says, “Go on, get out’a here.” Sometimes he carries on a conversation with himself, muttering away for minutes at a time in a low voice that is hard to understand, but is definitely words. He loves music, and when the right song is played he will sing with a vibrato to rival any opera star. He loves to dance, puffing up his feathers, bobbing up in down in rhythm to the music with an occasional “Wa-hoo” thrown in for good measure.
The aspect of his speaking I find interesting is his variety of inflection and use of context. He also demonstrates a wicked sense of humor.
When I first shared a house with Oscar, four years ago, I was sweeping the floor with my back to him, quite close to his cage. I bent over to use the dust pan and practically in my ear, a man’s low voice said, “Hello there.”
I dropped the pan and jumped looking around to discover he had quietly navigated down the door of his cage until he was right behind me and close to my head before he spoke.  Tell me that wasn’t intentional!

We were doing some remodeling when we moved in four years ago and he quickly picked up the sounds of the power tools. When I was redoing the floor in this room last week he “helped” me. If I used the drill, he made the drill sound. When I used a hammer he would bang on the wall with his beak in the same rhythm as I.  ‘Couldn’t have done the job without him!

Oscar has an outside cage where he likes to hang out weather permitting. He has learned the squirrel cry and all of the wild bird sounds and can do a perfect hawk, blue jay and woodpecker. I have seen a blue jay sitting on his cage and they appeared to be having a conversation.

When my cat would walk through Oscar’s room he liked to say, “There’s Lemur,” and follow it with a nice meow. Lemur and Oscar became friends and would eat off the same plate and we walked in one day to find them on either side of a chess game. Oscar was holding his knight in his claw.
When Lemur died a month ago, Oscar was subdued, mourning the loss of his friend. We took him to Lemur’s grave-site to say good-bye.  That seemed to help as he perked up afterward.

The stories about Oscar abound…my favorite may be the time he survived a solo journey out into the world, which he has done three times, an extremely remarkable fact in the pet bird world.

It was Oscar’s first Christmas and he had learned his first words, “Merry Christmas.” On December 21st, G was walking to his car with Oscar on his shoulder when a hawk swooped close and Oscar took off. He flew up into a tree high above the ground. G went to get a ladder but when he returned Oscar was gone. For three days friends and neighbors joined the search but Oscar was not to be found. A Grey that gets loose will generally survive only 24-48 hours so by day three G had given up hope of finding him alive.
On Christmas-eve in the evening, there was knock at the door. G answered to find one of the neighbor boys pointing and excitedly saying, “Look, G, Look!” With the driveway lined with neighbors, Oscar was walking home. His wings were dragging behind him and he looked pretty beat up, but he was clearly saying as he walked up to the door, “Merry Christmas.”

Unless he is making his infamous “smoke signal battery test sound” I have grown to be quite fond of Oscar. I long to pet him when he is acting all cuddly and cute but I recall G’s explanation of the African Grey sucker punch. “They lure you in with their sweet docile behavior and then nail you with that lethal beak!” I have been on the receiving end of that experience once, when I too was naïve about these birds which are to be greatly respected, so I won’t make that mistake again.

I am content to have him near my desk on his portable perch on wheels where we look at each other and he makes funny sounds and says whatever is on his mind, and I make funny sounds and say what is on mine.

He is earning his keep. Today he is the prompt for my morning pages.

African Grey

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