She Walks the Walk; Will She Talk the Talk?

Our cockatiel can't talk, or maybe she just won't. She sings beautifully - like a bird, actually. She also hisses when she's feeling peevish, and once I swore I heard her hoot. But she hasn't said a word since we got her a year ago.

We used to think it was because she was so young, and that given time she'd step up to the plate, phonetically speaking. But we can't cover for her anymore. Clearly, she's just not a talker. In fact, she stubbornly refuses to engage in conversation.

For the last 12 months, I've stood in front of her cage every morning and said "Hello!" until I'm too embarrassed to go on. My embarrassment stems from the look of concern Tweety always gives me, as if she's thinking, "What are you, some kind of nut?" At this point I think it's far more likely that our dog will have the last word, and the first one, too. At least he always looks as if he's about to say something.

Part of the problem is that I've always been a skeptic when it comes to conversing with the animal kingdom. I'd be more than happy to hold forth with the celluloid Tweety Bird of Warner Bros. fame. But a real one? I'm just not sure. For me, this falls into the same category as clothing on animals: cats in bonnets, dogs in sweaters, cows in hats. It's just not natural, unless you like that sort of thing.

Which brings me to my sister-in-law. She's like a combination Anne of Green Gables and Dr. Doolittle. She talks to the animals, all right, and they talk back. She has an Australian parrot named Tuppy who's a regular fountain of information, a chatterbox with wings. She also has three dogs, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, a donkey, three goats, an occasional cow, and a rabbit. I bet they all talk, too, but she's too modest to admit it.

She lives on a farm (you probably figured that out on your own) with her husband and daughter. She's good with all living creatures, including people. But lately I've been dodging her calls because I'm embarrassed by our dumbfounded bird.

I just know I'll get an earful of Tuppy's latest bon mots, and then there'll be silence on the line while my sister-in-law waits for me to jump in with what Tweety's been up to. The pause will grow cavernous, and finally my sister-in-law will chirp, "Any success getting Tweety to talk yet?" And I'll squawk back, "Not a peep!"

IT'S not as if I haven't given it my best shot. I even broke down and bought a cassette tape called "Teaching Your Cockatiel to Talk." I had it for a month before I played it. I was too embarrassed. I didn't want to admit that our bird needed tutoring.

Finally, I set up the tape recorder and played the cassette for Tweety. Side 1 consisted of a man whistling "Yankee Doodle" about 50 times, followed by "Pop Goes the Weasel" 142 times (or so it seemed), followed by "Shave and a Haircut (Two Bits)" so many times that my eyes began to water and my son ran into the room, eyes bugging out, screaming, "Turn that thing off!"

Tweety, meanwhile, said nothing, although she did look slightly annoyed. I half expected her to pull out her own cassette tape, "How to Teach Your Humans to Mind Their Own Business."

The next day, my husband played Side 2 for Tweety. Side 2 was even worse than Side 1. It consisted of a woman saying phrases in an increasingly testy tone of voice, as if somehow she knew the bird wasn't getting it. "I love you, I love you, I love you," said in a maniacally singsongy tone, oh, 400 times, will make just about anyone feel cranky.

Then the voice on the tape started asking, "Do you want to play with me?" "No!" I kept answering, in an ever- louder bark.

Our dog was now convinced he'd done or was about to do something terribly wrong. The tape would say, "Do you want to play with me?" I'd shout back "No!" and Charlie would put his tail between his legs and beg to be let outside.

This went on for several minutes. Tweety didn't say a word, but she flapped her wings impatiently. And for the rest of the day we found ourselves saying, "I love you; do you want to play with me?" to each other: my husband to my son, my son to his sister. We all learned to say lots of silly things. And how to whistle, too.

I think Tweety's pleased with our progress, but I can only guess. She's still not talking.

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