Secrets Of the Avian Heart

After the untimely demise of my son's guinea pig, I thought we were through with pets for a while. It was not to be.

After a decorous period of mourning, my son surmised that a parakeet was a logical successor to Grover the guinea pig.

The comparison eluded me. Grover had been cuddly, but otherwise vacant. The passive recipient of our attention and affection, he demanded nothing, rarely moved, and was two-dimensional to the point that I don't recall his even having had a voice.

Perhaps, then, Alyosha was looking for a more "interactive" pet, one requiring more than feeding, watering, and an occasional dusting. As with all requests for pets (the full-frontal assault for a dog is in momentary retreat), I hedged on a parakeet, sensing, perhaps, that as I had predicted with the guinea pig, its care would eventually fall into my hands.

The thing is, I was subtly intrigued with the idea of a bird in the house. Parakeets are antic, busy about themselves, and talkative.

It brought back memories of my Great-Aunt Hattie. Tall, deliberate, and broad of shoulder, a German shepherd would have suited her; but instead she lavished her affection on a white-and-yellow budgie named Peetie (the standard parakeet name of the day). Visiting her apartment meant having Peetie fly to my shoulder to nibble my ear, then watching as he walked the floor behind my aunt, following her to the kitchen in the hope of receiving some morsel. Peetie danced, Peetie talked ("Pretty boy!"), and Peetie eschewed his perch for the bottom of his cage, where he would lie down at night to take his rest.

My son worked on me for a couple months, until a combination of a good report card and a clean room brought me around. So on a precociously warm spring day we set out for the feed store, which sells small pets on the side. There we found some 15 birds in a large, well-kept cage. Many were very young (striped foreheads, no white ring around the pupils); all seemed clean, healthy, and animated.

"Make sure we get a boy," Alyosha whispered to me as if we were about some plot.

We had read that while females are more playful, males are more talkative. I had to admit that I was more intrigued by the idea of listening to what a bird had to say rather than having it dance on my head or roll grapes across the kitchen table.

A blue-and-white male immediately caught Alyosha's eye. It was so young that it still had some white down on the back of its head, giving it a sort of far-out look. As the attendant reached into the cage, the bird sank its beak into her finger. "Hmmm," I mused, not realizing how portentous that act was.

Alyosha, needless to say, was content. Immediately upon introducing the bird to its cage, he began to speak to it. "Pretty bird!" "Good boy!" "Hello!" Repetitively. Without letup. But the parakeet didn't so much as peep in response.

"How about a name?" I asked during a pause in the elocution.

My son's eyes sparked. "Well," he reasoned. "He doesn't say anything, so I'll call him Harpo."

I thought it a fine name, especially since, in time, Harpo began to communicate by whistling, like his namesake. I watched as, day by day, the bird became more animated and playful - sitting on my son's finger, perching on his head, running along the kitchen table during homework time. In contrast to the guinea pig, this animal was very much aware of Alyosha, singing him awake in the morning and squawking miserably when he left for school.

Up to this point, I had left the bonding initiative entirely to my son. But one day, while home alone, I approached the cage with chants of "Pretty boy!" and ventured to nudge Harpo onto my finger.

Ai-yee! Bitten.

When my son came home I warned him, "Harpo has gone wild. He bit me today."

Alyosha clucked his tongue, as if to say, "What am I going to do with you?"

I watched as he approached the cage, whistled a greeting, and prompted Harpo onto his finger. The bird closed its eyes contentedly and fluffed out its head feathers while my son scratched its neck. "Well, I'll be," I mused. And then, as I placed my hand on my son's shoulder to affirm his success with his pet, Harpo lashed out at me, relenting only when I had made good my retreat.

TO make a long story short, Harpo is a one-man bird. When I am alone in the house and come too near, he defends his cage like the Masada. Was it jealousy of my son's success with Harpo that one day drove me to attempt a reconciliation? I opened the cage door and, before I knew it, Harpo had flown out and driven me from the room, swooping about my head and squawking as I ran downstairs, trying to wave him off.

There is nothing quite so pitiful as a grown man being pursued by a parakeet in his own home. Only the arrival of my son brought Harpo to heel. I watched as he perched on Alyosha's finger for some cooing and scratching.

Since that time, the three of us have settled into our respective roles. For the moment, I have no choice but to accept the fact that I must share my son's affections with another. In truth, I look on in wonder, that a creature so small, in addition to its duties of flight, song, and preening, is capable of love, even if it isn't directed at me. But who am I to question the vagaries of the avian heart?

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