The itty-bitty bird who ruled our roost

One evening as the family was bustling about in the kitchen preparing dinner, our daughter let out a shriek, "Coco's laid an egg! She's laid an egg in my hair!" Sure enough, there in Kit's long red hair, curled in her hand to make a nest, Coco had indeed laid a tiny white egg. She was our white zebra finch, with orange feet and bill and an indomitable personality. Six months earlier Coco had come to us as a fledgling. She soon trained the whole family, aggressively teaching us what foods to give her, which activities she liked, how to groom ourselves (with her help, of course), and where she liked to spend her waking hours. She was not a singing bird, but she had a large, varied vocabulary of cheeps, chirps, squeaks, and rumbles. We could tell from another room what she was up to and what kind of a mood she was in. In her cage hung a tiny silver bell, which became Coco's security blanket. She loved to jab it with her beak to set it swaying, then huddle beneath while it gently massaged her head and back. Whenever we couldn't locate her in the house, we would simply ring her bell, and she would come out of her hiding place, screeching, "That's my bell - don't touch it!" She'd peck us away from the cage and huddle protectively under the bell. It was an infallible way to get her into her cage in a hurry. Coco's curiosity knew no bounds. Before we served dinner, she would perch on the wooden handles of spoons resting in saucepans. "What's this?" she'd chirp. "What's this?" Often she would hover, hummingbird fashion, in front of a framed picture, fascinated with her fluttering image. If a kitchen cabinet door was open, she would dart in to inspect the contents. She was an intrepid explorer. Our meals were shared with Coco. For breakfast she sampled our cereal, our toast, and above all, our eggs, preferably scrambled. For dinner, she hopped about the table, checking each plate and dragging bits onto the table. A grain of rice, a dot of mashed potato, a shred of chicken were delicacies, but her all-time favorites were peas and corn. She would wrestle a single morsel to the table, then spend the rest of the meal pecking off the outer skin to reach the soft inner kernel. IN the evening, Coco would visit all of us at our various places, perching on our heads or shoulders to judge if our activities interested her. If the girls were doing homework, she would land on their pens, cocking her head to examine the dark squiggles that came out of the pen tips. If I was at the typewriter, she would sit on my hand, watching the flying keys with rapt attention. More to her liking was to rest on the top of the pages of whatever magazine or book my husband was reading. As he turned the pages, she would scold him softly for making her rearrange her footing. Coco was a fastidious bird, and encouraged us all to be the same. When she landed on our bare feet or fingers, she minutely groomed the cuticles. Our hair would be pulled and rearranged until she made it into a resting place that suited her. The heads of our guests, however, were quite another matter. To have a tiny winged creature zoom in to land on one's head could be utterly charming or utterly disconcerting, depending on your personality and your love of birds. If our guests were spooked by her, we'd put Coco on a finger. Then with a sweeping gesture we'd send her flying to her cage, saying, "Coco, go to your room!" And off she'd go, squawking. One of the best parts of Coco's daily routine was bathtime. While we regulated the water from the kitchen faucet, she would excitedly chatter her approval, stretching out her beak to check the water temperature. Then she would hop into our cupped hands, water trickling over her head and back while she splashed in ecstasy. Over and over she would bob in and out of the shower, until utterly waterlogged she would fly to a picture frame and spend the next half hour preening. After she laid her first egg in Kit's hair that night, we were astounded. But Coco, true to form, took it completely in stride, ignoring it and going on to other activities. She began to lay eggs regularly and quite nonchalantly, wherever she was, inside the cage or out. "Wonderful!" we said. "Our Coco needs a mate." The friend who had given her to us now provided a male zebra finch. Hendrix arrived with his own enormous cage - obviously with expectations of raising a large family. Upon his arrival, our feathered friend, our devoted family member, the autocratic ruler of our household, underwent a dramatic change. She divorced herself from us; she had time only for Hendrix - and no wonder. He was amazing to behold: barred brown-and-white wings, a striped tail, polka-dotted breast, and a bright orange patch on his cheeks to match his bill and feet. He instantly caught Coco's eye. She would sidle up to him on their perch, talking to him in low, dulcet burblings. She rubbed his head with her beak, and lightly pecked it in true love. When he didn't object, she tried pulling out a few of his head feathers, but Hendrix only crouched and closed his eyes. One morning, we discovered that Hendrix had built an exotic, gossamer nest, egg-shaped, and twice his height, with a center entrance. Apparently delighted, Coco settled down and laid a tiny white egg. But Hendrix was born to be a nest-builder. Coco never got to brood her egg, for right on top of it Hendrix built an intricately woven pallet of nesting material. Day after day this went on, until the nest became a six-ply sandwich of alternating egg and nest-mat. We had been watching in bewildered frustration, and could stand it no longer. We took down the nest. They would have to begin again. EARLY the next morning, we found the builder hard at work. He had created his beautiful mat of finely woven fibers. Into the side of this he thrust his beak, and gradually, with much head-bobbing, he worked his whole body into the center. Then he began to jump in earnest - bobbing steadily, as he often did on his perch. His bobs turned into leaps as the nest took shape, flat fibers stretching into thin, translucent walls. It was all accomplished in the space of five rhythmic minutes. That day the cycle began all over again: Coco's fingernail-size egg covered over by Hendrix with nesting material and no time for hatching. Seeing what the future held, we felt it was time to call a halt. We packed up Hendrix and sent him home, nesting cage and all. That very day, Coco became our bird again - a family member in full standing. She ate with us, ordered us to do her bidding, and harassed us when we did not. She reverted to her own imperious, indulgent self, charming us all in the process.

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