We teach our bird to talk - and he teaches us to fly

Our blue parakeet, Hermes, is molting. Black striped feathers, fluffy white down, and tiny iridescent blue feathers float to the floor, mingle with the seed hulls on the bottom of his cage, and sometimes land on our shoulders. The molting has left Hermes a bit peaked, so when his owner, our daughter Suzanne, is away at school, I take Hermes' cage down from the ceiling hook in the kitchen and talk to the little bird face to face.

I read passages from the parakeet manual aloud to him. Yes, birds may feel a bit poorly when they molt. He listens to what I say with his head cocked, his eye quizzical, as if to ask, "Why are you worrying about me? I feel fine." In time, this is what I say to myself: He's fine. Stop worrying. And I breathe not a word of this to Suzanne.

Suzanne loves this bird so much it takes my breath away, so I don't want to let her know I'm worried. But in truth I am, and not just because Hermes is molting.

A small bird seems such a fragile thing to love, so quick-breathing and delicate, his whole being a song, a whistle, a word. But we do not choose whom to love. We pick the bird we like best, bring him home in a small cardboard box, watch and wait. We don't know that he will steal our hearts. The first time he chirps we stop what we're doing and listen to him. Before long he is chirping his heart out. He imitates the whistle Suzanne whistles to him.

Because I work at home all day, I amuse myself by saying "pretty bird" to Hermes. It's the phrase my parakeet learned to speak when I was a girl. I feel a bit guilty, though. Maybe Suzanne doesn't want Hermes to talk; maybe she wants to keep his birdness intact. As it turns out, Hermes learns what he wants to learn. And he learns it from Suzanne, whom he loves best.

When parakeets mimic human speech, they perfect the words with repetition. That makes bird speech a continual work in progress, much as a hunk of stone is chiseled patiently and miraculously to life.

A few months after Hermes arrived, Suzanne began to read him the children's book "Goodnight, Moon" every evening before she covered his cage. A few weeks later, Hermes began to make sounds that resembled "good night." Each day, they became clearer until they finally sounded like a human voice saying "good night."

A few weeks later, the little bird added his own name and began to chant "Goodnight, Hermes" at all hours of the day. He spoke as a ventriloquist would, barely moving a muscle, only the slight pulsing of his throat to give him away at all.

I once read that you should teach your parakeet to say, "I can talk. Can you fly?" But that's a cheap shot. I know Hermes doesn't understand my words to him or his words to me. But because Hermes talks, I feel I must talk to him. When I enter or leave the room, I say hello or goodbye. When I sneeze, I say excuse me. That's especially necessary because the little guy has learned to imitate a sneeze.

But it's not just his ability to sneeze or speak that affects me. It's his personality, the way he gets embarrassed or excited. Some gray mornings he looks the way I feel, wings folded, nary a chirp to be heard, eyes glumly forward. Is he thinking about the world and his place in it? Probably not. But I pretend that he is, and that he understands the weariness in my mind. Other days, especially when the wild birds feed in our yard, he seems as if he could burst from simple happiness.

Hermes is never bored. Even though he lives in a small cage, he always finds something to amuse himself. In that way, he is instructive, using his bells, a braided leather strip, a wooden ring, and his food and water bowls in endlessly inventive ways.

Sometimes he sounds so much like Suzanne that I could swear she is in the house. In that way he is an aural reminder of other people's presence in my life. I often watch him when I should be working. When he isn't distracting me, he's inspiring me. He is proof there are many ways to live, some on the wing, some on the ground, some sitting at a desk pounding words into a keyboard.

When Suzanne comes home from school she often imitates him and says, "Goodnight, Hermes" in a birdlike way. I tease her that Hermes is proud of her progress. Before long she will learn to fly. But, in fact, Hermes has taught me something, too. When I'm stuck for a word he gives a whistle. "Look at me," I think he means. "Stretch your wings. Take flight."

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