Lecture Notes: I'm a bird, and I can beat this thing | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Lecture Notes: I'm a bird, and I can beat this thing 

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I'm not one of those talking birds. Not an African gray parrot who squawks like an alarm--"Hello! What's your name? Hello!"--whenever a human passes his perch. I'm a macaw, hatched in the highest branches of the Amazon rain forest. We're quiet, dignified. Our feathers--marine blue and buttery gold--bring us all the attention we need.

But I have to tell you what happened in this house a few Saturdays ago.

The cockatoo and I have been living in the laundry room for 20 years, but it's never felt this...festive. Wreaths studded with pistachios and banana chips hang on the wall. Rolls of adding machine tape unspool from our perches. It looks as though Christmas and Devil's Night both struck at once. And it was all done to distract me from my hateful habit: pulling out my own feathers.

I hadn't been feeling well all that Saturday morning. I sat sullen as a vulture and shivering because my nearly naked breast, where golden feathers once grew, was now covered with only sparse gray down. When the doorbell rang, I swiveled a bit, just enough to see a red-haired woman bounce into the house, rolling a suitcase behind her. The cockatoo was ecstatic. He loves company. He bobbed up and down, flipping his crest. It looked like a white glove waving hello.

Cherry, the woman who lives here and feeds us nuts, sat down at the kitchen table and told the red-haired woman all about my problem.

"She started picking her feathers a year ago November," Cherry said. "She had a bacterial infection. I gave her medication, but the picking continued. They said once they start, it becomes a habit. The bird was 20 years old, never had a feather problem. When I quit giving her the medication, she started chewing on her skin. That's when I panicked and went to the vet. She said I should see a bird behaviorist and referred me to you."

The red-haired woman--Cherry called her Michelle--wrote this all down in purple ink. Then she headed straight at me, holding a stick.

"Hi!" she squeaked, high-pitched as a parakeet. "Let me take a look at you. Maxy, do you rule this house? Come here, hon!"

I screeched at Michelle and bit her finger--not hard, because this beak can crush Brazil nuts--but hard enough to let her know I didn't want her near me. I flew across the room and tried to hide in the venetian blinds. But she caught up with me and made me sit on her stick. She bobbed it up and down, forcing me to flap my wings. I felt like taxidermy.

"In the wild, birds fly six to ten miles a day, searching for food, housing, and mates," Michelle told my mistress. "You want to incorporate some exercises into their routine. They get bored and a lot of the time they start feather picking out of boredom.

"I want you to start an exercise program for her," Michelle said. "You can do it five minutes in the morning, five minutes in the evening. Play chase or fetch." While I was distracted, Michelle's assistant redecorated our room. She tied bundles of drinking straws to the bars of my cage and garnished the perches and walls with the adding machine tape. I thought we were being TP'd.

"We like to make this for them to shred," Michelle said. "When you have a feather picker, you like to give them something to chew on."

The cockatoo loved it. He tore strips of paper off the roll. I had just been shaken like a Salvation Army bell, so I was exhausted.

Michelle gave Cherry her diagnosis: "This new environment is going to make her life happier, but I really think she's got a medical problem. She's got inflamed follicles. That's usually a sign of infection."

So this means more trips to the vet, more medication. I just haven't been able to break my plucking habit. I never saw a bald bird when I was a fledgling, before the hunters nabbed me. Nobody plucks in the jungle. They're too busy looking for nuts. When I beat this thing, I'm going to peck out a book about us bored, frustrated indoor birds. And I'm going to include something Michelle said: "Birds never should have been taken out of the wild. They should have been left alone. If I could roll back time and say, 'Don't import these birds,' I would. The fact is, I wasn't around back then, so there's nothing I can do but make these birds happier."

Michelle Karras will be at Windy City Parrot, 4427 N. Milwaukee, from noon to 6 on Sunday, February 9, to discuss your bird's behavioral problems; call 773-725-5684 for more. Karras can be reached through her Web site, www.thepoliteparrot.com, or at 815-941-0514.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Fogelman.

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