Birds of a Feather
Birds of a Feather
Parrots are very social creatures. In the wild, they live in flocks; in captivity, they like to cuddle and be spoken to by humans, and will even “purr” when held. But if a parrot is ignored or neglected, it will act out, gnawing on wood or tearing at its own feathers. “They’re like three-year-old children,” says photographer Miisha Nash. “They have a lot of capacity for understanding.”
Nash began photographing parrots and their handlers in 2014 while living in the United Kingdom, and has continued to document them in both that country and the United States. Working alongside pet owners and parrot-rescue organizations, she believes that the relationships humans have with parrots are some of the closest we have with any member of the animal kingdom. Here, Nash’s photographs are accompanied by an essay by Karen Abbott, whose own parrots taught her not take the love of a pet for granted: parrot ownership requires time, patience, and a deep well of empathy.
I have never wanted children, but I’ve always wanted birds—a realization that dawned in December 1997 in the unlikeliest of places: Las Vegas’s MGM Grand casino, where my husband and I were celebrating our first wedding anniversary. One afternoon, in between rounds of $5 blackjack, I wandered to a lobby and discovered a long perch supporting a dozen parrots—scarlet and hyacinth macaws, eclectuses and lilac-crowned Amazons among them—riotous bursts of red and blue and yellow and green, a preening, chirping string of jewels. I’d owned birds since childhood, a succession of mild, low-maintenance parakeets, beginning with a pastel beauty named Jake who rested on the wire rim of my 1980s orthodontic headgear. But parrots were different beasts, exotic and unpredictable. And some breeds have a life span of 60 to 80 years. A parrot, I thought, could outlive us both.
That spring I visited a bird farm in suburban Philadelphia. In hay-lined wooden squares resembling those at a farmers market lay squirming piles of baby birds, eyes barely open, their skin goose bumped where feathers were just beginning to grow. This time I was drawn not to the colorful birds but to a bin of African grays, all a soft shade of slate, their budding crimson tails the only splash of color. There was something appealing about their faces, the way the chelonian slope of their heads joined with their majestic black beaks; they seemed solemn and dignified, the Mount Rushmores of the subfamily Psittacinae. One of them was more restless than the others, determined to be noticed. She waddled her way toward me, using nascent wings for leverage, and fit herself into my palm. Through her tissue-paper chest her heart flailed wildly against my skin.
But parrots were different beasts, exotic and unpredictable. And some breeds have a life span of 60 to 80 years. A parrot, I thought, could outlive us both.
I had promised my husband I would look but not buy. We were 24 years old, had just bought our first house, and owed a combined $100,000 in student loans. The bird cost $1,500, not counting cage, formula, and toys, and required a nonrefundable $500 deposit. I lifted her close to my face. Struggling, she managed to pry one obsidian eye fully open and met my gaze. I named her Poe, after the writer.
Poe required vigilant care, as all babies do. We fed her with a syringe, heating the formula to a precise 103 degrees Fahrenheit, watching her chest—now dusted with dander—fill like a helium balloon. She burbled and chirped as I rubbed the sides of her beak. “Really?” I asked her. “Tell me more.” A few months later she uttered her first word. “Really?” she asked in a slushy version of my voice. “Really?”
I had followed the research of Dr. Irene Pepperberg, whose groundbreaking work with an African gray named Alex upended long-held tenets about animal intelligence. Alex was a veritable avian genius, with a vocabulary of 150 words and an advanced level of cognition; he wasn’t merely imitating human speech, Pepperberg argued, but understanding it. Although I had neither the time nor the expertise to train Poe with such rigor, I was convinced she had the same potential for thoughtful communication. After mastering a word or phrase through mimicry, she used it in perfect context. “Want some juice!” she sometimes called, adding a gulping noise, an order to fetch orange juice. “Wanna go back” was a command to return her to her cage. “Good morning! Good morning!” she yelled until I got out of bed, then followed with a laugh that sounded exactly like my own. On long days working at home I sometimes treated her like a therapist, confiding my various frustrations. “Oh, shit,” she said, cocking her head. And then: “It’s OK, buddy. It’s OK. I love you.”
After mastering a word or phrase through mimicry, she used it in perfect context. “Want some juice!” she sometimes called, adding a gulping noise, an order to fetch orange juice.
With this intelligence and seeming empathy came equally human neuroses, which worsened over time. Poe loathed the color purple; a certain pair of socks evoked prolonged cries of terror that sounded like grinding brakes. She flung unwanted food at walls and sometimes refused to eat at all. She marked the bathroom as her territory, growling and attacking our feet if we tried to enter. A veterinarian prescribed Prozac, instructing me to mix a few drops into her water—a successful solution until she detected the medicine. From then on, she dipped her tongue into water to test for bitterness before she drank. She began to pluck her feathers, the avian version of trichotillomania, leaving long strips of her torso bare and bloody.
“Please tell me what’s wrong,” I begged her, stroking her head. Pets were supposed to quell anxiety, but she had the opposite effect on me; I worried that my anxiety was another thing she’d learned to mimic, until she’d internalized it and made it real.
For once she had nothing to say.
We decided that our pet needed a pet and bought Poe her own African gray. Dexter was the anti-Poe: plump and mellow, undiscerning in his appetites, content to sit and delicately preen his feathers, which were intact and flawlessly scalloped. He could mimic any household or street noise with tonal precision—the low-battery alert on our smoke alarm, the garbage truck driving in reverse—but was too lazy to bother with words. He was well suited to Poe, by which I mean he withstood her abuse without protest. When they sat side by side on their feeding stand, she crept over and nudged Dexter off. “Whoops, sorry buddy,” Poe said, peering down, following this with her evilest laugh.
Poe liked having another member in the flock, though, especially one who was beneath her in the hierarchy. One summer Dexter flew away, disappearing into the woods behind our rental house. We spent six frantic hours searching for him while Poe remained uncharacteristically calm. “Come here!” she called again and again, punctuating this with a high-pitched shriek. Eventually, from deep in the woods, the shriek reverberated back. We found Dexter resting sleepily on a high branch, as though he’d just awakened from a long nap.
The parrot could mimic any household or street noise with tonal precision—the low-battery alert on our smoke alarm, the garbage truck driving in reverse—but was too lazy to bother with words.
Dexter was an antidote but not a cure. Poe still plucked feathers the moment they took root; her little legs were bald. But no one had any answers. One evening in February 2016 I came home and took her from her cage. She sat on my lap, wilting like a flower in the heat, her breath coming in wheezy gasps. I called my husband to rush home. “It’s OK, buddy,” I told her, mimicking her words. “It’s OK.”
At the animal hospital she was placed into an “oxygen box,” a small clear contraption she was to sleep in overnight. We were allowed to say goodbye to her. With great effort she said, simply, “Come here.” We did. I tapped the glass and told her she was too stubborn to die.
During her exam the following morning, she did, her final defiant act. She had just turned 18, a baby in parrot years. The cause was heart disease, nearly impossible to detect in birds.
Dexter can’t understand what happened to his friend of 15 years, but he knows the flock has changed irrevocably. Sometimes he’ll glance at Poe’s spot on the feeding stand, as if waiting for her to appear and shove him off. “Who do we miss?” I’ll ask him, and he says the one word he speaks with effortless clarity: “Poe.”