In spite of my journalist husband Wal working in cities, London, Paris, Jerusalem, New Delhi, we have nearly always lived in the country and kept dogs, cats, horses, ponies, rabbits and goats and raised children.
Fifteen years ago, Wal, my journalist husband was already retired; I was teaching and writing part-time. Our home was a bungalow in a large field in rural Essex. Of our five kids only one remained at home and he was soon to fly the nest. I favoured a new challenge. Why not a Parrot?
I knew Barrett Watson. In Newmarket, where he runs a superb stable of show horses; he also breeds Parrots: Macaws, Cockatoos, and red-tailed Greys. He keeps rare and costly species as well, such as Hyacinth Macaws and Keas.
Barrett’s advice to a not-so-young couple seeking their first bird was that a red-tailed Grey would be suitable. When properly kept and trained, they will be quiet, clever and affectionate. And so it has turned out to be.
It was decided. The not-yet-laid egg was reserved. Once hatched, Barrett encouraged me to visit the baby bird several times during its weaning and early education. Barrett hand feeds after a fortnight so I used to visit the Grey chick that was being raised in a nursery with a military Macaw and a Galah.
Out of the two Grey babies in the nursery I chose the one that came forward. “Probably a cock,” said Barrett. We brought home the weaned, fledged and well-socialized baby who already knew the step up command and had been used to wearing a harness. I can’t stress too strongly if you want a young Parrot, find a healthy, well- socialized chick from a reputable breeder whose babies are already used to gentle handling and trust people.
Arthur settled down fast. I read every book in the local library on pet birds and thus developed an extensive theoretical knowledge some of which came in useful. However, nothing succeeds like hands on experience.
Artha taught me more than any number of secondary sources. But according to the books, he squatted low down on a perch like a hen. A test confirmed my hunch. The DNA Certificate returned from the lab - Arthur, African Grey, Sex = female.
But we had been calling her Arthur for 3 months already. So we dropped the ‘R’ and she became Artha. She was an enthusiastic talker from the age of six months, who’d insist when asked, “How does the doggy go?” in replying “Meow”.
She’d transpose the question “What’s the meaning of life?” into “What’s the meaning of Parrot?” And would answer her own question, “I won’t tell you.” Her vocabulary at 18 months numbered over one hundred and twenty-five words of which 40 were used in the correct context, like “Good morning”, “Good night,” and so forth. We managed never to swear in her presence. She might have remained a solo bird had tragedy not intervened.
The following year after Artha’s arrival, our youngest daughter came home from Morocco. Zoe suffered from bipolar affective disorder. After five months of numbing depression, she could bear the pain no longer and killed herself.
Next morning, the young Parrot kept her head under her wing for four hours, refusing to leave her cage. Was she aware of the sorrowful atmosphere in the household? I believe pet animals are sensitive to their owner’s moods - be they joy or grief. The German shepherd bitch ran away to a neighbour the same morning after Zoe’s death.
Artha became my constant companion; she displayed what I could only call empathy. Joanna Burger, the American ornithologist, author of The Parrot That Owns Me, has described similar behaviour from Tiko, her Amazon, when she lay fevered in bed for six weeks. On another occasion Tiko showed clear signs of grief when Johanna’s mother lay dying in their house. Tiko shrieked so much that he had to be shut away upstairs.
In the intense months following Zoe’s death, Artha would lay her head under my chin and remain still for many minutes. Her gentle presence aided my recovery. This sympathy that a pet can give appears even stronger because it is wordless.
I took her everywhere, even horse riding on the pommel of the saddle, although I was nervous of her flying off and kept her wearing her harness.
A year later I decided she needed an avian companion. Since she’d likely outlive me, when she went to a new home she’d not go alone.
My younger son Zac (then 16) promised me he’d take care of my Parrots if he had to. I took Artha back to her breeder Barrett Watson.
These were the notes that I wrote at the time:
Barrett has brought the baby to the stable yard. It’s a shorter drive for me than to his home where the babies are hand reared. The baby is in a transporter in the tack room. Artha, who knows the tack room, flies on top of her mother’s cage. (Her mother lives and breeds in the tack room.)
Her mother comes out of the nest box and tries to bite her toes. Artha flies to the top shelf and perches on a pile of horse blankets. Barrett brings the baby out of the transporter and puts him on my hand. He hasn’t learnt ‘step up’ yet.
The baby’s red tail feathers are so new that the curls up at the ends like a drake’s. I fall in love at first sight. Artha flies down to my other hand. This is the moment. How will she react?
What she does is amazing! She tries to feed the baby; they rub beaks. She grooms its eyelashes then loses interest and flies back to her vantage point. ‘That went off all right,’ says Barrett, who never flaps. ‘Don’t you want to get the chick sexed? I won’t bother.
Artha and I were both captivated. ‘She might not be so friendly in her home territory,’ Barrett warns. We shall see.
On the drive home Artha refused to talk or sing as she usually does in the car, even with the encouragement of Radio 2.
The young Grey was brought home four weeks later and called Casper. Artha never displayed jealousy towards the newcomer; they shared a cage from day one. There was one spin off that I regretted; after Casper established himself, Artha stopped speaking English except on rare occasions.
Keeping these two birds, watching their relationships flourish, stimulated my interest in Parrots.
That spring, I built them an aviary. Once friends realized I had the space, they started suggesting rescues and re-homes. So my Parrot life mushroomed on from there.
Having taught my kids, other peoples’ kids, adults, dogs and horses for most of my adult life, I wanted to teach my pet Parrots how to live comfortably with us indoors. Books helped, particularly Rosemary Low’s.
You can take courses online in bird behaviour. Susan Friedman’s course Living and Learning with Parrots (LLP) enabled me to understand the principles behind the science of behaviour and its application to companion Parrots. Having done LLP, I was eligible to study bird training with the renowned trainer Steve Martin at his Natural Encounters Incorporated ranch in Florida.
All these trainers teach and practise methods of positive reinforcement. I was able to use positive reinforcement techniques with various rescue birds like 3 re-homed Timnehs and 4 Amazons who bit and could not be handled.
They learned how to step up onto a stick and stopped lunging to bite. So a hobby gradually turned into a passion and an avocation. I find it hard it hard NOT to talk about Parrots when I am with other adults.
Artha and Casper - over a dozen years down the line - have never chosen to mate and present us with the patter of tiny claws. Over time, other birds have come and gone, friendships made both avian and human. In the coming months I hope to share some of our adventures, discoveries successes and failures with you.