There was a time not long ago when I regarded flocks of birds much as I regarded schools of fish -- devoid of real thought, lacking individual personality, driven purely by instinct -- but that was before I heard about Alex. Alex is a 27-year-old African grey parrot who is learning how to read. Shown an "S," Alex says "ssss," shown "SH," he says "shhh," shown the letters O and R, he says, "or," then, satisfied his answers are correct, he requests a nut, a shower, or a tickle, depending on his mood. Long before Alex got hooked on phonics, he was a star in the field of animal communication, having learned to distinguish numerous shapes, sizes, colors, and materials, and to count objects up to six. According to his teacher, biologist Irene Pepperberg, who bought the bird at a Chicago pet store after watching a television show on ape communication, Alex is smart but by no means exceptional. In a paper published by the Journal of Comparative Psychology, Pepperberg reported that young parrots develop certain mental abilities much the way human children do and that most have cognitive abilities comparable to a 5-year-old child's. (She is currently working with several other parrots and a parakeet.) Unfortunately, even after a quarter-century, parrots display the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old -- self-centered, stubborn, finicky, and prone to tantrums, with an insatiable appetite for attention, stimulation, and praise, and an overwhelming desire to throw things for no particular reason. The volunteers at Pacifica's Mickaboo Cockatiel Rescue consider this the primary reason so many birds from the parrot family are abandoned or mistreated.
"Caring for birds as smart and companionable as these is very rewarding," explains Mickaboo founding member Tammy Azzaro, "but it's a tremendous commitment. Most people aren't prepared for it."
Until recently, Mickaboo would take in any parrot-type bird that was neglected, abused, injured, or sick, but a recent drop in donations and increase of need has caused the small nonprofit to cease rescue efforts until all the feathered orphans in its care have been adopted.
I peruse the 2003 calendar at a Mickaboo benefit, admiring the successful pinups: March's Madame Professor, a wild-captured green-winged macaw who developed an infection after six years in an undersized cage with a poor diet and untreated plucking; April's Bluebird, a cockatiel once crippled by malnutrition, who now loves taking showers, getting her head rubbed, and eating spinach; June's Little Monster, an African grey who gave up plucking for snap peas, apples, and abundant kisses; August's Sheyla, a cockatiel left in a dark room for 10 years; and September's Finn, a baby blue-front Amazon, a bird that can live to be 80 years old, found in a tiny cage with no toys, no playmates, and no human attention.
Once rescued, each of these birds was placed in the care of a volunteer foster parent for rehabilitation and then matched to a permanent adoptive parent who had attended a bird-education class led by Mickaboo. Of course, it doesn't always work out that way. Susan Quilopras, a six-year volunteer, has fostered about 21 birds; she now owns 18.
"Every bird has such a distinct personality," explains Quilopras. "You kind of just fall in love with them."
"You have to have suffered a sharp blow to the head to want to keep this many birds," states Julie Cardoza in a gruff tone that in no way conceals the love and devotion she feels for her 10 feathered companions. "The only way we can keep them all happy is to keep them working."
For the last 14 years, Julie and Ed Cardoza have been operating Happy Birds out of their San Jose address, but catching them at home is no easy task. During an average year, the performing bird troupe presents 450 to 600 shows and covers between 25,000 and 30,000 miles; the birds have appeared in numerous television commercials, on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, America's Funniest Home Videos, and Animal Planet, and in a Linda Ronstadt music video; and, even after an early morning show at an elementary school, the birds seem eager to perform again.
"They looove to show off," says Julie, rolling her eyes and giving Zachary, the troupe's starring harlequin macaw, a playful scratch on the head. The Cardozas' yard, where the birds sun themselves for a couple of hours every day, is a maze of perches, cages, and toys. In one corner Korbell, a yellow-naped Amazon, sits muttering to himself; occasionally, in an attempt to get attention -- and perhaps a nut -- he coughs, laughs like an old woman, howls like a coyote, crows like a rooster, and sings fa-la-la-la.
"Sometimes when I'm on the phone, he just starts crying like a baby, literally," explains Ed, "until I get off the phone and play with him. He likes to hang upside down." Korbell hangs upside down.
"Nutty bird," says Julie affectionately.
With all the attention diverted, Zac hops to the ground, hoping to make it to the rock garden.
"He loves to play with rocks," explains Ed.
He also loves his bicycle, but the other birds send up the alarm, a similar ruckus to that which follows every cage-break by Rita, a beautiful umbrella cockatoo with a performer's heart and a voyager's wanderlust.
"They all tattle on each other," explains Julie. "It's like, 'He's down! He's down! She's out! She's out!' No one gets away with anything."
Yah-kee, a yellow-maned Amazon, begins singing "Oh My Darling Clementine" while Marty looks for his toy shopping cart and Dexter chases the dog. Forrest, a blue-winged macaw who only knows 10 words, successfully outwits Julie at a shell game -- the same game that Pepperberg used to prove that, unlike dogs and cats, grey parrots develop a robust sense of object permanence akin to that of humans and great apes. I begin to wonder.
Back at home, I offer the neighborhood pigeons a little more regard, and I note that, of my three nearly identical goldfish, there is one that eats out of my hand, one that bullies the other two, and one that retires nightly to a small pocket in the plants. It strikes me: This is a mighty big busy world.