Brain Birds

A thoughtful consideration of the smart and feathered friends at Mickaboo Cockatiel Rescue and Happy Birds

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 Ronstadtmusic 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 Martylooks for his toy shopping cart and Dexterchases 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.

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