In the next few centuries, we may encounter non-human intelligences in space. I hope that first contact occurs during my lifetime, but, if it doesn’t, I am not concerned. Without any exaggeration, I can say that my personal first contact happened when I was twenty-six on the bottom floor of the Pike Place Market in Seattle, when I discovered parrots.
Until then, I hadn’t thought much about parrots. So far as I was concerned, parrots were kept in cages like fish in aquariums, minding their own business and eating decaying fruits and vegetables for preference. About all that could be said for them, I thought, was that they were more interesting than reptiles, and less creepy.
Trish and I were meeting friends who read tarot in a booth down the hall from the parrot shop. Waiting for our friends to finish work for the day, we wandered down to stare at the birds. It was a gaudy, raucous experience, and I suspect that too many birds were crammed into too small an area by modern standards, but I realized almost at once that almost everything I knew about parrots was wrong.
I was captivated. Best of all were the birds running up and down the torsos and arms of Dick and Diane, the store’s owners, chuckling, squawking, stopping for a scratch and occasionally a squabble. Some of the birds would pause, looking at me while hanging upside down, and, meeting their eyes, I knew there was an intelligence, watching and evaluating me. The experience was uncanny and thrilling at the same time.
After that, we made a habit of stopping at the parrot shop whenever we were in Seattle. We started visiting pet shops at home, too. Those were the days when the exotic bird trade was still unregulated, and pet stores would get dozens of different species for sale, most of them kept in overcrowded conditions.
Once, we saw birds with scaly face mites disfiguring their beaks being kept in a coral with other birds with clipped wings, and made a point of avoiding that chain of stores every after.
Not that the stores we continued to visit were much better. I suspect now that most of the birds in such stores died, and most of the rest went to homes where they were chosen to match the decor in the living room, and thrust into closets and back rooms when they stopped being amusing to their owners. Only a handful are likely to have had happy lives.
Now, the restrictions on the parrot trade have mostly ended such commercial misery, and I regret having assisted it by patronizing such stores. At the time, though, we had no idea. Our fascination grew, and, when our tarot-reading friends bought a yellow-naped dwarf macaw they named Coquette, who quickly befriended us, we became ambitious to own a parrot ourselves.
Large parrots like cockatoos, and macaws were beyond what we could afford, and Amazons seems staid. However, we soon learned that conures, a small South American type of parrot had much the same irreverent rowdiness as macaws, and were far less expensive.
We briefly considered a blue-headed conure at the Lougheed Mall pet store who responded excitedly to us through the bars, going so far as to think of naming him MacAlpen, because his blue and green feathers reminded us of a hunting pattern on some of the older Scottish kilts. But somehow, he didn’t seem quite right.
Then at the Kingsgate Mall, we met a young nanday in the closed room. His round cage sat amid a dozen others, most of which were much larger than he was. The only other bird near his size was a red rosella, and they would hang from the bars of their cages for hours, cheeping back and forth.
The nanday had a bright-eyed look of innocence. He was also missing two claws on his foot, which was almost a sure sign of the kind of rough treatment associated with the illegal export of birds. In addition, the store owner seemed dodgy, boasting of contacts that sounded like smugglers and claiming that the nanday was several years old when his all-black hood strongly suggested he was under a year.
We went home and looked up nandays in the magazines we had accumulated. Nandays were poor talkers, we read. They were noisy, and not fit for keeping in apartments. They were not beginners’ birds.
Still the nanday at Kingsgate Mall had an irresistible gallantry, a willingness to hold his own in the face of much larger birds. On our second visit, we agreed to buy him, and to take him home after the folk festival. We did stop by on the way to the festival to feed him cherries, but we waited until the day after, which was Trish’s birthday, to pick him up.
We put him in the living room, and went out to dinner to give him time to adjust to his new surroundings. I was so excited that I could barely leave him, or eat when we got to the restaurant.
Somewhere along the line, though we agreed to call the bird Ningauble, after the insatiably curious and gossiping wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. The wizard’s personality seemed to match the bird’s, and we were completely enchanted. What we didn’t know was that one of the most enduring features of our domestic life had arrived.