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Posts Tagged ‘Ningauble’

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.

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Recently, a number of scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration, stating their conviction that animals have conscious awareness. I was pleased to see among the signatories Irene Pepperberg, a personal hero and the leading expert in parrot intelligence, and I appreciate that so many people were willing to risk accusations of anthropomorphism and sentimentality. But, otherwise, the announcement mainly gave me the satisfaction of other people saying what I have known for years.

I have been convinced since childhood that at least some animals were self-aware to one degree or another. However, at least twice, this fact has hit me with the force of revelation.

The first time was shortly after Trish and I bought Ningauble, a Nanday conure. I was lounging on a futon by the window, and he was on my chest. As the sky darkened outside, Ning began to get agitated, indicating the direction of his cage with his whole body and making anxious noises.

I knew perfectly well that he wanted to be carried over to the cage, but I didn’t feel like moving. If he really wanted, he could fly there.

But after a few minutes of expressing his desire, Ning quietened. His head began to move, first to look at my toes and the end of the futon, then down to the floor and over to a chair beside his cage. He repeated the same eye movements several times, then marched along the path I have described, ending by climbing to the top of his cage and letting out one triumphant shriek.

Ning, I realized as a thin thrill of excitement passed through me, had just planned his route and followed it. He had at least a limited sense of the future, and enough awareness of himself to imagine doing something in the future. Of course he would have had an easier time if he had flown, but parrots’ intelligence rarely exceeds that of a three or four year old human, and he had all of a toddler’s obsessive tendencies.

This was not a random incident, either. Over the decades of living with parrots, I have seen Ning and all the other birds that have been through our house making simple plans and coming to a decision more times than I remember.

I particularly remember when each bird came to a decision and reached out to preen a human for the first time. Not only was it a sign of affection, but it has always been preceded by a moment of deliberation, as though the bird was deciding whether to extend trust. It has never been as unexpected as that moment of watching Ning, but the repetition showed that his planning was more everyday than something unusual.

The second moment was in early Spring. Trish and I were at Centennial Park on Burnaby Mountain when we noticed two ravens picking at the garbage bins outside the restaurant. We immediately observed that only one raven foraged at any given time; the other would perch, a little higher, shifting slightly and looking all around.

Over about half an hour, we worked our way cautiously closer. We were about ten meters away when a restaurant worker opened the door and tossed a big black bag of garbage into the bin before turning on his heels and disappearing inside again.

The ravens took the air. One landed on the grass about five meters of us. Abruptly, it realized how close we were, and looked up.

At once, I had a sense of being evaluated. My perception was not just based on the raven’s obvious wariness, or the fact that it was cocking its head as though to get a better view of us. It was the fact that I was close enough to look the raven in the eyes.

Once at a wildlife refuge, I had been eyed in the same way by a bald eagle separated from me by a wire cage. Its eyes were so mad that I could tell that its only thought was: Food? Not food?

By contrast, the raven seemed to be doing a more complex evaluation of us. Its wings were poised to take flight, but it seem to be risking a moment or two to be curious about us – even, perhaps, curious about our curiosity. What else the bird might be thinking about us I can only imagine, but what struck me was that looking it in the eye was exactly the same as looking a human in the eye. I was watching another patch of self-awareness watching me.

After about thirty seconds, we started to ease down to our knees, by unspoken agreement hoping that we would be less threatening if we looked smaller. But, as cautious as our movements were, they were enough for the raven to take to the air, flying over us with the single click of its beak. A moment later, both ravens were flying for a high stand of trees on the other side of the park.

Both these incidents took place years ago, but both have formed an important part of my thinking ever since. You might accuse me of an over-active imagination, but all I can say is that you would have had similar perceptions if you had been in the same position.

I hope that our planet will encounter aliens in my lifetime, but, if not, I won’t be too greatly disappointed. So far as I am concerned, my own first contacts with alien intelligences has already happened.

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Today, my nanday conure Ninguable died, surviving his mate Sophie by just under thirteen months. He died in my hands. It was the last act in a relationship that had lasted twenty-eight years.

He had been listless for the past couple of days, but yesterday evening he had seemed to rally. However, the improvement didn’t last, and this morning he was lying on his back when I opened his cage. I thought him dead, and although he roused feebly, I knew he wouldn’t last out the day.

I had no means to euthanize him, and taking him to the vet would only make his last hours uncomfortable, so I sat with him through the day. He seemed to have suffered a stroke, because he struggled to move his left leg, growing testy at times.. Sometimes, he yawned with his beak tilted up. He didn’t show any signs of pain, just frustration. I was just putting him on to a towel in his cage bottom, so I could use the computer with one hand while stroking him with the other, when he collapsed beak first and twisted sideways.

For a moment, I swear I saw a light in his brown eyes. Then he was gone. I waited a few moments, but I knew what was left was no longer him. The time was shortly before 2PM.

Ning was our first parrot, and responsible for most of the others coming into our lives. We had been fascinated by a friend’s dwarf macaw, and had spent over a month looking for our own small parrot. We briefly considered a blue-crowned conure at the Lougheed Mall pet store, but debated if it was quite right. Then we saw Ning at the store in Kingsgate Mall, and immediately knew he was right for us.

Had we known what we knew a few years later, we probably wouldn’t have bought him. He was missing a nail on one foot, and part of a toe on another – a likely sign that he was wild caught, and had had his feet tangled in a net. Plus the store owner swore he was eighteen months old when by his markings he was under a year. Later, we realized he had probably been smuggled into the country, an abusive practice that we wouldn’t have wanted to support.

But he was so feisty among all the much larger birds in the room, hanging from the bars of his cage and trying to attract the attention of the red lory who was the only bird of his size. We put a deposit on him, and stopped on our way to the Vancouver Folk Festival to feed him cherries and grapes, all of which he greedily devoured.

On Trish’s birthday, we brought him home. We left him to acclimatize while we went out to dinner, but we were both so excited that we could hardly eat. We named him Ningauble, after the ever-curious wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series.

In the next few weeks, I worked with several times a day in the spare room, teaching him to climb up on a presented perch, then on a finger, feeding him and praising him loudly as a reward.

In the evenings, I would take him out and herd him on to my shoulder, where he would sit nervously before starting off. He couldn’t fly much, because we had clipped his wings, but that didn’t slow him much. He would glide as far as he could, and resolutely trudge along the floor and up the furniture until he reached his cage.

One evening, we were sitting reading when he reached over and gently preened my hair. Between my nervousness that he would bite my ear and my delight at this sign of trust, I hardly dared to move. But the next evening, he preened one side of my hair followed by the back, careful not to miss a spot, before giving up.

He seemed relieved to realize finally that he wasn’t responsible for all my hair, and after a few more evenings, settled down to a token preen in return for having his ear holes and neck scratched. He would sit and preen me for a couple of hours, then waddle down the couch to Trish to give her a couple of hours of attention.

I was in grad school at the time, and used to work in the spare room we had converted into a library. For a while, I used to take Ning into the library, since he would scream for me if I left him in the living room. Unfortunately, he would not only wander the shelves flinging books off, but also produce what our local used bookseller called parroted editions that had been thoroughly chewed to the point where they were unsellable.

After a couple of years, we decided he needed a mate, so we brought home Sophie, a malnourished, abused bird. Our plans to quarantine her for a month were immediately overturned when the only way to keep them from calling from room to room was to introduce them. Under our anxious eye, Ning jumped into Sophie’s cage and immediately started regurgitating to her.

If Sophie could talk, I swear she would have said, “Excuse me, sir? Have we been introduced?” but they immediately became inseparable, eventually going on to produce six chicks, one of whom is still with me, and one who returned to us before dying at a young age from the second hand smoke in a home where he briefly lived.

Ning wasn’t that skilled at feeding babies. But he kept Sophie fed while she was brooding, and delighted in teaching them the basics when they left the nest. At that point, Sophie was glad to pass along the responsibility, and Ning always pined when the babies went to other homes.

Because of the trouble and heartbreak of finding new homes for the babies, we eventually stopped allowing eggs to hatch. But Ning and Sophie didn’t seem unduly troubled. They continued in happy monogamy, with Ning in the adventurous lead and Sophie chirping nervously behind, but following him – on to the floor, or up on my shoulder, where they would sit preening each other and occasionally me while I worked on the computer.

In between, Ning would have territorial wars with the other male birds housed in the living room, always with the psychological edge. Although not particularly large for a nanday, his electric blue and green feathers showed he was the epitome of health. And, anyway, he was the cock with the hen.

He also showed an uncanny ability to find what unsettled his rivals the most at the least risk to him – for instance, sitting just inside another male’s territory on the floor, in a spot where he couldn’t be dive bombed.

And so things went on, the living room full of bird calls, affection and avian macho, until I got into the habit of thinking they might go on forever. But Trish sickened and died, and, five months later, Sophie died. Ning responded by a fit of macho, rampaging around the dining table until it was clear that this previously neutral ground was now his. He was also inclined to mope unless he spent as much time as possible with me – something I didn’t mind in the least, considering we were widowers together.

In the mornings, when I came to open the curtains, he would greet the sound of my voice with a liquid trill that would continue for up to a minute — one of the most beautiful sounds I ever heard, and one I wish now that I had got around to recording.

Despite his increasing age, Ning showed few signs of slowing down until the last four months of his life. One day, waddling over the carpet, he stopped and began biting furiously at his right wing. When I picked him up, I could find no damage, but he never flew far again. Instead, he would call anxiously to me, squirming until I picked him up and carried him to where he wanted to be. By this time, I could guess his destination with almost total accuracy.

I had seen similar signs in Sophie, but, considering Ning’s better health, I had hopes that his senior years would be prolonged. Until a few days ago, I even had hopes that with therapy he might fly freely again, since several times he managed short flights when frustrated.

As I write, it’s six hours after his death. I’ve taken his body to be cremated, and removed his cage from the living room – and I still keep looking for him as I type. He’s the one who taught me that parrots had sentience and limited planning abilities. He’s the one who kept me amused with his unabashed enthusiasm, and supported me with a preen and by hanging out when I was discouraged or grieving. He’s the one who taught me that parrots can purr.

Given all this, what could I do but sit with him in his final hours? I talked to him about our years together, sang him his favorite silly songs, and repeated my pet names for him. I cried over the inevitable before it happened and I hoped for a miracle, knowing I wouldn’t get one.

And you know what? I’m not ashamed of any of it. Because those are the sort of things you do for a friend. The only shame would have been to leave him to die alone, and my only comfort is that I did for him what I could.

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