There is a bird living in my house, and it is supposed to be there.
I grew up in a traditional pet family. We had a dog. I understood, in theory, that some people kept cats as pets. Why they would want to live with a hissing, scratching, solitary, extreme-congestion-inducing animal was beyond me, but I accepted the fact that it was done in some circles. I had friends with pet fish, which is what happened when you asked your parents for a dog and they said no. I also knew a couple of people who had hamsters and were not happy about it. These hamsters bit and smelled and made annoying and ominous noises by scraping their teeth together. Sharpening them, no doubt. I would also never own a hamster because in my father’s childhood experience, they tended to escape their cages and disappear into the bowels of the house, only to be discovered hours or days later wedged between couch cushions or behind radiators.
I did not know any friends, however, with pet birds. It struck me as odd that you would keep an animal designed to fly as a pet. I imagined pet birds flapping around the house, refusing to be caged, much the way my dog would run to the far edge of the fenced yard when you called but she wasn’t ready to come in.
Now I know, however, that birds are common pets. In fact, last year, my three housemates at the time bonded over the fact that they all had pet birds as children. This led to much reminiscing and several sad stories about the birds’ eventual decline (aluminum foil was involved) despite their usual life expectancy of ten to twenty years. And then suddenly, an idea was hatched. It was decided, with enthusiasm on their parts and mild curiosity on mine, that we should have a bird in the house.
Logistically, it had to be someone’s bird in particular. “House includes a bird” isn’t a common Zillow search term, nor would it probably attract new roommates should we need them. So Amy volunteered to be the bird purchaser, owner, and keeper. Fast forward a few months, and we were the proud parents of a fluffy, clumsy little cockatiel.
Things were great. I was dubious at first, but it’s fairly easy to be won over when the bird perches adorably on your finger, ruffles its feathers, and demands that you scratch the extremely soft feathers around its neck. I made perhaps my only great contribution to the bird cause very early on: I suggested its name. Apparently it’s almost impossible to tell whether a bird is a male or a female until it’s about six months old, so you’ve just got to choose a name and stick with it or be prepared to change should you guess wrong. We’re word nerds and love puns, so when I suggested Penelopeep, it stuck. (Spoiler alert: We guessed wrong. Penelopeep is a Penelopeter. But it just doesn’t have the same ring, so we soldier on with feminine pronouns.)
Penelopeep was cute. We taught her to whistle The Andy Griffith Show theme song, which she now does with shocking regularity. She also learned the theme from Chariots of Fire as well as Jeopardy! and Titanic. She imitated the kissing sounds we were constantly making at her, and after a bath, she looked like an adorable version of her dinosaur ancestors.
That all changed when, well…. er…. she hit pubirdy. At least, that’s our only guess. She must have reached the age when traditional avian parents would have sat her down and given her The Talk. (What’s the bird equivalent of “the birds and the bees?”) Anyway, she (well, he) had to choose a mate (many bird species mate for life), and he chose Amy. Suddenly, anyone not-Amy was summarily hissed at, bitten, and run away from. Not-Amy holds some seeds in her hand and tries to entice you out of the cage? Ignore her or bite her hand. (Penelopeep is clearly not versed in American adages.) Not-Amy tries to freshen up your water dish because you have pooped into it for the fourteenth time today? Attack! Not-Amy wants you to stop chirping incessantly and so puts the bedtime sheet over your cage to hush you? Keep chirping incessantly. In fact, get louder.
This bird hates me and everyone else. She can tell the difference between Amy’s finger and someone else’s, even if she can’t see the fingers. She knows what Amy’s footsteps sound like when she gets home from work and will chirp elatedly until Amy comes to say hello. And when Amy goes away on vacation, she turns more taciturn and morose than usual. Andy Griffith renditions peter off. Food is eaten even more bird-like. I’m generally left to provide ministrations during these Amy-less weeks, and Penelopeep is not pleased. She refuses to come out of her cage and will sit in there for days or even a week without a single moment of human contact, which must come as a real shock since she spends roughly fifty percent of her typical waking hours clinging to Amy’s shirt.
But eventually, ever so slowly, we make up. As the long week wears on and Penelopeep becomes more and more desperate for friendship, she’ll lower her standards and deign to sit on my finger. The next day she’ll hop onto my shoulder, and the next she’ll let me scratch her neck. We might even pass an amicable hour watching television together (she’ll chime in if Jeopardy! is on).
But should Amy arrive home during any of these illicit moments of friendship, I know I’ll be cast aside. Penelopeep’s alliances run deep, and no one wants to be caught cheating.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.