How birds changed my life

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Robert Levy is a digital media producer and video editor who lives in Rockville, MD, with his wife, two daughters, two cockatiels, one bossy budgie and an occasional guest cockatoo, as well as an assortment of fish, guinea pigs, a cat and four Australian sugar gliders. When not caring for his own flock, he volunteers with the Wilson Parrot Foundation in Damascus, MD. Today, Rob shares with us how having birds has shaped his life.

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The author’s first companion bird, Slice, poses with his daughter Rina.

When I was a senior in college I found myself alone most of the day writing my honors thesis. While my friends were at classes or parties, I was home doing research or writing. I desperately needed companionship — somebody to talk to, or just have around.

My mind went to a pet, but in my apartment, a cat or a dog was out of the question. What was next on the pet chain? I thought, “maybe a bird.” I never expected that this desire for some animal company would result in a love of parrots that has lasted 20 years.

As I did my research on birds, parrots began to fascinate me. Parrot coloration is stunning, their personalities amazing, and they can talk! Not only would I have a pet, I thought, but also I would have somebody to talk to who would talk back.

Then I was hit with reality. Large parrots — macaws and cockatoos — were prohibitively expensive and extremely loud. Not a smart choice for a college apartment with four roommates. After more research I settled on a cockatiel: the small, clown-like bird similar in look to a cockatoo, but without the oppressive screech and cost. On a fall day in 1988 I met Slice, a baby male cinnamon pied cockatiel who would be my sidekick for the next 19 years.

After the jump: The author’s girlfriend learns to accept the bird poop on his shirt.


Slice and I bonded immediately. Birds are flock animals and can bond
strongly to a human over time. For Slice it was immediate. He followed
me around, waddling because his wings were clipped. He would sit over my
desk while I wrote, whistling Yankee Doodle or Take Me Out to the
Ballgame. (Only I knew what he was singing, because I taught him and I
am completely tone deaf.)

Slice followed me from college in Boston to an apartment in New York
City. In our studio, I let him fly around freely. Sometimes I would have
to chase him in the morning to get him back into his cage. Slice
learned my schedule and every day as I walked home from the subway the
sound of his chirping made it down to the street. It’s amazing how loud
even these small birds can be when they really let loose.

Slice gave me the companion-bird bug, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
These days we’ve added a bossy baby parakeet and a pair of cockatiels to
our family flock.

One of the most satisfying things I have done is to volunteer with a parrot rescue. The Wilson Parrot Foundation
rescues, rehabilitates and rehomes neglected and abused parrots. The
group’s mission is to teach the public about having parrots as pets and
how to provide for them with caring and compassion. So many people buy
birds on impulse, not knowing that they can be incredibly demanding,
loud and messy.

Often the birds end up in rescues with the
original owners complaining that they will not stop screaming or biting.
But with a little empathy and bird psychology, we have them stepping
onto our hands. They would make great pets for anybody who is willing to
take the time to understand them. Bird parenthood is not the same as
having a dog or cat. Birds are loud, messy and live for 50 years or
more. But they are also intelligent, loving and majestic.

Over the last 20 years, my birds have enriched my life, but I have also
had to make some real concessions, and so have the human members of the
family. When my wife and I were dating, she needed to accept that when
she put her arms around me there might be some bird poop on my shirt.
She married me anyway. That is true love.

Having a bird requires that you accept the noise. Not just chirping, but squeaking, squawking and yes, talking. One day I was mopping the floor
at the Wilson Foundation and I heard a voice yell at a decibel level
that could drown out a jet, “What are you doing?” My natural response
was to say, “mopping the floor.” Again I heard, “What are you doing?”
and I responded, “mopping the floor!” This dialogue can go on for hours.
Some might find it frustrating, but it just makes me laugh. It’s all
part of life when living with birds.

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