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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Parrots of Wrath

By Eric A. Carlson

"The bird of paradise alights
only upon the hand
that does not grasp."
John Berry

FOR THREE YEARS, I have shared a house in Sunnyvale with a Mexican Redhead Amazon parrot named William. William is a male only in theory, as there is no way to determine a parrot's sex other than DNA sampling or a detailed examination by a veterinarian. Willy weighs approximately 7 ounces, but he possesses a slashing, razor-sharp beak that makes up for his slight stature. He can kick ass and take names.

My relationship with the bird is similar to that of Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse: I love the lil' darlin', and he throws bricks at my head. (If you know who Krazy Kat is, please put yourself out to pasture immediately.) I decided to learn more about parrots and sojourned to Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose. What? You didn't know San Jose had a zoo? What? You thought it was just a petting zoo?

I met with Heather Walsh, senior zookeeper, to find out what makes parrots tick. The interview took place at Parrot Island, where five parrots reside in separate minitrees (the birds are taken inside at night). Heather formally introduced me to the feathery brutes and provided some background. Jeeter is a green military macaw who allows sparrows to share his branch and food tray. Ulysses is a sulfur-crested cockatoo--as white as snow. Barney and Johnny are blue and gold macaws. (Johnny turns out to be a girl.) Vivien is a brilliant scarlet macaw named after Vivien Lee. I noticed that a squirrel was eating out of Vivien's food tray, and I mentioned it to Heather, who offered, "It's an ongoing issue we have here, trying to outwit the squirrels." Heather related that Barney once had a deep affection for Guaca--a parrot now cavorting in the Great Jungle in the Sky--and then took up with Jeeter. "Barney developed an affection for Jeeter after Guaca died; the two of them were together for years until just recently, when they had their differences, and can't be together anymore." I asked Heather, "Do any of the birds get along with each other?" "Not exactly," she said. "That's why they live in separate trees."

Heather does not recommend that anyone take on a parrot for a pet unless they have done their research. "People don't understand the in-depth emotional capacities of these birds. They think, 'Well, it's just a bird, I can throw it in a cage.'" In fact, parrots require several hours a day, or more, of quality time. And one of their natural tendencies is to scream. (William the Mexican redhead prefers quacking and barking like a dog.) Heather recommends that if one does purchase a parrot it should be one hand-raised in the United States: "Two out of three birds smuggled in die."

I shared a theory of mine with Heather that beaks are preferable to teeth and gums--which decay--and that as our ability to tinker with DNA improves, we could make the genetic switch to beaks on future babies. A beak is regenerative and decorative and can serve as a weapon. Heather mused that she is more partial to tails, which are beautiful and can sometimes be employed as an extra hand, but she granted that beaks are wondrous appendages. She told me she has witnessed parrots--using their beaks--go from gently peeling the skin off a grape to removing bark from a tree. A parrot's feet are delicate instruments as well. William can climb to the top of his cage holding a potato chip in his huge toes--there are four of them (two forward and two aft)--without breaking the chip. Watching this is a religious experience. He also whistles the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show. Some of the mysteries of parrots are too deep to fathom, even by senior zookeepers.

Final Note: Happy Hollow Zoo recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and Heather has been senior zookeeper for the last 14 years. Happy Hollow is not a large zoo, but it is a clean, exotic environment for animals, including the bipedal hominids who visit and gawk--two-legged gawkers. Happy Hollow Zoo is located at 1300 Senter Road in Kelly Park. Price of admission depends on how old you are, but the parking is $5 for all ages.

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From the March 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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