The Jazz Bird

In 1985, a few months before I got married, I purchased and African Gray parrot, sight unseen, straight out of quarantine in California through a local breeder pal I knew.  I was told it was risky because she could have any number of diseases and might even die before she arrived to me, but she was perfectly healthy.  She was under a year old based on her eyes and tail coloring, and I didn't realize how difficult hand taming a bird could be (I still have scars).  She had been captured out of the jungles of Uganda (and before you yell at me for capturing wild life please know that most AG's are shot like crows in Africa because they flock together and destroy whole fields of crops.  I probably saved her life.). 

I named her Portia.  One of the first days I had her, I was busy sewing a cover for her cage and as she heard the gyrations of the machine she recreated for me the sounds of the jungle, complete with monkeys chattering as they moved past us, birds cawing in random intervals, and I realized at that moment that her reality had changed dramatically.  I also realized that for AG's, they use their accurate vocalizations to mask and hide themselves, to blend in with the environment. 

Over time her environment changed, to include the sounds of ice cubes clinking into a glass, neighborhood car alarms, the microwave beeps, phone ringing (and the single sided conversation that followed), and of course common phrases we used everyday.  "What a good bird!" "What are you doing?" "You're a pretty bird," were all common first phrases.  As we had children, she learned to count with them, learned her colors (brown was her favorite for some reason) and could sing "Happy Birthday."  She encouraged the children ("you gotta go potty?  Hurry!  Hurry!") and praised them during their piano practicing ("yay!  that was beautiful! clap clap clap clap clap...").  Over the years, though, she became more bold and started rearranging her phrases to create new sentences -- my favorite was her deliberately singing "Happy Bird-Day."  That's when we started calling her the jazz bird.  She had a vast vocabulary but her strength was using those words and sounds in the correct context.  For example, when my husband would reach for his handkerchief in his back pocket, she would make the honking sound he made while blowing his nose before he could even get it out of his pocket!  When the kitchen timer went off, she would holler to everyone "it's ready!" whether it was or not.  

We had to be careful what we repeated around her because she would learn it.  If we accidently dropped something or tipped something over, she would spew forth with a litany of curse words so foul, all compounded into one angry message.  We had never used all of them in one sentence at the same time before -- but she just knew they were bad words, and she put them all together in celebration of the context. 

Portia died on New Year's day of 2009 quite suddenly and without warning.  She should have lived for many more years.  I had just left the house with my daughter when it happened, and I remember her speaking her last Jazz-ism to us on the way out the door, a combination of "bye" and "see you later" which came out "bye-errrr".  I looked at my daughter and smiled, and we told her "bye-errr" back.  Moments later she had a seizure and died.  She was such an active part of our family life that for years I would tune her out and go on about my business.  I am so glad that on that day I heard her say goodbye, and know that she probably was using it in a different context than I imagined.  Goodbye my friend. 

edgargeorge edgargeorge
41-45, F
31 Responses Mar 17, 2009

I have an African Grey and his name is Franchesco. He's been with us for 8 years and he was born in captivity so we were his first family. It's strange to know that the things he does is so common because he would always make the sound of the telephone ringing and he would have a one-sided conversation including the tone of pressing the off button. African Greys are beautiful animals and I am so sorry yours passed away. It becomes a part of our daily lives to hear our parrots talk to us or just amuse themselves with the words and sounds they know that we don't notice it until it's gone. I'm very sorry for the loss of your Portia. I've had other birds who have passed away and it's like losing a family member. I'm glad you were able to hear her say goodbye.

I loved rereading this... sad and hilarious... I'm amazed at their grasp of context. Did you ever get another bird?

I needed a good cry today! RIP Portia

you gave me goose bumps. so hard to deal with the loss of anything. specially something or one cared about soo soo much, well its also a year later i am posting this. so i still wish you good blessings and memories.<br />

My condolences on your loss of a friend and family member.<br />
What an amazing, hilarious, touching loving story!<br />
Thank you for sharing it with us!

I guess the most important thing is to know that birds can be loud and are quite messy. And they like to be in social spaces -- relegated to the back room in a cage by itself is pretty cruel. But they are pretty low maintenance otherwise -- no walks or brushing on a daily basis, etc. Good luck on your decision -- I think you can't go wrong with a bird for a pet!

Awww!<br />
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My 4 year old has been begging me for a bird lately! I don't know really want to get her but I sort of want one too. I held one in petsmart and I loved her!

Thanks, Faucon. I would have to agree with you -- the breed is incredibly intelligent and endlessly entertaining.

Thanks for stopping by, trailguide, and for your nice comments! :)

Wow...what a wonderful story and trubiute to your Jazz-bird. What a truly amazing bird she was . No wonder you miss her a lot.

Thank you for your kind words. And yet I don't feel my story even comes close to doing her justice! She was such a character! :)

very nice story. <br />
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I have only ever had dogs.<br />
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No, I don't think so. She was one of a kind to me, a great friend through thick and thin, and I've never felt the need to "replace" her.

Thanks, Destry! Yes, we still miss her and speak of her often.

I really appreciate your stopping by! Yes, she understood context extremely well, but I loved most how she would mash all her sounds and words together based on what the context required.

Make that 1590 views. We all just had to take a peak.<br />
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What an incredible story. What an incredible bird. <br />
I can't even imagine the loss of such a spectacular friend.<br />
Amazing how this bird had cognitive thinking patterns. <br />
I never knew that, I thought it was mimic by complete rote. I had no idea these parrots could understood and compartmentalize our words by their meaning. Animals are truly more intellectual and complex than we perceive them to be.

And thanks for reading, Salar1.

Great story Eg , sad when pets go like that such is the wy of things ..... thanks for sharing

Great addendum about her refusal to learn the word "stupid." Sounds as if she was very far from it. And very well-mannered to boot!

Thanks, Nyxie.<br />
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Yes, I followed Dr. Pepperberg's research with Alex the whole time I had Portia, and oddly Alex died a very similar death two years prior. There were no warning signs at all. <br />
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But I was glad that someone else out there could confirm what I believed I saw in her -- she assimilated language in meaningful ways and could apply those words appropriately, based on her perception of the context. <br />
<br />
I didn't share the story here about my father-in-law, who for years whenever he came to visit would stand at her cage and repeat "You're a stupid bird." Over and over he tried -- she refused to learn it, and never once used the word "stupid" that I noticed. After she died, my father-in-law said, "guess she wasn't so stupid after all..."

Thanks, Pedro! Yes, I didn't like the ending either...but we all have so many great memories of her. <br />
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Portia is a good name for a pet because it sounds so distinctly different from common words we use every day. We made the mistake of naming the cat Earl Grey, and with two female dogs that I call "the girlies" half the time, the dogs hear me fuss at the cat "EARL! GET DOWN!" and they think I'm saying "GIRLS! blah blah BLAH blah!" heh heh I should have thought that one through better!

What a great story! Thanks for sharing your memories of Portia, EG. I'm so sorry you had to lose her before her time. <br />
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I've heard that African Greys are incredibly smart. I'm sure you've heard of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her AG, Alex. She studied him for many years before he died sometime last year. I saw a few documentaries about her work and it was absolutely fascinating how smart that bird was. He has the intelligence level of a young child, as it seems your Portia did. Amazing.

oh, no worries at all soursweet! I am capable of understanding the difference between parody and real life! :)

i'm sorry i sent you the parrot sketch,as i hadn't read your story before. I only had budgerigars, a twosome, we meant to have them breed but they remained chickless. The male budgie was such a crooner, he spent hours grooming his aigrette in front a mirror. They brought a deep flowing sense of joy into the house with their squabbles and happy chirps.

Oh, my, that is so funny! Talking birds ARE the best!

My parents had two.....Ceaser was my favorite....He would have to have his morning coffee each and every day.....Then his shower....No sink for him....He had to have it in the real shower...Or he was not a happy bird...<br />
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He would call the kitty....and yell for Grandma....(just like the kids would)....and my dad taught him to call my mom...Fattie...and when the bird wanted something...,he would yell FATTIE...bring my tea.....(just like my Dad...not mean...just odd love)<br />
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But the real fun was when the AG....and the Mina Bird... (who called my dad...*** Hole...would get yelling Fattie...and the other yelling A Hole......what a wonderful laugh...<br />
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talking birds are the best<br />
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thanks for reminding me sof those times

LOL robbo! One time, I met a woman on an airplane who had an African Gray, as I did. We told stories about our birds and laughed so hard that we were literally crying! The flight attendant wondered if someone had served us too much booze! LOL! Parrots are amazing creatures, and we miss ours so much that we haven't even managed to put her cage in storage. It still sits, cleaned but empty, where our lovely Portia used to reign supreme.

I am actually crying as I read this story, (soppy old fool) It's not surprising that you miss her so much. I have always wanted a parrot ever since my friend had one. He was so clever that he could ask to go to the toilet and they would put news paper down on the floor for him.

Aww, thanks everyone. She is sorely missed.

My sincere condolences. Your story was a glowing tribute to both Portia and yourself in that animals reflect something of the characters of their owners. <br />
I do hope you will consider purchasing another soon.

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. Though I'm sorry for your loss I'm happy that the years you spent with Portia were full of laughs and much love.