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.