by William Thomas

I’ve got crosses of masking tape on all the windows of the house to stop birds from flying into them.  Unfortunately, the robins mistake these X’s for runway markings.

At the beginning of June, they’re naturally excited— nesting, mating and flying off in all directions like somebody spiked the hummingbird feeder.  Now, late in June, it’s the youngsters with sparse feathers and new wings who are challenging the integrity of the glass around my house.

“No, no, Jimmy, that’s not a forest, the guy’s got plants in his living room!”

Dwindling in numbers with less territory to work with, birds all over the world are going a little cuckoo.

Ground-nesting storks, for example, have settled on a golf course in Germany and they keep trying, unsuccessfully, to hatch golf balls.  (As in the game of golf, Titleists are proving the toughest.)

In Spain, 40 percent of all stork chicks are leaving the nest early in their development stage and sneaking into nearby nests of other stork families looking for a better deal.

Swifts, relatives of the hummingbird, may have poor perching skills, but they more than make up for it in sexual agility.  Co-joined belly to belly at 2,000’ swifts copulate at 200 miles per hour which is faster than most small aircrafts.  (Mile High Club members can only marvel.)

Thieves recently broke into a residence in the capital of San Salvador and fled with valuables that included the owner’s parrot.  When the getaway car was stopped by police in a routine check, Paquita began squawking:  “Robbery!  Robbery!” – the exact words spoken by Paquita’s owner when the thieves broke into his house.  Suspicious, police checked the trunk and found the rest of the loot. That arrest led them to other members of an organized theft ring.

All pet lovers claim their cats and dogs talk to them, but how many of our four-footed friends can name 100 objects and understand the concepts of categories, size and absence?  Alex can.  As documented in her book, Alex & Me, Irene Pepperberg’s 30-year research project with Alex, the brainy African grey parrot, was nothing short of amazing.  By adding numbers and differentiating shapes, colours and textures, this parrot may have come closer to exhibiting human intelligence than any other animal on earth.  He was also a rascal who enjoyed dancing and needling his handler.

If Pepperberg happened to greet another parrot in the laboratory first, Alex would get jealous and sulk all day.  He would then refuse to cooperate and become very demanding.  Instead of answering questions, he’d ask for food, toys, showers and a transfer to his gym.  On one such day, Alex demanded a nut, but Pepperberg was ignoring him. Even after decades of interplay with the parrot, she was stunned to hear him say:  “Want a nut.  Nnn … uh … tuh.”  Like, ‘do I have to spell this out of you, Science Lady’?

I have had my own awkward encounter with the beak that speaks.  Except this one whistled.  Many summers ago, I was sitting at an outside café on Bestor Square in Chautauqua, NY, enjoying a coffee, a muffin and that town’s daily newspaper.  I had just finished teaching my morning humour writing class. Kirsten, the artist in residence, was behind me working on a clay sculpture with her macaw perched in a cage beside her. An unusually large American parrot, the bird was brightly coloured, with a long feathered tail.

I could hear the woman padding down the sidewalk before I saw her. She was middle-aged, large, and lugging a heavy bag of groceries in each hand.  She looked over-heated in a flowery summer dress with a floppy straw hat. As she came into my view, Kirsten’s parrot let loose with a very, sharp, extremely loud wolf-whistle.  The woman stopped, turned and stared straight at me.  I buried my head in my newspaper.  I could feel the heat of her glare. Time passed slowly and then finally, I heard her steps continue.

Two steps, actually – that’s all it took for Kirsten’s macaw to unleash another wolf-whistle, the kind that would make a construction worker proud.  The woman stopped dead in her tracks, turned and laser-like, honed those piercing eyes on me again.

I hid behind the newspaper for what seemed like whole minutes, hoping the parrot would give himself away.  No such luck.

“Look,” I said peaking over the top of the paper, “that was not me that whistled.”

“Oh, I know it wasn’t you,” she said, wiping her brow with the back of her hand.  “It was that damn bird again.”

“Just once,” she said, turning to leave.  “Just once why couldn’t it be a man?”

Truthfully, I like birds, it’s just that I don’t trust them all that much.

For comments, ideas and copies of The True Story of  Wainfleet, go to www.williamthomas.ca