I am going to have to start out by saying that this is a hard post to write. As I was thinking about introducing my flock, I wasn’t sure how to approach this post. You see, Coco was my 34-year-old Congo African Grey who passed away last month. It felt odd to introduce him, since he is no longer with us, but it felt wrong to leave him out. He was a hugely important member of our family for nine years, and his contributions to our lives were of great value.
I still miss him terribly. Our house seems very empty without his presence.
Like Static, Coco was a newspaper bird. We found him advertised in our local classifieds and immediately responded. I had wanted an African Grey very badly when we started our adventures with parrots, but I just didn’t have the cash available to buy a baby bird, a brand new cage, and all of the trimmings.
We met the owner and the bird, and immediately agreed to the purchase. She had kept him for 20 years, but was his second or third home. He had a history of abuse, and she explained that a previous owner had hit him with a stick.
We came back a day or two later to pick up the bird with his cage.
“Did you explain to him that he’s going to be moving?” I had asked.
“No,” his owner answered, somewhat baffled. “Why would I?”
So we brought him home and kept him quarantined in our RV for a month. We had been warned that he was a stinker, a biter, and he didn’t like to cuddle, never played with toys, wouldn’t ride on your shoulder, and didn’t know how to step up.
He was 25 years old at the time we brought him home. How could he not know how to step up?
He didn’t. He was used to being scooped out of the cage like you would scoop up a guinea pig. I thought it odd. Even stranger, he didn’t seem as coordinated as little Static. A couple of times, I saw him twist around to scratch himself, and he tumbled off his perch to the bottom of his cage with a loud thunk.
He’d get up, shake his feathers, and look around as if to say, “Oh, I meant to do that.”
He did bite me a few times. The last time he got me, I had been trying to do something in his cage. He reached out and grabbed me and pinched down hard. It broke the skin.
I am not usually one to weep at silly things, but somehow this bite really got to me. I sat down next to his cage and burst into tears.
“I know you are grieving your home,” I sobbed, “and I know you miss everyone. But I promise you that I will do everything I can to make your life better, and whether you bite me or not, I will still love you and I will never give up on you!”
That was the last time he ever bit me. I don’t know if he understood what I was saying to him, if I got better at reading his signals (which were enough different from Static that I found him somewhat baffling at first) or if it was a combination of both. Sure, I got pinched a couple of times when he was expressing his irritation with me, but a pinch isn’t a bite.
It was during and immediately after his quarantine that I realized what a little lump of feathered brilliance he was. Since I couldn’t very well keep him alone in the RV all day for a month-long quarantine, I would go in and visit him. I would take him outside (at first in a travel cage, and later on my hand) and we’d sit on the front step in the sunshine.
One day the neighbor’s cat came wandering into view.
“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!” he cried.
If I had been drinking a soda, I am sure I would have spit it all over myself. I was stunned.
But then he surprised me even more. “Meow!” he called to the kitty.
I just sat there with my mouth hanging open.
Another time, when I took him to his first well bird exam, I lifted his travel cage out of the car.
“Hold on!” he called, as he grabbed tightly onto the bars.
Again, it was a stunning moment.
He never ceased to amaze us. He would often say things once, just to get them out of his system, and he would never say them again. Shortly after his quarantine was over, he was in the living room while my wife and I got into some sort of petty squabble.
Coco started making sounds that sounded like two people arguing. Then, he dropped a verbal bomb.
“G-d damn f–king bird!” he shouted.
My wife and I were stunned. We immediately ceased our argument and went over to his cage.
“We aren’t arguing about you, Coco,” I explained. “We love you and want you here. This isn’t about you at all.”
He looked at me, his golden eyes staring.
I went on to explain that he didn’t need to use bad words like those, here. He tilted his head to look at me, as if he was absorbing every word.
We never heard him say those words again. Not once. For a week or so after the incident, when I explained the story to friends in his presence, I would omit the cuss words. I’d say, when I’d repeat his line, “Gee dee f-word bird.” My friends would nod in surprise.
Coco thought this was funny. For a couple of weeks after, he would sit on his swing and pump furiously. “F-word! F-word! F-word! Hee, hee, hee!” he would giggle.
Eventually, even that went away.
At first, when he would accidentally drop his food to the bottom of his cage, he would cry, “Oh sh-t!” Later, when he realized that a human would retrieve it for him, he changed his complaint to, “Oh shoot.”
In later years, he didn’t bother to complain, as he knew there was plenty to eat.
During the nine years he lived with us, he became a really wonderful companion. He quit biting people, he was very social, and he even liked (within reason) most visitors. He especially enjoyed it when we went camping, because he’d sit on his perch and call to any kid that happened to be walking by. “Hullo!” he’d call in a deep, husky voice.
The kid would stop dead in his tracks to look around, not understanding that it was a bird that had been talking to him. Coco delighted in calling to the kids, but as soon as they looked at him, he would become mute as a stone.
Many of the things his former owner had warned us about turned out not to be true. He was a real love, and he did like to cuddle, but it was on his terms. He liked to have his ears rubbed just so, and it seemed that I was the only one who could do it right. If anyone else tried, he would tolerate it for a minute, and then squeak and clack his beak in protest. When I rubbed his years, he would tip his head to the side and close his eyes.
He also did learn how to step up, and we learned why he never did when he was with his former owner. Coco always was a little awkward moving around. His original cage had perches of similar size and height all around the perimeter. He didn’t have a lot of room to move around, and he had become a bit of a perch potato. His tail grew a little crooked, and we always wondered if he had a spinal deformity or had been injured years ago. To get him to step up, one had to offer two hands. One hand for him to grab with his beak, and the other for him to put his feet upon.
He played with toys, though not most of the ones we brought from the birdie store. His favorite toy was the box the toys came in. If we gave him a cardboard box, he would delight in chewing the thing into little cardboard confetti. No matter how much we vacuumed around his cage, we always would find tiny bits of cardboard scattered all over the floor.
Coco was smart and funny. He loved me dearly and politely tolerated attention from everybody else. He would do anything for me, including letting me pick him up, rub him across my face like a big powder puff, while I said silly things like “moodgie, moodgie, moodgie.” It was certainly beneath his dignity, and if anybody else had tried to play that game with him, no doubt he would have taken their nose off.
Last year, when we took him for his annual well bird check, the vet found something troubling. She discovered he had a heart murmur, which wasn’t a good sign. We discussed putting him on blood thinners, but since he would occasionally break blood feathers and they would be very difficult to stop, we opted against it. The vet told us that there wasn’t much that could be done for the little guy, and that he would keep going until he stopped.
That’s exactly what happened. He ate, he played, he snuggled and did all the things he did, right up until the night he died. That evening, he sat on the sofa and played with my kid, while she fed him walnuts. We put him to bed, and there seemed to be nothing wrong. The next morning, when we went to get him out of his sleeping cage, he was gone. We found him cold and still on the floor of his cage.
My only regret in his passing was that I didn’t rub his ears that night. My kid had played with him, instead. I wished I could have had one more chance to rub his beautiful, tiny ears.
But Coco died as he lived, quietly, without a lot of drama. He was a good boy, and I miss him terribly, but I know that his last years with us were good. He was happy, and he let us know that he was by chattering every morning and torturing us with the kitty game. He would sit on his swing and call to us, and we’d eventually holler, “Here, kitty, kitty!” He knew he was supposed to answer, “meow!” but he would torture us by offering up every other sound he knew. Eventually, we’d give up, and he’d demonstrate that he knew the correct response by calling, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty…meow!”
Well his former owner was right. He was a stinker, just not maybe in the way everyone thought.