Sunday, April 24, 2011

Goodnight, Ali

I lost an old friend today. Ali, also known as Ali Capone, Alibird, and AliDon'tBiteMyFeet, was found dead in the aviary today. There was no indication of attack, illness or anything to suggest why he would have died. I have to assume a coronary or something. He was about 22 years old, a fairly respectable age for an African Grey parrot. We don't know exactly how old he was but he was a fairly young bird when he came to live with us.

My kids bought Ali for me for Mother's Day when we were living in Alexandria. He was young, frightened, and not at all happy with human beings. I put his cage in the kitchen so that he would see people all the time. We put a bowl of treats (nuts, grapes, and so on) next to the cage. Every time someone came through the kitchen they would take a treat from the bowl and offer it to Ali, usually saying as people do "Here, Ali". Gradually he calmed down among us and got to look forward to the attention. It took months before I was able to touch him without significant blood loss, but in a year or so he would come out of his cage and wander around the house on the floor quite comfortably. African Greys are well known for their speaking ability and Ali was very vocal. With people talking to him all the time and giving him goodies, he began with whistling. When we copied his whistles, it became a game where he would copy any whistle he heard. Soon he began muttering. It was extraordinary to hear long conversations from this little grey bird, but the meaning was just out of reach. Without really thinking, you found yourself hearing this voice coming from the cage and saying "What?". We felt silly responding to a parrot like that but he sounded so real. Then one day in the midst of the mutter a word came out clearly: "What?". Well, of course. The next word he said was "Here", another natural since that was what people said to him when they gave him treats.

When we moved to Cairo from Alexandria, Ali came with us and he really came into his own in the new house. By now he was used to being loose in the house much of the day and sleeping in his cage at night. He had a nice perch on the top of his sleeping cage and when I came down to the kitchen I would hear a quiet "Hello Ali" from under the covers. If I didn't take them off and open the door, the greeting would come with greater volume and urgency until I finally did. During the day if I was cooking in the kitchen he would wander around the kitchen floor, pulling on cupboard doors trying to get them open and murmuring "What here Ali?" to himself. His vocabulary was increasing and his use of it was more skilled. He would encourage himself in his activities by saying "Come on Ali", and would be totally delighted if he got the cupboard doors open. He loved to pull all the pots and pans out of the cupboard. The sound of them banging on the floor seemed to give him enormous pleasure. He would follow me out to the living room and climb up my leg to sit on my lap while I read, or cuddle up under my chin when I took a nap on the sofa. Every now and then he would say something so direct, real, and off the wall that it would astonish me. One day when my daughter came home from school to find me making spaghetti sauce in the kitchen. She wandered in asking me what smelled so good. A little voice came from the cage saying "What's it look like, stupid?" We were both dumbstruck and looked over to Ali who merely scratched his head and looked innocent.

Ali didn't like the kitchen cupboards in our next house. They were too heavy for him to pull open, so he turned his talents to other occupations like removing the rubber seal of the about three times. Expensive hobby. He also proved himself to be incredibly efficient at stripping the toaster cord of its covering while it was still plugged in, and we decided that maybe Ali needed a safer place to live. We built an aviary in the garden and found him a nice African Grey girlfriend Mona to share it with him. He liked the arrangement and after a couple of years he and Mona surprised us with two baby African Greys. They were great parents and took good care of the babies, but when they were fledged we moved the kids into the house to work with them so that they would be comfortable with humans. We didn't think that keeping four Greys was such a good idea. The babies, Pobble and Atilla the Hungry, were female and male respectively, and were so much fun to train. They were being hand fed so we took them with us to our house in Sharm el Sheikh that summer and had to clip their wings when they learned to fly in the living room. We found homes for them with good families. Pobble took after her father and was a real talker but Atilla was like his mother Mona and specialised in whistles.

While the years were passing, we collected other birds in the aviary. At various times we had African Ringnecks (the infamous Killer Kelly and her motorcycle gang) and some Cuban Amazons that I found sick and miserable at a bird seller. A friend brought me a really unhappy Grey who had pulled out all his feathers, but Fritzi recovered well in the company of Ali and Mona. When I finally moved from Maadi to Sakkara, I built a big aviary for the birds so that they would have plenty of room to fly in. Brilliantly, I thought that I might be able to use chicken wire to screen in the rooms inside (three 3 metre x 3 metre rooms joined by a small service room) but Ali, Fritzi and Mona had other ideas. They chewed through the chicken wire to make holes so that they could fly from one room to the other. Life was getting interesting. I bought some chickens to clean up the food that the parrots loved to toss on to the floor, then someone brought us a couple of ducks, a pair of turkeys, a couple of geese, some doves and pigeons and we had a major avian habitat going on.

You might think that a duck, goose or turkey could bully a half pound parrot but that is definitely not the case. Ali and Fritz took over monitoring the terracotta jar where the chickens liked to lay their eggs and we had to coax them away from it to collect them. There was no question....ever....who ran the aviary. Every morning when I'd go out to feed him, I'd hear a cheery "Hello Bird". As far as Ali was concerned we were all birds. If I was late with breakfast the calls of "Here Ali" "Here Bird" would increase with time. And everyone loved playing the whistling game with him. He would copy your whistle and embellish it a little with a sort of competitive streak. He drove the gardeners crazy when they cleaned the aviary because he would waddle along behind them and nip at their feet. They never would wear closed shoes for that work. I knew better.

There is great disturbance in the birdosphere today. A wonderful little grey creature is sleeping under the papaya tree and I will miss him forever. Goodnight, Ali Bird.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani