Charlie is a sentient creature with intentional speech. He’s not a tape recorder or a mimic. We have a relationship.
Why did I write about living with a bird for 30 years? Usually I write about things left-wing, like law and politics. Lately I wrote a book called Lawyers for the Left and before that I co-edited a book on how everything would be different if we got rid of capitalism called Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA. But now OR Books has come out with Parrot Tales: Our Life With a Magical Bird, which I co-wrote with my wife Debby. But it’s not such a departure after all and herein lies the tale, so to speak.
It all started in 1992 on Sunday morning when Debby and I took our 10-year-old son Eli for a zoo visit to a pet shop in Tribeca called The Urban Bird.
The owner, Nancy Chambers, who has become our friend, sold only baby parrots. All kinds. All colors, from all over the world. Except they were hatched here. No lawbreaking for Nancy.
We walked in. Debby stopped to read a New Yorker article about the store that was lying on the counter. It was on this “only in New York” place. The birds in the store were young, with one exception. An older bird was living in a cage, hanging from the ceiling in the back of the store, commanding a view of all who entered.
While Debby paused to read the article Eli and I walked in. The old bird spotted us. He was evidently not a happy bird. He had been abandoned when the two guys who owned him split up. He spotted us and yelled out, “I’ve got a yeast infection!”
“What?” said Eli, looking up first at the bird and then at me. Before I could answer, the bird shouted, “Fuck you!” That was it. We decided then and there to buy a baby bird. We still have him. We called him Charlie Parker after the great saxophone player whose nickname was “Bird.”
Charlie is a sentient creature with intentional speech. He’s not a tape recorder or a mimic. We have a relationship. The stories we tell are laugh-out-loud funny But that’s not all the book is about. The Webb telescope has so far revealed 4000 planets much like ours circling around suns. This is likely the basis of extra-terrestrial intelligent life. It will not be human. Communicating with Charlie is an example of what it might be like when there’s contact between the creatures of earth and those of distant planets in outer space.
Astrophysicist Carl Sagan speculated on what kind of brain intelligent creatures who could think would have. It could be something like Charlie’s. No cerebral cortex. But packed with neurons. Humans and parrots split from each other evolutionarily some 300 million years ago.
Charlie weighs about a pound and his brain is the size of a shelled walnut. He is an African grey whose ancestors came from the Congo. Charlie was laid in Miami and hatched in New York.
The most famous African grey was Alex, an acronym for avian life experiment. Alex worked in a laboratory at Harvard with pioneer scientist Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Her groundbreaking studies proved that African grey parrots have the intelligence of a seven-year-old and the emotional development of a two-year-old.
She demonstrated that Alex had the capacity for abstract thought, knew the concepts of bigger and smaller, knew the concept of none, could add and subtract up to seven, knew colors and shapes, and had feelings and emotions. The evening before he died as Irene was leaving the lab Alex said “I love you.”
Parrots live on six continents. They are being obliterated due to poaching, habitat loss and climate change. Devastation is being visited upon much of central Africa where greys come from. They are victims of limitless greed and desperation. The economic whip drives poachers in Nigeria. A wild African grey can bring in hundreds of dollars.
Wildfires rage in Australia, bringing a fiery end to 2019. Scientist estimated that over half a billion creatures were killed, including many Australian magpies. As the fires tore through the countryside, the magpies were heard pitifully making the sound of rescue vehicles, but to no avail.
Their habitat went up in flames so powerful that the inferno could be seen from space. Humans have induced rapid climate change and we face a threat of mass extinction of species not seen since the end of the cretaceous period 145 million years ago. At this critical time, we are intentionally aware of our commonality and interconnectedness with other beings and with nature.
Human since Aristotle have placed themselves on top of the animal hierarchy and apart from nature. We thought we were different and superior. This false belief has philosophical and ethical implications. After 30 years of living with an African grey parrot, and especially living with him over the last two being isolated by COVID, I better understand the interconnectedness of species and our part as stewards of nature.
For more on Charlie, see Where the Antelope Bird Is Found.
Michael Steven Smith is the author, editor, and co-editor of many books, mostly recently Imagine: Living In a Socialist U.S.A. and The Emerging Police State, by William M. Kunstler. He lives and practices law in New York City with his wife Debby (and Charlie). Michael Smith has also organized and chaired the Left Forum. He is co-host of the Pacifica radio show Law and Disorder and on the board of the Center for Constitutional Rights.