When I was in college, I once went to a party at a house shared by a handful of young men. They had all the requisite trappings of college kids in a quasi-frat environment: furniture they'd found at the thrift store, a cupboard full of Kraft macaroni and cheese, and a refrigerator filled with take-out leftovers and plenty of beer.
They also had a parrot with the crudest vocabulary I'd ever heard. He was a lively, yellow-naped Amazon, and his most-used expression was -- no wait, I can't repeat it. This is, after all, a family column.
I've wondered over the years what happened to that bird. The image of any of those men, now well into middle age, probably long-married with children, keeping a parrot whose vocabulary isn't fit for nice company ... well, it just doesn't compute. I just hope the bird found a good home, ideally with someone who has a severe hearing impairment as well as friends and family with a sense of humor.
Motto of this story: If you're going to teach your parrot to talk, you might want to think about what you want the bird to say. In other words, don't teach your bird anything you wouldn't want a small child or minister to hear. Many parrots can live a long time, and what might be funny in some situations definitely will not be appreciated in others.
Want a talking parrot anyway? You're certainly not alone, but you might not have the "luck" of those college kids when it comes to encouraging avian conversation. Relatively few species of pet parrots are good at talking, and even individual birds from those species best known for their mimicry might not possess the gift of gab.
If you're absolutely set on owning a talking bird, buy one who talks already -- and make sure you hear the conversation before you pay.
If you want to start with a young bird, you'll have better luck if you choose an African gray or a yellow-naped or double-yellow-headed Amazon from a reputable source. Some budgies are also excellent talkers, but the propensity is hit or miss with these little guys.
You can try to teach your parrot to talk by repeating words clearly. Nurture communication further by using the words in their proper context and setting up an association your bird can grasp.
For example, every time your bird lowers his head to request a scratch, ask him, "Wanna scratch?" and then scratch him. When you give him foods or other toys, call them by name out loud. Play naming games with him: Say "keys" and then tell him "Good bird!" for taking them from you, and then repeat the exercise.
You may have an easier time in a one-bird household. Two birds may be more interested in communicating with each other than in figuring out your expressions. Some experts also suggest not attempting to teach your bird to whistle, at least not until he has picked up speech. Whistling birds seem to show a reluctance to use words.
Even if you're not intentionally trying to teach rude words or sounds to your bird, you might want to be careful about what your pet hears. Any word or sound can end up in a bird's repertoire, whether you want them there or not. I once heard of a parrot who picked up some phrases and sounds that, again, I won't describe, except by way of suggesting that perhaps the bedroom isn't the best place to keep such a clever pet.
PETS ON THE WEB
Researcher Irene Pepperberg has been working with parrots since the '70s, and has a fascinating body of work showing that some birds not only talk but also understand much of what they're saying. The Alex Foundation Web site (www.alexfoundation.org) presents an interesting overview of her research, much of which has been centered on an African gray named Alex. According to the Web site, Alex "can count, identify objects, shapes, colors and materials, knows the concepts of same and different, and bosses around lab assistants in order to modify his environment." Pretty eye-opening stuff.
If you have a small dog -- or an exceptionally tolerant cat -- and like to ride a bike, you might want to consider a basket designed for you to take your pet along. Cynthia's Twigs (www.cynthiastwigs.com) offers European-style willow baskets that slip over the handlebars of your bike and give your pet a safe place to ride. Back-rack baskets are also available, along with harnesses to keep pets in place. Prices for these lovely baskets range from $20 to $50. The Web site also includes instructions on teaching a pet to stay put.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Thank you for putting the bug in the ear of cat owners about ID and collaring their cats! Now, why don't you put your name or the pet's name on the tag? I'm not objecting, just trying to learn something new. -- M.Q., via e-mail
A: Putting your pet's name on an ID tag is a waste of prime real estate. You already know your pet's name, and the person who finds your pet doesn't need to. (This is especially true of cats, who respond to their names only when they feel like it anyway.) Putting the word "Reward!" in place of your pet's name gives the finder a good reason to get your pet back to you as soon as possible. Remember, not all people are motivated by altruism!
Putting your own name on the tag is fine, but I'd skip the address. Again, maybe I'm thinking the worst of people, but I've heard of cases where thieves will take an animal multiple times for the reward.
Such awful behavior is nothing new, by the way. When my mother was a young child, she had a cocker spaniel named Judy. The dog got out or was stolen, and my grandfather offered a reward. They got Judy back, and then she disappeared again. Another reward, another return, another disappearance. After a couple rounds of this my grandfather decided enough was enough, and my mother never saw Judy again. Decades later, she still remembers how awful this felt to her as a child.
I'd rather put an additional phone number on the tag instead of my name. For years my pets' tags have had the word "Reward!" followed by as many phone numbers as I can fit, including ones of relatives and friends who will be able to deal with the situation should one of my pets go missing when I can't be reached.
Q: We're thinking of putting in one of those electronic fence systems that give a pet a shock for getting near the boundary of the property. Do you have a recommendation as to which brand we should buy? There seems to be a large price difference. -- S.P., via e-mail
A: My recommendations? Build a real fence, or if that's not possible, exercise your dog when you can supervise, on leash if necessary. I don't think it's a good idea to leave a dog unsupervised within the confines of a no-fence electronic system.
Primary among the reasons I'm against them is that while the systems may be effective at keeping your pet on your property, they do nothing to keep others out. That means your pet can be attacked by other dogs, teased by children or even stolen by an adult passer-by. Determined dogs will sometimes take the shock in order to get out if the reason is good enough -- such as a female in heat -- and once out, they won't take the shock again to return to the yard.
I am not in favor of the use of electronic collars by most pet lovers. These training tools are very powerful and highly effective in the hands of knowledgeable trainers, but they require an understanding of how dogs learn as well as exact timing in their use. Too many people just buy them and commence to shocking their dogs, and this is just plain cruel. And that's supervised use, which the collars that come with containment systems are not designed for -- they work automatically, which means they may malfunction without your knowing it.
Good fences make good neighbors, as is often said. I'd stretch that a bit further, and say that good fences make good dogs, too.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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