Introduction to Betty Jean Craige’s Ruminations on a Parrot Named Cosmo
Cosmo: “Come here!”
Betty Jean: “Okay, Cosmo. I’m coming.”
Cosmo: “Come here! Cosmo wanna go up!”
Betty Jean: “I’m coming Cosmo. Just a minute.”
Cosmo: “Cosmo wanna poop.”
Cosmo beckons me at dawn. That’s how I wake up. She expects me to come into her room immediately. She wants me to let her out of her roost cage, carry her into my still dark bedroom, and set her on the rope perch atop the large cage there to do her morning poop. Then, bless her, she stays quiet while I go back to bed for a few more minutes of sleep.
After a half hour or so, she says, “How are you?” or “I love you.” And she begins whistling.
Cosmo is a Congo African Grey parrot. She talks meaningfully, she laughs appropriately, she expresses emotions like mine, and she makes jokes. And she whistles. African Greys are considered among the smartest parrots, the most talkative, and the most capable of mimicking accurately the human voice. Cosmo is no exception.
Cosmo awakens happy to start the day and eager to learn what awaits her. She whistles a medley of her favorite tunes: “Heigh-Ho,” “Bridge on the River Kwai,” and “Meow Mix.” She repeats the calls of the birds in our neighborhood.
During the day she tells me when it’s time to do something: “Time to go to kitchen” or “Time for shower for Betty Jean.”
She asks where I’m “gonna go.” She asks whether she can go too: “Cosmo wanna go to work? Okay? Cosmo we’re gonna go in a car?” And periodically she says, “I love you,” “Cosmo wanna kiss,” “Betty Jean wanna kiss feathers?” and “I wanna cuddle.”
I can locate Cosmo by whistling the first few bars of one of her tunes and waiting for her to complete it. She usually does.
She loves to whistle duets with me, even at the expense of being discovered in her hiding place. She’ll ask, “Cosmo and Betty Jean wanna whi-hul?” “Whistle” is one of the few words she can’t pronounce correctly. She’ll do the first line of “Yankee Doodle” or “Heigh Ho” or “Bridge on the River Quai” and look at me expectantly. I’ll do the second line, she’ll do the third, and I’ll finish up. Cosmo knows I will whistle my parts. That’s the deal.
I bought Cosmo, then six months old, from a local pet store in May of 2002, for intellectual reasons. I had always wondered how individuals of other species saw the world, and I figured that a parrot could tell me.
When friends asked why I’d brought a parrot into my dog-centered household, I replied that a parrot seemed easier to care for than a dolphin or a gorilla.
In her first year of life, Cosmo did not talk. But she mimicked many household sounds: the microwave, the telephone, the smoke alarm, and the squeaks of cabinet doors, as well as the bark of the dogs, the chatter of the squirrels, and the many different chirps and caws of the birds that fed off the deck railing outside her window.
I spoke to her constantly, in simplified English, of course, and gave her lots of cuddling. I’d say “Cosmo is a good bird,” “Cosmo wanna kiss?” “Cosmo wanna go to kitchen?” “Cosmo wanna shower?” “Cosmo wanna cuddle?” and “I love you.”
I did not say “Betty Jean loves you” or “Betty Jean wanna shower” or “Betty Jean wanna kiss.” She had to learn my name on her own.
One evening in December of 2002, Cosmo said softly from atop the cage in my bedroom, “Bird.” I was astonished. She was quiet for a few minutes, and then she said, “Cosmo is a bird.”
I leapt out of my chair, exclaiming, “Cosmo is a good bird! I love you! I wanna kiss!” She leaned forward for me to kiss her warm black beak.
That was just the beginning. Within a year Cosmo had learned my name; had told her first joke—”Telephone for bird!”—which made both of us laugh uproariously; had begun using her vocabulary to make new phrases, such as “shower for Betty Jean room,” by which she meant my bathroom; and had figured out the difference between a statement and a question.
By the age of six Cosmo had acquired a documented vocabulary of more than a hundred and sixty-five words, which she employed appropriately. My Christmas card of 2008 reported the following utterances:
Betty Jean go in a car Betty Jean has clothes Come here, Mary Cosmo don’t wanna go to kitchen Cosmo wanna be a good bird Cosmo wanna cuddle Cosmo wanna go in a car, okay? Cosmo wanna go to Betty Jean room Cosmo wanna go to Cosmo room Cosmo wanna go up—okay? Cosmo wanna good kiss Cosmo wanna peanut Cosmo wanna poop Doggies wanna go for a walk Doggies wanna go in a car Doggies, come here! Good shower! Wow! I love you! I wanna kiss I wanna shower and a peanut Look, squirrel! Mary is a doggie Move! Ow! Peanut Play ball Please! Shower for Betty Jean room Stay here! Telephone for Betty Jean! Telephone for bird! Hehehehehe Thank you That hurt! That hurt? That’s bark That’s bad doggie! That’s shower for Betty Jean That’s television There you are! Time for shower and a peanut for Cosmo! Time for shower for Betty Jean! Time to go to bed for Cosmo Wanna be a good bird Wanna cuddle? Wanna dance? Wanna go back in cage Wanna go to bed? Wanna go to kitchen? We’re gonna go in a car You have reached 549-6243 You have reached Betty Jean! You have reached Cosmo! Hehehehehehe You wanna kiss? You wanna dance?
Now this adorable sixteen-ounce, six-inch-tall, gray-and-red-feathered funny parrot and I love each other.
And when she teases me the way I tease her, or laughs the way I laugh, at the very same things I find funny, I say she’s a lot like me.
Has Cosmo taken on my personality from living with me, or have I taken on hers? Does she think like me, or do I think like her? We certainly sound alike. My friends accuse me of saying “Hello” with Cosmo’s intonation of joyous enthusiasm. Guilty.
Here is the question I ponder: Has our proximity to our household pets made us more like each other mentally? Or do birds—and gorillas, dolphins, squirrels, and deer—actually have thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and expectations similar to our own, whether or not they live with us?
In that case, we have extraordinarily underestimated the intelligence and emotions of
all the feathery, furry, and hairy animals who populate our planet. And, on the assumption that we humans are the only smart ones around, we have probably mistreated them.
Contemplate this: We humans are a small fraction of the trillions of animals on Earth whose lives are shaped by thoughts and feelings and memories. Thoughts about what to do, whom to chase, whom to mate, where to find food, where to shelter. Feelings of fear, affection, joy. Memories of their fellow creatures, of their close calls. And memories of what we humans have done to them. Everybody’s thinking. If they all thought aloud, we’d have a mighty noisy planet.
Cosmo doesn’t know the life-or-death physical excitement that her wild cousins in the rain forest of the Congo experience daily. She has never seen a hawk snatch an African Grey from a tree branch. She’s never seen a monkey steal eggs out of a nest. She’s never seen a flock of African Greys take flight.
And she’s never foraged for food, or mated, or laid an egg, or raised a chick. She is from Florida, from a commercial aviary.
Cosmo hatched in December of 2001 after a twenty-eight-day incubation period. I don’t know the exact date and time of her emergence from her egg, so I celebrate her hatchday on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
Of course the winter solstice is meaningless for Cosmo’s relatives in the rain forests of the Congo Basin near the equator, because days and nights are approximately twelve hours long there throughout the year. Instead of winter and summer, the region has dry season and wet season. African Greys tend to have conjugal bliss during dry season.
By the way, their act of mating is called a “cloacal kiss,” whereby the male and the female press their cloacae together to allow the male to inject his sperm into the female. According to close, obviously very close, observers, both male and female appear to find mating pleasurable.
Like other species of parrots in the wild, African Greys court their mates, marry for life, and form families. The hen lays two-to-four eggs in her tree hole nest, incubates them alone, and eats when her dutiful husband brings her dinner. When the chicks hatch, the parents give each of them a signature call.
Then the parents keep their family together for a year while they educate them. They teach their chicks to speak, to be good citizens of the flock, to obey the laws of the jungle, and to thrive in the wild.
Imagine how distressed parrots must become when parrot poachers seize one of their family. The poachers do more than simply reduce the population of an endangered species when they capture birds for the pet trade. They bring anguish to the bird’s parents, siblings, and offspring, who recognize their family members as individuals and miss them when they’ve been taken away.
Cosmo was not wild-caught, nor was she educated by her parrot parents. Her breeder, like parrot breeders everywhere, took her away from her parents when she was younger than five months old so that she’d be educated by human caregivers in the ways of a human household.
She learned to talk because she was still in her learning period when she came to live with me.
Cosmo knows she’s a bird. She recognizes herself in the mirror. And she recognizes “birdies” on the computer, which she calls “television.” So we watch the Berry College Eagles live web cam.
This morning Cosmo observed a crow fly into the eagles’ vacated nest and begin foraging. The eagles must have left some tasty organic debris—mouse bones, squirrel tails and the like—when their two fledglings departed. The crow kept up a loud, continuous “caw, caw,” and Cosmo answered equally loudly, “caw, caw, caw.”
I don’t know whether Cosmo was speaking to the crow or cheering on the crow the way I cheer on the Georgia Bulldogs when I watch them on television.
Cosmo has taught me that she and I have much in common, and that we humans are not the only smart ones around.
She has taught me that we humans have been mistaken in our assumption that we are intrinsically superior to other animals, and that the propensity to rank the intelligence of non-human animals on the basis of proximity to human intelligence is arrogant, self-centered, unwarranted, misguided, useless, dangerous, destructive, and downright ridiculous.
Ruminations on a Parrot Named Cosmo originated in a Sunday column I wrote for my local newspaper in Athens, Georgia, titled “Cosmo Talks.” I wanted to share stories of Cosmo’s hilarious antics with my local community. However, “Cosmo Talks” quickly evolved from accounts of Cosmo’s activities to ruminations on parrots’ anatomy; birds’ evolution from dinosaurs; the concept of nature; the evidence of consciousness in birds and mammals; the interdependence of all Earth’s living organisms; and the similarities in mental life between humans and non-human animals. Those ruminations became the subject matter of this book.
Cosmo just walked into my study.
“I are here,” she announced.
From Betty Jean Craige’s Ruminations on a Parrot Named Cosmo, to be released by Sherman Asher Publishing on April 15, 2021.
Categories: book excerpt