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Polly Wanna Freaking Give Me a Hint Over Here?

(Science marches on -- even when it's Secondhand SCIENCE. This week, the big scientific deal is swarm robotics. Go check it out -- or I'll send a horde of Roombas to your house and make you.

Not really. Plus if you live upstairs, Roomba goons are sort of useless as enforcers.

Meanwhile, if you dig East Coast sketch comedy, you can catch me with:


My wife's boss is on vacation. For some people, this might be a chance to slack off a bit. "When the cat's away", and so on.

But that's not how it worked out. Not by a long shot. With her boss out of town, not only is my wife doing more work -- but so am I. This is because when the boss left, she also left something with us: her pet parakeet.

That means we're birdsitting. My wife and I are sitting. A bird.

Now, I said it was work -- and it is, but not in the way I expected. I've never sat a bird before, so I had no idea. There's almost nothing to do. It doesn't eat much; it only needs water once a day or so. And it's got a bunch of toys and mirrors and swings in its cage to peck at. So there's nothing physical to do, really.

No. With birdsitting -- with this bird, at least -- all the work is emotional. Because I want the damned bird to be happy. And I have no idea what the hell it wants.

I'm not entirely dumb when it comes to animals. We had a dog for years, and I feel like I was pretty tuned in to her constant wild-assed whims. I could tell when she wanted to go for a walk (all the time). I could detect when she wanted to nap on the couch (all the time). And I clued in right away when she wanted a treat (all the goddamned time, and twice on Tuesdays).

"I also know when cats are pissy, when spiders are feeling hairy and disgusting, and when hamsters are in the mood to snurfle their noses and poop on newspaper."

And it's not just dogs. I also know when cats are pissy, when spiders are feeling hairy and disgusting, and when hamsters are in the mood to snurfle their noses and poop on newspaper. You could say I'm something of an animal whisperer.

But not when it comes to this freaking bird.

It's a nice bird; don't get me wrong. It chirps sometimes when I walk past its cage. If I stick my finger between the bars of the cage, it often hops over and bites it.

Lovingly, it bites it. Not viciously. When my wife's boss and her daughters brought the parakeet over, they told us that this "beaking" is a sign of affection -- and not, say, anger or hunger. Or rabies.

Then they showed us how it works. Because we didn't especially believe them.

But it does work, and the bird hasn't drawn blood yet, so I'd say we're marginally accepted into its flock. But that doesn't change my initial issue, namely: I don't know what the damned thing wants.

I'd like to be nice to the bird. It's been nice -- in its own way, apparently -- to me, so I want to return the favor. But short of pecking at its toes or regurgitating a nice worm into its beak, I'm stumped as to how that gets accomplished.

Sometimes the bird chirps when I'm not in the room, which I take as an invitation to investigate. When I do, it sometimes pecks -- lovingly! -- at my finger, and it sometimes shimmies across its perch to the very far side of the cage, as if I have the budgie cooties. I don't know what any of this means.

Other times, it'll peep when I'm in the room, and I'll peep back. Purely to be polite, mind you. Nobody likes to be ignored. And the bird's response is to keep peeping. Or to shut up. Or to climb to the swing at the top of its cage and turn its back in what I take to be a meaningful and less-than-pleased way. Maybe my peeps are incompatible. I don't know. None of this makes sense.

Whenever I can, I try letting the bird out of the cage. And once or twice, it's hopped onto my hand, up my arm through the open cage door and sat on my shoulder. And, probably, pooped on my shoulder, just to be confusing. But it's come out.

Mostly, though, it doesn't even acknowledge an open cage. I swing the door wide, exclaiming "be free!" But it just sits there, becaged. Or pecks at my hand. Or pokes savagely at a toy mirror in a way that's both highly meaningful and impossible for me to interpret.

Fine. I don't know bird behavior. Outside Tweety and Big Bird, I've never really had any experience with avian preferences, so it's to be expected. But all animals like treats, I figured. The dog did. I do. Probably Snuffleupagus does. It's unanimous. So I tried bonding with the bird through food.

That meant finding something it especially likes. Which so far, appears to be nothing.

Raisins? No. Lettuce? Nope. Sunflower seeds? Pshaw. Blueberries? As if. Cool Ranch Doritos?

(Okay, I didn't actually offer the bird Cool Ranch Doritos. Those can't possibly be good for it.

Also, I ate them all on the way out of the kitchen. Carting all that other food back and forth made me hungry. What, am I made of stone?)

So we've got the bird for another ten days or so. I hope it's happy, but how the hell can you tell? It's got birdseed and water and it pecks randomly at various appendages it can reach -- lovingly, always lovingly! -- but I still don't know what it wants. Or where it wants it. Or whether it's secretly planning to peck out my eyes at the earliest opportunity.

My conclusion? Birds are hard, man. The dog was a slobbery little need-hog, but at least you knew where you stood. Cats hate everybody, and most other little critters are dumb-as-rocks little furry food-pellet-to-shit-pellet converters.

This bird is different. It doesn't love. It doesn't hate. It doesn't seem to do anything for more than twelve seconds at a time, and then its mood has changed to something else entirely. It's like watching a teeny little feathered schizophrenic, and wondering if your soft tissues are safe and what the hell you're going to do with that big-ass box of raisins you bought for it.

So yeah. Work. This bird had better open up soon, or I'm gonna resort to Snausages and chew toys to make the damned thing love us. It's worked before, you know. Get with the program, birdbrain.

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