A year with Kilgore
by Erik Wolf
I was never a “parrot person.” We’ve had parrots as pets in my house for years thanks primarily to my wife who has been a birdaphile since she was a little girl. But I never had any experience with birds, never even considered that one day I should own a parrot. That certainly doesn’t mean I don’t like parrots — I’ve enjoyed our birds, I like watching them interact, and I even taught our blue crown conure some Beastie Boys lyrics.
Keeping birds and understanding birds are entirely different things, though.
A few years ago I joined my wife in volunteering for a parrot welfare organization, and after our time there was done I supported her when she asked me to help her co-found Metro Denver Parrot Rescue because the need to help hundreds of homeless birds get a second chance was clear.
But helping birds and loving birds are also entirely different things.
No matter how much time I spent with and around birds, I just didn’t “get it” — whatever “it” was that my wife and the other volunteers at our rescue clearly had, whatever “it” was that allowed them to see, and love, and comprehend these animals at a whole other level.
Then, about a year ago, I met Kilgore.
Kilgore was an MDPR foster parrot who had been staying in our house: a lesser sulphur crested cockatoo with a plucked chest and badly-chewed wing feathers. The authorities had recently rescued him and several other birds from a hoarding situation where he had been living in a small room, in a tiny cage, surrounded by screaming parrots who stressed him out, and without any toys, or anyone/anything to interact with except for a stuffed animal that terrified him.
I had seen Kilgore a couple of times in our finished basement where most of our fosters were kept, but I didn’t “meet” him until one evening when my wife brought him into our living room to watch TV with us. After sitting on the playstand and watching us for about half an hour, he jumped onto the back of the couch, scampered over to me, stuck his head under my chin, and stayed there the rest of the night, nuzzling me and making clicking sounds into my ear. He’s been my sidekick and best buddy ever since.
Kilgore eats breakfast with me nearly every day, and he “works” with me in my home office: me creating things on my Macbook, and him destroying wood blocks and cardboard boxes on his playstand. He spends most afternoons snuggling on my shoulder with his beak pressed up against my face. Kilgore has been camping with me, he came to the Colorado Springs Pet Expo with me, and he’s become close friends with our puppy — a 40+ pound shepherd mix — who seems to enjoy having Kilgore chase him around the living room, sometimes for twenty minutes at a time. This is an activity that obviously needs to be carefully monitored (and videoed so people will believe me) but they both like it a lot.
But that didn’t happen overnight.
My buddyship with Kilgore was not always easy, and I realize now that this is one of the points that seems to separate the people who “get it” from those who don’t. It’s something we say a lot at MDPR, but it can be difficult to remember that most parrots have a different temperament from more common household pets — they can be loving, affectionate, and fun, but they can also be loud, stubborn, willful, and very protective of their personal space and the person or people they are most bonded to. Anyone who has children is undoubtedly familiar with this pattern of behavior: it’s eerily reminiscent of a human toddler approaching their “terrible twos” — rewarding, entertaining, playful, frustrating, and maddening, sometimes all within a matter of minutes.
After the night we Netflix and chilled on the couch, my thought was, “Hey, this little guy likes me, I’m going to try to get to know him.” But despite what I knew of parrots from an intellectual perspective, what I really wanted was for all my interactions with Kilgore to be just like that first evening. They weren’t.
In the first few days after we met in the living room, I would go downstairs and try to take him out of his cage. Most of the time, he didn’t want to come out. Sometimes he would act timid or skittish, sometimes he would lunge at me, sometimes he was utterly terrified and tried to fly away from me — very unsuccessfully — with his mangled wing feathers.
This was the point that, with our family’s other birds, I would simply give up and mutter something under my breath about how “the bird doesn’t like me, grumble, grumble.” For all my semi-positive (and even my quasi-endearing) qualities, I am not widely known for my patience.
So I tried to temper my natural tendencies. I knew what kind of place Kilgore had come from, that he had been badly neglected — and, with that knowledge, I resolved to keep at him.
The first couple of weeks, I would open his door and give him a chance to come out and step up onto my arm. If he was scared, I’d sit down on the carpet in front of the cage and give him 10 or 20 minutes. If he still stayed put, I’d close the cage door and come back the next day. If he came out, I’d bring him upstairs for an hour or two and sit down with him on the couch or in my office and hang out with him. Away from his cage, he was all head scratches and kissy noises. In his cage, he was one part surly nightclub bouncer and one part snapping turtle.
It took the better part of a month, but ultimately, as soon as I’d open the cage, Kilgore would climb right out onto the top of the door and either step up onto my arm or hop right onto my shoulder. (For the uninitiated, it turns out that kangaroo-style hopping is a favored form of transportation for many cockatoos.)
Fast forward a year or so…
Even though most of his feathers have grown back — and hopefully most of his bad times forgotten — and even though we are totes BFFs, there are still days that Kilgore prefers to stay in his cage and I’ve learned that it has nothing to do with “the bird doesn’t like me, grumble, grumble”… He’s just having the sort of day where maybe he’d prefer to be by himself. Even those of us without feathers have those sorts of days from time to time. I can live with that. Sometimes he’s sweet and cuddly, sometimes he’s a rambunctious little hellion who chews on plantation blinds when no one’s looking and terrorizes my children. I can live with that too, especially since the kids deserve it sometimes.
What’s harder to come to grips with is how different my life would be today had I not given Kilgore the time he needed to come out of his shell and feel comfortable with me. Although he would have come out of foster and probably been adopted by another excellent home, I prefer to think that we would have both been missing out.
Kilgore taught me a very valuable lesson in patience, a lesson that was put to good use this year when my wife and I opened The Perch, our new parrot cafe in Colorado Springs (and a different story entirely).
Appropriately, our new business logo features little sulphur-crested Kilgore standing on top of the “P” — a constant reminder that patience pays and that second chances are equally valued by those who receive that chance and those who give it.
Thanks to Kilgore, I finally “get it.”