I awoke to a riot of squawking birds outside my vacation condo in Costa Rica. The morning sun was barely peaking above the trees and into my window and I wondered who was making such a racket. Groggily, I climbed out of bed, slid the screen door aside and walked onto the patio. I squinted up at a massive fig tree that was the source of the chatter and beheld a roiling mass of green, blue and yellow. A flock of parrots was working themselves into a frenzy, like a football team psyching up before a game.
Suddenly, as though a starting gun had been fired, one bird leapt from the leaves and the others soared behind; the flock swept to and fro, and continued to squawk and swoop and fill the air with sights and sounds and finally, after one last pass directly above my head, turned towards the ocean and gradually disappeared, their calls becoming fainter until the morning was again overtaken by silence.
I recalled an earlier experience with colorful birds in a setting considerably less exotic. When I was six or seven, in a period after our last family dog died, before we embarked upon a series of family cats, we had a parakeet. My mother bought the green and yellow bird for me in a moment of weakness, I imagine, after my pleading at a local Woolworth’s proved effective. The pet only cost about a dollar; the store made money selling the cage, toys and bird food.
“I’ll teach him to talk,” I said, full of enthusiasm.
We installed the still unnamed bird in a standard wire cage placed upon a broad windowsill in our breakfast room. Each morning, I dutifully stared into the cage and suggested such original statements as “Polly want a cracker?” and “Hello, I am a parrot.” The bird completely ignored me and focused on eating seeds and pecking at a tiny mirror hung in the cage. When I despaired of teaching the bird to talk, I tried to convince it to step onto my out-stretched index finger. But each time I placed my hand into the cage, the parakeet pecked at it as though I were an enemy. It had clearly never heard the expression: “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
“He has a chippy personality,” my mother noted. Thus was the bird named.
“Why won’t Chippy talk?” I asked repeatedly during the ensuing weeks, like the frustrated seven-year-old I was.
“We’ll stop at Woolworth’s,” said my mother. “Maybe the salesman will have some suggestions.”
When we arrived and explained the problem, the clerk was happy to share his knowledge. “Does your parakeet look like those?” he asked, pointing at a cage filled with green and yellow specimens.
“Yes, exactly,” said my mother.
“Those are all females,” he said. “Only the males can learn to talk.”
“I thought Chippy was a boy,” I said. “How can you tell the difference?”
“On a male, the area at the top of the beak is blue,” said the man.
I must have looked crestfallen since my next memory is arriving at home with a large, blue parakeet with a brilliant blue crest above its beak. He was a substantial bird, with a square jaw-line. Decades before the movies made the name synonomous with fearless strength, we named our new parakeet Rocky. How could Chippy fail to be impressed? Rocky was so handsome I was sure we were about to embark on a journey worthy of a television nature show.
“Chippy and Rocky can have babies!” I said. “And I’ll teach him to talk, for sure!”
Each morning, when I came down for breakfast, I looked for signs of affection between Chippy and Rocky, and each day I became more discouraged. Not only did Chippy show no romantic interest in Rocky, she was as mean to him as she was to me. Whenever he moved close, she pecked at him. Sometimes, when he was eating from the trough in the corner of the cage, she swooped from her perch and attacked him. Rocky cowered defenselessly in the corner, a blue feather occasionally detaching from his plumage and drifting down to the floor of the cage, like a paper airplane making its last, futile landing.
Rocky also failed to learn to speak, in spite of our high-tech efforts. Not only did I tutor him, but my mother bought a record of bird expressions and played it for him on a small turntable. “Pretty bird, pretty bird,” repeated a solemn male voice somehow deemed scientifically effective in the world of parakeet learning.
After several months of this routine, it became apparent that Rocky was not going to learn to speak. And his romantic prospects with Chippy appeared even worse.
“We will have to get him his own cage,” said my mother, one day, after observing Chippy attack.
“Yes,” I agreed, deciding finally that I would just have to appreciate Rocky for his beauty and placid personality. It appeared he was only large and handsome, not brilliant or virile.
When we brought home the second cage, I was determined to affect Rocky’s transfer. Following the suggestion of the man at Woolworth’s, I wrapped my hand in a soft cloth and entered it into the enclosure. Chippy attacked with characteristic ferocity.
“Haha,” I said. “I can’t even feel you through this towel, you stinker.” For a moment, I wondered why we had a pet so unloving, so unsatisfying. But then I re-focused on my mission, to gently capture the more sympathetic Rocky, for his own good. I was able to gather him and bring him out the door without much difficulty. I recall being shocked at how weightless he was, even while he appeared so relatively large. I was scared to squeeze too hard and, due to my extreme delicacy, he escaped my hand with a surprising flutter of the wings.
“Oh, no!” I shouted, alarmed. “Rocky!”
My mother, who had been watching, also looked upset. At first, Rocky fell towards the floor, but then he gathered his balance and soared towards the ceiling. He landed on a curtain rod. He appeared to survey the room calmly, then swept into the air as though he were a hawk soaring in the high heavens. Back and forth across the room he flew.
“Look at him go!” I said, in wonderment.
“He’s incredible,” said my mother, also surprised.

I was so proud I couldn’t stop grinning. My bird appeared to be an expert flyer. I’d never felt such satisfaction, such exhilaration, from watching a pet.
“This is great,” I said, glancing at Chippy in her cage, hoping she was impressed, and jealous, too.
“We have to capture him,” said my mother.
“Just a few more minutes,” I said, thrilled with the show.
Rocky landed on a windowsill. It was probably my imagination, but I thought he had a happy expression on his face. He deposited a pile of poop there, as though he were the master of the house and then swept back into the air. With a flutter and a whoosh, he picked up speed again and, before we realized what might happen, he smashed full-speed into a wall and fell to the floor with a thud.
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Maybe he’s just stunned,” said my mother.
I approached the unmoving body. My mother touched his head. She stroked his chest. There was no heartbeat, no response. Rocky was dead. We placed Rocky’s beautiful, blue-clad body into a shoebox and surrounded it with a shroud of tissue. Solemnly, we carried Rocky to the garden behind the garage where I dug a shallow hole. I placed Rocky’s casket gently into its grave.
“I guess I should say something,” I said.
“That would be nice,” agreed my mother.
I thought about Rocky’s life for a moment, his slim list of accomplishments, his failures. Finally, I intoned, as adult-sounding as I could:
He failed at fatherhood,
He couldn’t talk at all,
But he sure could fly,
Until he hit that wall.