I was worried when I first inherited Claudette that she would be lonely and depressed. I knew parrots were supposed to be social creatures, but I was barely equipped to handle one, much less get her a companion. Aunt June, who had “generously” given the bird to me after discovering how loud and energetic she could be, assured me that Claudette was an independent sort and would be fine on her own.
Claudette and I had a rocky start. I was timid around her large beak and sharp claws and she was slow to trust yet another new person. She’d apparently had a number of homes in her twenty-five years, all of whom had given her up much the same as Aunt June had. That was mostly why I kept her; I felt sorry for her and wanted her to finally have a home, even if it meant a steep learning curve.
We had what felt like a very long period of adjustment, during which I learned that getting bitten, while painful, could have been much worse and she started to at least recognize me as the hand that fed her. When I discovered she was happiest in my small, screened-in porch, I moved her cage there and gave her free run of it, which also improved our relationship.
It took a lot a time, patience, and treats, but eventually it got to the point that she would fly over to me whenever I went out and sit on my arm while she inhaled whatever I’d brought her.
If I had been worried about her getting lonely while I was away, those concerns were quickly banished when I realized she was making fast friends with the mockingbirds who nested in a tree behind my apartment. They’d trade calls and squawk at each other throughout the day, which sometimes got me in a little trouble with my more noise-sensitive neighbors, but that wasn’t anything a few homemade cookies and apology cards couldn’t smooth over.
I’d never considered getting a parrot before, but Claudette proved to be a sweet, smart girl once you got past her initial orneriness and I learned that she had a fairly extensive (and sometimes colorful) vocabulary and was an excellent little mimic. I also found out that, over the course of a few months while I was at work, she’d apparently been teaching the mockingbirds a thing or two.
I was sitting on the porch one evening, giving Claudette a little neck scratch before going in to make dinner, when I heard a soft, but very distinct voice coming from somewhere over head.
“Shit!” It said.
I jumped, having not seen or heard anyone approach, and looked around, but my little corner of the apartment complex was quiet and no one was outside. In my lap, Claudette started to bob her head, her feathers ruffling ever so slightly.
“Shit!” The voice said again.
“Shit!” Claudette answered.
She and the voice went back and forth a few more times, enthusiastically shouting one of her favorite words, until I rushed her inside in embarrassment and to keep whoever was taunting her from going any further. It wasn’t until I saw one of her mockingbird friends swoop by the porch a few times, obviously in search of Claudette, that I realized the voice I’d been hearing hadn’t been someone encouraging her naughty behavior; it had been the mockingbirds mimicking her.
Claudette had taught the wild birds to swear.
It was going to take a lot more cookies to get back on my neighbors’ good sides when they figured that one out.
Instead of moving her inside, I decided to try and encourage her to use sweeter phrases that I hoped the mockingbirds would pick up on.
“Hello!” I said, over and over again.
“Hello!” Claudette said.
“Shit!” The mockingbirds said.
I hadn’t even known mockingbirds could “talk”, much less how to get them to pick up new words, so I scoured the Internet and asked around, hoping for some insight.
They just repeat what they hear often. One bird enthusiast replied when I left a comment on a forum. They’ll pick up something else soon! A mockingbird near me constantly called my dogs for ages until it picked up a new bird song. Good luck!
Ok, I told myself, I could wait them out.
In the meantime, I kept working with Claudette to clean up her own language and spent a bit of time every night repeating words to her and rewarding her when she got them right. It took a few more weeks and months, but the swearing was definitely on a decline and I hadn’t heard the mockingbirds repeating her anymore, so I was counting it a victory.
One morning, when I went out to feed her before I left for work, she bobbed and paced along her rung with her usual enthusiasm, but I noticed she was making these odd, raspy noises, like she couldn’t quite catch her breath.
I took her up on my arm and gave her a quick once over while stroking her back. “You ok?” I asked.
“Hello!” She said and the odd breathing stopped.
I waited for a little while, almost enough time to make me late, but she seemed fine and I rushed out to get to work.
The next morning, however, the low, rasping noises were back. She again came over to me and fluffed and bobbed, all the while making the ragged breathing sounds.
Outside, the mockingbirds were responding with unusual clicking noises. I didn’t pay much attention to them, too concerned for my poor parrot.
Unable to leave her again when she was in such an obvious state of distress, I called my boss to let her know I had a family emergency and hurried Claudette to the nearby vet. I told them in a quavering voice that I was sure she had some kind of serious illness and explained that she was having trouble breathing and they ushered me into a room to wait for the doctor.
When he came in, I again told him about the sounds and begged him to listen to Claudette. She was sitting in her travel cage, preening quietly, completely undisturbed by the fact that her life was hanging in the balance.
“I swear, she sounded horrible yesterday and today.” I insisted.
“Sometimes these things come and go.” Dr. Graham said gently. “Can you do me a favor? Imitate the sound she was making.”
I quickly did as he asked, hoping I’d be accurate enough for him to understand the severity of the situation, and immediately, Claudette started to mimic me.
Dr. Graham hid a small smile behind his hand before catching himself and becoming serious again.
“She’s fine, Stacey. It seems she may have uh…overheard you during some nighttime activities and is just repeating those sounds.”
“I think she’s heard you with a partner. You know…during intimate moments.”
Claudette emphasized his statement with an unmistakable little moan.
With my face burning a bright red, I packed up my bird, mumbled an apology and thanked him, and practically ran out of the office.
“You’ve been listening to the neighbors.” I accused a now whistling Claudette on the way home. “Or has someone been playing their TV too loud? How did you learn to make those noises?”
It certainly hadn’t been from me, that much I knew. Whatever it was, it must have been going on for a while if she was starting to mimic it. I couldn’t just go around asking my neighbors if they were getting down and dirty with the windows open, so for now, I’d just have to try and keep a closer eye on what she was getting exposed to.
When I released her back onto the porch, she squawked a chorus of hellos to the mockingbirds, who sang back, and then settled on top of her cage for a nap in the sun.
I sat on the porch with her for a good portion of the day, but didn’t hear anything particularly telling, and eventually gave up when it became uncomfortably warm outside. I still poked my head out in occasion, but the most unusual thing I heard was the mockingbirds making their newly picked up clicking sound. While it was familiar, I couldn’t quite place where I’d heard it before and dismissed it.
Claudette’s heavy breathing sounds started to become a more frequent part of our morning, along with the occasional moan, and every so often, she’d mumble to herself.
“Pretty, pretty, pretty.”
At least that was an improvement on “shit”.
She and the mockingbirds continued their back and forth and I got used to their clicking noises the same way I had their swearing. It was especially bad in the morning when Claudette was doing what I came to call her “breathing exercises”.
Rinse and repeat until midday.
I just had to wait them out and they’d eventually move on to some new sound to try and drive me crazy with.
But the more I heard it, the more I realized there was something about the click, which was becoming more refined and distinct every day, that kept nagging at me. I knew the sound and, given a bit more time, I was sure I’d pinpoint exactly what they were imitating, but it continued to elude me.
“How’s Claudette doing?” My sister asked while we drank wine and had our weekly Thursday night phone call.
I was sitting in my living room in my pajamas, little more than a tank top and a pair of shorts that were too small to wear out in public, with my phone in one hand and my glass in the other. I’d left my sliding glass door leading out to the porch opened just wide enough for Claudette to waddle inside if she wanted to join me.
“She’s fine, still doing that nasty breathing thing.”
“You figure out who’s taught it to her?”
“I’m leaning towards the Johnsons; they’ve always struck me as exhibitionist types.”
Raina giggled. “Aren’t they the old people?”
“Yeah and they need some lovin’, too!”
While we laughed, I heard a series of very soft clicks through the opened door.
“Oh! Oh!” I said. “The mockingbirds are doing the thing I told you about! Maybe you can hear them and tell me what this damn noise is!”
I sprang up from my couch and crossed the living room to yank back the sheer curtain hanging across the slider.
The clicking stopped immediately.
Beside me, Claudette paced back and forth across her cage top, mumbling all the while.
“Pretty, pretty, pretty.”
A bush on the other side of the screen shook just slightly.
The light from inside my apartment reflected off the porch screen, making it difficult to see outside, and I froze.
“I can’t hear them.” Raina said in my ear. “Stacey?”
The bushes rustled again.
Claudette started to make the shuddering, raspy breathing sounds.
From the trees overhead, the mockingbirds responded with their clicks.
I now recognized the sound with sudden, chilling clarity.
“Raina,” I said as calmly as I could, “I think someone’s in my bushes.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, a dark figure sprang upright and was making a mad dash around the side of the apartment building. It happened so quickly that I couldn’t make out much, no features, nothing significant, just dark clothes and maybe a hat, and then he was gone.
Raina was asking me in a near panic if she should call the police while I was too stunned to answer.
It had taken months for me to teach Claudette words, months for her to pick up new sounds, months for her to learn to mimic accurately. No doubt it would have taken the same amount of time listening to someone breathing heavily and moaning to repeat the sounds accurately.
My stomach dropped, fast and far, and I thought I might vomit.
She hadn’t learned those sounds from noisy neighbors or a television show. She’d learned it from the man who’d been hiding outside my apartment, panting like a dog while he watched me.
I stumbled back against the slider and scrambled to get inside again.
Over my shoulder, one of the mockingbirds called out into the night from a treetop.
The perfect imitation of a camera shutter.