So we’ve had birds in our house for two weeks now. And we all have holes in our fingers.
(NOTE: This article was written shortly after Sukkos.)
A couple of weeks ago, I ran an article about how our neighbors went to Eretz Yisrael for Yom Tov, and they asked us to watch their birds. This is a tradition going back thousands of years, back to when everyone had chicken farms, and if you were going to make the trek to Eretz Yisrael for Yom Tov, you would have to ask your neighbors if they could watch your chickens for a few months, or else you would have to take all your chickens with you, which would make the trip more complicated. Especially the hotel logistics.
These birds are parakeets, by the way. So I assume you’re disappointed. A parakeet is a kind of bird that every time you tell someone, “I have a parakeet,” they say, “A parrot?” And you have to say, “No, a parakeet,” and they’re all disappointed. No other birds are as disappointing just because of the name.
“Why didn’t you get a parrot?”
“Do you know what parrots cost?”
That’s like if you say, “I got a fish,” and they’re like, “A whale?”
“Oh. But whales are so cool!”
Look, you can get a pet too. Stop being disappointed about my pet.
A parrot’s a pretty big investment. It’s like $1,000. And it can get moody and be a pain to deal with, and that’s all that money down the drain. They don’t know they cost $1,000.
But once these people get over their initial disappointment, they try to at least justify your choice. They ask, “Well, do they talk?”
We don’t know. They don’t talk to us. Maybe they’re shy. We are strangers.
So we were probably a disappointment as well. I’ve never had a bird. Most of my pet experience involves fish. But it’s a lot of the same concepts, right? Remember to feed it, and water it, and give it lots of sunlight…
No, that’s plants. And I kill plants.
But to assure them over yom tov that their birds were still alive, I did send them various photos of their birds doing fun Chol Hamoed activities, such as playing on my son’s pirate ships, shaking lulav (or rather sitting on the lulav while it was being shaken) and learning Gemara Beitzah. (“Wait... The egg would be muktzah?”)
And they were not that hard to keep alive. For one thing, our neighbors told us that we could just put several days’ worth of food in the cage at a time, and the birds would take care of the rest. So it turns out that birds are very different than fish. You do that with a fish, it’s going to eat all the food immediately, so it doesn’t get soggy. But birds are responsible. And also very aware of at what point they need to stop eating or they won’t be able to fly.
Except when it comes to millet. In addition to the regular birdseed, our neighbors gave us a bag of these big stalks called millet, and they said, “This is their fancy Shabbos treat. They only get this on Shabbos.”
We were told that every Friday, we should hang a stalk of millet from the top of the cage, and when we’re doing so, we should say, “Good Shabbos! Good Shabbos!”
It was unclear if they were training the birds to know that Shabbos meant special treats, or to say, “Good Shabbos,” whenever they wanted millet. Regardless of what day it actually was.
Though I don’t know if that would work. I looked into training the birds to talk, because I wanted to surprise my neighbors when they came home that the birds were suddenly calling them by name, and it turns out that you have to repeat the same word over and over again thousands of times in different tones and settings, until the birds are entirely confused about what that word means (“What’s an Esther? Does it mean “Good morning”? Does it mean “food”? Does it mean “Excuse me for a moment”?”) and then they say it randomly too to see what it does. I don’t know that saying, “Good Shabbos,” once a week would do anything. And anyway, if repeating a phrase a thousand times worked, the phrase my wife and I most often repeated over yom tov was, “Set the table,” and the birds would be saying it sooner than the kids would actually be doing it. Apparently, this doesn’t work on kids. Or maybe it does, and the kids just hear the words and remember them, but don’t actually know what they mean.
The birds definitely didn’t understand the concept of Shabbos. We put up the millet on Friday afternoon, and by the time Shabbos started, the entire stalk was gone. We kept moving it around, and they kept finding ways to get to it. We even yelled, “Don’t eat that! It’s not Shabbos yet!” but it didn’t help.
And speaking of things that birds do that kids should do, they’re also supposed to be able to bathe themselves. (The birds. Also the kids.) You’re supposed to put a bowl of water in their cage on Erev Shabbos, and they’re supposed to know to jump in it and splash around. And not think it’s just drinking water.
These birds did not.
In fact, the birds were slobs. With fish, you only have to clean the bowl once you can’t see them anymore, but with parakeets, every couple of days you have to hose everything down, get rid of all the millet crumbs, and figure out appropriate sections of the newspaper with which to line the cage. More often if it’s splashing around in a bird bath.
We’re also supposed to let the birds out at least once a day. You don’t let fish out once a day just so they can flop around on the ground for a while and then flop back into the tank.
“No, it’s good for the birds.”
These birds didn’t want to come out. We’re strangers. Strangers who tried to force them to take a bath. They are the most introverted, homebody birds we have ever seen. In fact, we couldn’t get them to try new foods either, and I’ve tried lettuce, kale, and sesame candies. At the moment, there’s a piece of banana peel hanging down from the top of their cage, right over their main perch, and I think they’re scared of it. And I said, “A Gutten Isru Chag,” and everything.
The birds are actually okay once they’re out, but we have to chase them around the cage first. Which is hard, because we can’t fit into the cage, and there are all these perches and toys in the way. And then once they’re out, their main priority is to get back to the cage.
Which I guess is a good thing, because another difference between birds and fish – when you’re watching other people’s in particular – is that you can physically lose a bird. You can’t lose a fish. (“Where is it? Oh, I guess it’s time to clean the water.”)
“What happened to my fish?”
“Sorry, we don’t know where it went. I put it on the ground to stretch its fins, and when I got off the phone, it was gone. We think the parakeet got it. Or it might be under the fridge.”
Fortunately, though, the birds’ wings were clipped, which gave them limited flight capability. And ensured that they wouldn’t try to fly home, or into the ceiling fan.
I’m actually glad my neighbors told us that their wings were clipped, because otherwise, if anything happened, we would have replaced them with birds whose wings weren’t clipped, and my neighbors would have been in for a surprise when they got home, the first time they took the birds out of their cage.
I actually read something that said if you want to train a bird to voluntarily stand on your finger, you should just sit with your hand in the cage for a couple of weeks until the birds think it’s one of them.
Thanks. I tried that the first day, and the birds kept avoiding my hands until my kids lost their patience and stuck their hands in and grabbed the birds out. I guess that’s the other way. And you know I have to make yom tov, right? I can’t spend two weeks hand-training these things. To properly train it, it takes weeks of dedication -- not a couple of days followed by Erev Shabbos followed by Shabbos followed by Erev Yom Tov followed by Yom Tov followed by Erev Shabbos followed by Shabbos followed by Erev Yom Tov followed by Yom Tov. And not one successful bath in all that, though we had to change the paper every time we tried.
Also, all these training tips I saw assume the same person is handling it all the time. The idea is to get it used to your hand. The tips assume that you live alone and it’s just you and your birds. Not your kids inviting their friends over to chase it around the cage at various times of the day. So really, we would have to sit there with everyone’s hand squeezed into the cage. There goes all our Chol Hamoed trips.
Though I do have one kid who is scared to handle them altogether. So I guess it’s a good thing we don’t have them long term. Though I guess he’d get used to it. Maybe this is a reason to have pets long term. That way, your kids learn not to be scared of those specific animals. That way, if your kid is ever walking down the street and there’s a parakeet, he won’t be scared. Everyone else will be running and ducking for cover, and your kid will be like, “Eh, it’s just parakeets. It’s not even like it’s parrots.”
Or he’ll know that if he wants to scare it away, all he needs is a banana peel.