In many countries, birds are the third most popular pet (after you know who). Americans alone keep more than 17 million birds indoors to keep them company, nevermind that the trait we most love and envy about them is the glory of their flight. A paradox, to be sure, but hardly the only unusual item in the catalogue of human-avian relations that Ilan Greenberg explores in his fascinating essay for AEON. Greenberg introduces one intrepid trainer who tells of “a Macaw that loved me and bit my lips off because he didn’t like the person who walked up to me.” With an undocumented shoulder shrug (that somehow includes the plastic surgeon’s bill), the trainer explains, “They bite the ones they love.” Everyone knows people like that, but this isn’t the same.
Parrots, of which Macaws are a type, are at the heart of this story that examines some devoted hearts. You’ll meet Alex the African Grey, a domestic parrot with a 150 word vocabulary believed to have the intelligence of a five-year-old child. Oh that’s right, forgot to mention: parrots fucking talk! You knew that, but there’s no harm in exclaiming it, because it’s cool and creepy and sci-fi and plain fact all at once. They have an acid sense of humor, too, though it fails to dampen a mean streak. (See above: man’s lips.) Perhaps the anger stems from incarceration, both emotional and actual. Greenberg rises to this insinuation and looks at the ethics of these chatty, interspecies relationships too, noting that it’s considered bad form to make pets of other animals we consider as smart as the parrot—for instance, “primates or dolphins.” (This may also have to do, a reader posits, with sheer impracticality.) Parrots–gorgeous symbol of the exotic and the strange–and the humans that love them make for a fascinating story. Ilan Greenberg takes you there.