Difficult and demanding. I’m not (necessarily) talking about your spouse here. I’m talking about a bird, specifically a Cacatuidae, more commonly called a cockatoo, more recently realized by me as difficult and demanding. In my last post, I noted that one of the coolest things about pet-sitting is learning about different breeds and species. Over the four years we’ve been caring for various cats and dogs, we’ve discovered which ones are affectionate, which ones are aloof, which ones have high energy, which ones have low. It’s been great to know and helpful in preparing ourselves for upcoming sits. Yes, knowledge is power, forewarned is forearmed, etc. etc. In the end, nothing could have prepared us for the astonishing jolt that is a cockatoo.
When we were first recruited to British Columbia’s Okanagan region to care for two dogs, two cats and a bird we thought, ‘Oh, this will be fun; we’ve never cared for a bird before.’ I can safely say the next bird we care for will be a Dodo.
Romeo was his name (a misnomer if ever there was one) and torture was his game. He was a salmon-crested cockatoo and lovely to look at, for sure. But when he opened that razor-sharp beak and stuck out that bulbous black tongue, out came a shriek so loud, so piercing, so blood-curdling we literally had to cover our ears. Where Shakespeare’s Romeo was a suave and passionate lover, Kelowna’s Romeo was a spoiled and petulant baby trapped in a cranky old man’s body. He was 25, which, in cockatoo years (they can live to about 90), made him about, well, 25 in human years. He appeared to have no concerns about preserving his vocal chords to carry him another 65; he pushed them to their limits with wild abandon.
One of the 21 species of parrot, and originating in Australasia (Philippines, Indonesia, New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Australia), according to Wikipedia, cockatoos are prized for “their appearance, intelligence and engaging personalities”. Pshaw! Yes, Romeo’s pink-streaked plumage was impressive, especially when he spread his wings or unfurled his head crest, I’ll give you that. And, although not being personally witness to it here, I hear the cockatoo’s cleverness is widely documented; there’s even a video making the Internet rounds of a cockatoo unlocking a series bolts, screws and latches. Good for him; he’ll make a cat burglar a fine feathered sidekick. They’ll even ride a tiny scooter, but, come on, how clever are they if they can be duped into doing that? In any event, it’s all very laudable, sure. What I take issue with is a personality described as “engaging”. If they mean engaging a fight or flight response in anyone within earshot when he squawks, that I can get behind.
Which brings me back to “difficult and demanding”. These birds are highly social and require an inordinate amount of attention (unlike the Cockatiel, a member of the Australian cockatoo family, which can sit quietly for hours without a peep). So, doing our jobs, we’d feed him his favourite foods, coo to him, mist him when it got too hot, rub his scrawny, old-man neck (his preferred activity), and massage his skeletal back until our hands were covered in the talc-like powder he secretes under his feathers. When we’d stop, he’d flip upside down and screech his outrage (I’m sure there’s a “flip the bird” reference in there somewhere).
Cockatoos bore easily so they need lots of distraction and toys to play with (or locks to jimmy, scooters to ride). He had all these things but they were so five minutes ago, and he ignored anything new — paper towel rollers, wood wedges, branches, balls — we offered him. He was beyond pleasing. Cockatoos can be quite affectionate with their owners (those with either infinite reserves of patience or hearing loss). Pet-sitters? Not so much. Although they’re not always good talkers, Romeo blasted us from Day 1 with high-decibel shrieks that, although we don’t speak bird, we interpreted as: Who are you! What are you doing here! I want my Maaaaa! Get OUT! He was two feet and two pounds of sheer cacophony.
We had read that they are not necessarily early risers, that they wait for the sun to warm their roost before feeding. Ha! Despite closed shutters in his room, light slipped in through the cracks, and Romeo began his caterwauling at the crack of dawn. This woke the dogs, which in turn woke the cats, which in turn woke us, bug-eyed and shell-shocked. At 5:30 a.m., when even the crows were still snoozing, we were blearily bumbling around the kitchen trying to feed cats whining and whirling around our feet, dogs barking and jumping at our backs, and a bird hooting and hollering from his cage. When all were finally fed, we’d collapse on the couch, look at each other and say, ‘What on earth have we gotten ourselves into?’
After a few days of this madness we thought, this ain’t gonna work. We loved the cats and dogs: the felines were rescues (on Halloween night a few years ago, some lunatic thought it would be cool to cut their tails off and leave them bleeding and abandoned in a park), and the dogs, a Labradoodle and Springer spaniel, were so much fun. I think I’ve left little doubt about my feelings for the bird. But the chaos could not continue if we were to retain our sanity. So we devised a plan, a pecking order, if you will: First, delay Romeo’s first glimpse of dawn. We went to Walmart and bought a cheap, king-sized sheet — black — and covered his cage at night. This bought us an extra hour of sleep. We were now rising between 6 and 6:30 — a kind of bliss we’d never dreamed we’d think of as bliss. Second, separate the canines from the felines. As soon as we got out of bed, the dogs were ushered outside for a pee and to await breakfast. Third, dish up the cats’ grub. Fourth, mix up the dogs’, which included pain meds for the arthritic spaniel, fish oil capsules for both, blended with a scoop of canned food. All this had to be prepared with lightning speed to prevent them from howling a wake-up call to the neighbours. Fifth, offer the cantankerous cockatoo a smorgasbord of corn cob, pistachios, pasta, garbanzo beans and carrots (I’d read that they’re a seed-based bird, but not Romeo: he would spit them in my general direction and screech his displeasure). Sixth, start the coffee (for the humans). Seventh, and finally, grab a cuppa joe and head for the peace of the backyard, leaving the bird brain to scream to himself between bites of bean.
Once the clock hit the acceptable hour of 8 a.m., we’d carry Romeo to his outdoor perch, where he’d either quietly while away an hour or so in the sun preening, or watching us play with the dogs or, if he was in a mood (more likely), heckle us from on high. He couldn’t be left alone, not even for a minute, before he’d squall like a two-year-old in a tantrum. Consequently, bathroom breaks were brisk.
We did manage to escape a few days; once to walk the trestles of the famed Kettle Valley Railway, another to visit the Fab Five, a group of small wineries in our neighbourhood, stopping on the way back to buy pounds of fresh-picked cherries at the local orchards. Every other day we’d take an hour or two and walk the dogs to a nearby park or along part of the 22-kilometre Mission Creek Greenway, a beautiful path through forest and field, where we’d often spot a determined group of old dudes panning for gold in the creek. We’d stop at a shady spot where the current was calm and let the dogs cool off in the clear water. Those were the best of times — mercifully still, serene, squawk-free.
I’ve never really counted the days to the end of a pet-sit, but with this two-week stint, I started glancing at the calendar on Day 3. On our last day, in my haste to exit the home, chased out by the high-pitched squeals of Romeo’s deranged laughter, I walloped my leg on a table. Bruised and battered, I limped to the door, paused, turned to where art thou feathered fiend, and uttered these final, tragic words:
“These violent delights have violent ends; parting is such sweet sorrow; for never was a story of more woe than this of Robin and her Romeo . . .”