The Rocky Chronicles
Living with the Blind 'Too

The phone rang at about 1:30 pm, and my friend told me about an Umbrella Cockatoo listed in a local paper for $200.  I really wanted a Cockatoo, but I couldn’t afford one at the time so I had resolved myself to visiting them at the bird pet stores nearby.  She and I both knew that this $200 price tag was a huge “red flag” but decided to see the bird anyway, despite any thoughts I may have had about it.

Expecting the worst, we arrived to find a very quiet, beautiful Cockatoo with no apparent problems, other than the hissing and his fear of anyone around him.  In his cage were a ripe branch from a tree outside, one Plexiglas ring and a dish filled with sunflower seeds.  His cage was rather small, but he seemed to be comfortable with it.

I had asked the owner about him, and he stated that the bird had never bitten anyone, but he wasn’t completely sure he wouldn’t, hence the low asking price.  I walked around the cage and each time the bird hissed and displayed his crest, letting me know that he didn’t trust me.  I asked the owner if he could pick him up and place him on top of the cage so I could get a better look.  He cautiously reached in, holding his open palm vertically before the massive beak, and slowly pulled the frightened Cockatoo out of the cage.  Once there, he didn’t stay long and retreated to the back of the cage seeking an alternate entry into his 24 inch square by 3 foot, powder-coated security blanket.

The owner asked if I was interested in the bird, informing me that there was another person on the way and I had been the first to call.  I asked for a moment to think, because even though $200 is practically nothing for a Cockatoo I still wasn’t quite sure about the demeanor of the bird.  I wasn’t experienced at all, save for a few bloodletting moments with the beak of a Senegal parrot and a bunch of trips to local stores.  I wanted a larger bird, and chose a Cockatoo because they’re typically friendly and aren’t as nippy as some other birds I’ve seen.

Finally, I decided to take the plunge and reach in for the bird.  With my forearm displayed and my best wimpy expression, fully anticipating a chunk to be taken out of my flesh, I lowered myself in towards this remarkable creature.  Past moments with the Senegal ran through my mind in an instant: that Senegal drew blood on me regularly, what was I thinking that possessed me to get a bird with a beak five times larger?  Then, without warning, just as I got my arm within reach he did it.  He lunged at me and placed his massive beak around my forearm.  I didn’t react fast enough and before I could pull my arm away he released and pulled back, hissing once more for good measure.  Assuming the worst (again), I quickly turned and my mind was hollering out loud to get the bandages, a warm towel, and dial 9-1-1.  I reached up with my other hand to grasp my arm and hopefully trap the flow of blood that I assumed was flowing from my numbed forearm.

But my eyes told a different story than my fearful mind, and there wasn’t a spot of blood anywhere to be found.  My arm wasn’t “numb”, I still had full uses of my senses and to top it off there wasn’t a mark on me.  No, this incredible bird merely “gummed” me, warning me that he could surely bite me if he had to.  I looked into his dark eyes and he hissed a couple more times, and I turned to the owner asking for a moment to confer with my friend, who had brought her hatchback…just in case.  We walked to the side and started whispering about the bird, and I asked if she thought that cage would fit in the back of her car.  She asked if I really wanted to get the Cockatoo, and I told her, “Oh yeah, this guy’s coming home with me tonight!”

We told the owner that I’d take this troubled bird off his hands, and I wrote out a check.  Okay, so I was absolutely sure that the low price was a sure sign that the bird was mean and nasty, but didn’t someone once say something like “expect the unexpected” or “always be prepared”?  I was just that, fully prepared and expecting the unexpected, and it paid off.

I brought him home with me and decided to call him ‘Rocky’.  For the next couple weeks I worked with him very briefly, trying to get him to step up onto a wooden dowel, and to take food from me.  I have to admit that I was probably not the kind of person a larger bird because I knew absolutely nothing about them, and my patience wasn’t what it should be to give him time to adjust.  So after about two weeks I reached in and grabbed his feet, and I picked him up.  Before he even had time to assess the situation, he was being held…and he liked it.  He didn’t squirm, he didn’t try to get away…he just allowed it to happen.  I had decided that the best way to get him to trust me was to get him to lie on his back in the palm of my hand, to ‘play dead’.  So for about a week I tried this, and practiced it, and repeated it over and over until he finally let go of my hand with his kung-fu grip.  By the end of our third week together we were an act that to this day we use to show off to people, and everyone loves it.

After a couple months, my friend wanted to enter Rocky in a bird show at our local club, to be judged by a professional judge.  I had a soccer game that night so I missed the festivities, but when I got home she showed me the two ribbons that Rocky had won.  I was so proud of him, so the next year we decided to take him again.  While most of the members had a show quality, professional display cage, Rocky sat inside a medium-sized pet carrier, the kind that looks like a rabbit cage.  When the judge came over to look at Rocky, we were allowed to be within earshot and see how they judge and what they look for.  Rocky was very well behaved, and the judge was very impressed with his calm demeanor and how healthy he looked.  Then the judge wanted to see Rocky’s other side, so he stuck his small dowel into the cage and asked Rocky to turn around, and Rocky did it.  The judge was so amazed by Rocky’s compliance that he did it a couple more times, and each time he asked, Rocky did a 180 on his perch.  But I have to admit something: we cheated.  You see, by that time Rocky was completely trusting of me and I noticed that he stood on his perch so that he could see me.  So when the judge asked Rocky to turn around, I simply walked around to the other side of the room and Rocky turned so that he could see me.  The judge didn’t notice that I was walking in circles around the room, but it didn’t matter, we were a team!

That night, Rocky won another ribbon and then won the big prize: the Member’s Choice Best in Show, which was awarded by a nice, engraved trophy.  Some people were upset though, because I knew very little, had no ‘pre-show’ routine, and didn’t even have a proper display cage.  One person complained that it wasn’t fair because he brought 17 birds and demanded that Rocky be eliminated because he’s “just a pet”.  I was completely beside myself, I thought it was for fun, and since it didn’t garner any points towards the professional show circuit I was confused as to why people got upset.  Rocky IS my pet, and I wasn’t trying to make a statement, I was just very proud of him.  But, seeing the antics by the “professionals” and also seeing how uncomfortable Rocky was, I decided to retire him from the “show circuit”, and I was completely fine with that.  Even without his three ribbons and his trophy, he’s still a very important part of my life and I could care less what others think.

I stayed with that bird club for a few years, and the club usually had a booth at the local county fair.  Eventually, I found myself on stage with Rocky, doing an educational show to a couple hundred people, and that led to a couple gigs at local malls where we did similar shows.  Our shows were educational, so I had to tell people all about parrots, caring for them, and how people smuggle them into this country, much like the way they smuggle drugs.  People were amazed at what I told them, thankfully, because when one appears on stage with a Cockatoo the audience expects to be entertained.  Try entertaining 200 people for 45 minutes with a Cockatoo that doesn’t talk, doesn’t squawk, only knows one trick and spends most of his time turning away from the crowd.  Eventually, I retired Rocky from that as well because even though I felt the message was important I realized that too many people were asking me: “where can I get a bird just like Rocky?”  My short and unexpected answer was simply “nowhere”, because I just got lucky finding him amidst all the other unwanted birds in town, advertised for roughly one-tenth his value, if I had to put a price on him.

Over the years, I have moved a bit, and I have always taken Rocky into consideration.  He was never going to be in a bird room, he was part of my family and his cage has always been in the main living area.

What we originally thought would be a mean, nasty, troubled parrot turned out to be a loving, affectionate member of my family.

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