Charlie the parrot came into my life during the summer holiday season, more by accident than design.
I’ve never owned a pet bird, or even looked after one, so the prospect of being Charlie’s carer for a week or so was a daunting one. Great responsibility goes with looking after a neighbour’s pet, especially when it is the much-loved playmate of their children.
I may know a great deal about birds flying wild and free but a captive one had me out on a limb. I’m not particularly fond of seeing birds in cages but I could hardly express any reservations to my neighbours, especially as they regraded me, as a bird lover, the perfect companion for their beloved pet for a week or so.
I was pleased to be able to help them out, though, so they could take a hiking trip to the north-west coast in terrain hardly suitable for a tropical parrot not from these parts. Charlie usually went with them to the shack.
At this point I must mention that Charlie belongs to a species that, before our introduction, I had never heard of: a maroon-bellied conure.
I consulted an international bird book to discover exactly where the conure came from – mainly Brazil, where it can be seen in the parks of Rio de Janeiro – and more importantly a website for caged bird enthusiasts to see if there were any special needs to be catered for. My neighbours had given me a long talk about feeding and exercising, and even bathing, but I wanted to be prepared for any emergency.
Beyond feeding, I was particularly interested in items on the page devoted to maroon-bellied conures under the headings of “traits” and “behaviour”. The species – which can live up to 30 years – was “considered one of the more friendly conures, also fairly even-tempered and quiet”. And under the behaviour section I was soon to be in agreement with the statement that “these busy pet birds need plenty of entertainment and interaction”.
After being a little stand-offish when Charlie first arrived, I soon became his plaything, summonsed at his beck and call every time he got bored with his mirror and bells and wanted the freedom to climb up and down my arms, and fly to sit on my head.
As its name implies, the species is distinguished by a patch of maroon on the lower stomach. It may not be as striking and stunning as some of the other smaller parrots – the conures are about 25 to 28 cm from beak to tail – but they have subtle scalloped green and yellow beauty all the same.
There are many in the birdwatching community who frown on keeping birds in cages but I have always avoided taking a politically-correct stance. Although I’m always troubled to see parrots the size of cockatoos behind bars, I think birds born in captivity – as Charlie was – can have a happy and fulfilling life if given plenty of attention and exercise.
Caged birds have another function. That of education. It was the sight of birds in pet shops and zoos – along with wild ones in the garden – that first aroused my interest in birds and I still remember my first sight of an eastern rosella, one of my favourite Australian birds. It was in the Bristol Zoo in western England.
By some strange coincidence while Charlie was happily sitting on my knee one morning, as I cleaned his page, I caught sight of eastern rosellas, a new addition to the checklist I’ve compiled of birds spotted in my garden.
The rosellas kept returning after the initial sighting but I have to confess they were little consolation for the return of Charlie to his owners. His departure left a vacuum that was not filled by the rosella’s sweet chatter or the harsh squawk of the sulphur-crested cockatoos flying over my home. An iridescent blue-green feather in a glass on my desk is a reminder of his stay.