It’s been a few months since Pugwash our beloved Congo African Grey parrot decided to make use of a carelessly left open door and go his own way into the wide world. Thinking about him and his story raises questions about the ethics and nature of keeping these beautiful, intelligent birds as a pet.
We’d had the aviary set up for some time already upstairs, and Ray the Alexandrine Parakeet was getting used to life with us downstairs in the living room area. We’d been to Bangkok’s famous – and notorious – Chatuchak market to buy and browse the various birds they have there several times and had seen the African Greys they had there. My son Mike started bugging me to get a Grey but I was against it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they may be birds, but they don’t go ‘cheap’ (hardy-har). A Grey would be far more expensive than anything we’d bought previously. Secondly, I actually didn’t think at the time that they looked that nice. In fact, we’d jokingly refer to the ‘evil’ look they projected as they stared at us from their cages. Maybe they were just pissed off.
Several months passed and I ended up caving in to Mike’s endless pestering. I joined a local Facebook group concerned with buying and selling birds and eventually found a seller offering Greys at a really low price. I thought I was being clever snagging that deal, but the truth would soon become apparent. Once I was committed to the purchase I read up on African Greys. Behaviour, diet, habitat, care. I read up on all that thinking I’d covered all the bases but of course I should have read more…
On the day of the purchase we drove a couple of hours out to the east of Bangkok. By the side of a secluded dusty crossroads only disturbed by the occasional drone of passing lorries was a long shed emitting a chorus of avian squeals and squawks. We were led inside by the nonchalant guy who seemed to be running the place. It was full of stacked cages containing mostly African Greys and a few Sun Conures. The noise was hard to describe. Certainly not the sound of contented birds. More like a disturbing cacophony of shrill screams cries for help. For the first time I started feeling uncomfortable as I realized why the asking price was so low. These birds clearly were not tame and had not been treated well. Looking back now, we should probably have got out of there right then but before I’d had the chance to weigh up the situation properly we were invited to chose the bird we wanted.
There were 2-3 birds in each cage and they were all apparently fed only sunflower seeds. They all cowered at the far side of the cages as we walked down a row. I wanted to take my time but also wanted to get out as soon as possible. I knew we’d be giving the bird we chose a much better life than it was having here, but it was tough to choose between them because they all seemed equally badly kept. Eventually we chose the one that seemed the most placid after a minute or two of observation. And that was it.
The seller offered to clip his wings, which we accepted since under the circumstances we needed all the help we could get to make this a manageable situation. We knew nothing about the bird we had just bought.
We got in the car and went straight to have him checked out by a veterinarian. They took a blood sample to do a sex test and determined that he was deficient in certain vitamins due to the inadequate diet he’d had. His tail was only a weak pink colour (Congo Greys should have a bright red tail) because he hadn’t had the right minerals, but his weight was good and no other problems were apparent.
The Early Days
We took him home and thought of a name. When I was very young there was a popular animated series in the UK featuring a pirate called Captain Pugwash. Since there has always been portrayed an affinity between parrots and pirates, we called him Pugwash, or Pugwash Scattershat The First, to give him his full name.
What quickly became very obvious was that this bird was terrified of humans. And particularly human hands. Every time I’d go near him he’d start screaming and backing away. Not just a hiss but a full-throated guttural scream. And if there was no space to back away, he’d lunge with his beak. This was why he’d come so cheap. From day one we gave him seeds with fresh fruit and veg (which he didn’t like initially) twice a day and always kept his cage door open. We didn’t fear him chewing up any of the furniture at that stage because he was too scared to ever venture away from it.
I did some more reading on the species and found that its population in the wild was being decimated by the pet trade. Oh great. That got me feeling really guilty. Why don’t they just breed them in captivity and leave the wild population alone? I hoped Pugwash didn’t harbor memories of Congolese rain forests.
Whatever he was thinking, it couldn’t have been very calming. For the first six months we had him he did not make a single sound apart from the screams when anyone went close. It felt like I’d made a big and ignorant mistake in buying him but I wasn’t going to give up. Maybe one day he’d come round but for now we just had to accept him as a somehow ‘damaged’ member of our family.
The Better Times
Despite my failed attempts to get Pugwash to stand on my hand and the rarity of achieving the dizzying behavioural high of him eating a sunflower seed from my hand, he eventually started to mellow a bit more. The deep, vivid red color returned to his tail and he started to come out of his shell a bit more. Sounds started coming. Over the months and years he learned several sounds. He copied the sounds he heard around him such as the cats and birds outside, as well as the call of Ray the Parakeet. He’d copy the beeps of the microwave and exercise equipment in the house. And he learned things that we taught him too. Funniest was his rendering of “Hellooo, how are you???” in an overly posh British accent. Also the “Whasssaaaaapppp?” from the Budweiser adverts long ago, and “Good boy!!!” in the Thai accent of my friend who we’d impersonate often. The odd wolf-whistle was also heard. And song-wise he could whistle The Final Countdown by Europe as well as the opening refrain of the Thai national anthem (we’re in Thailand after all).
Pugwash was a true soundsmith. He’d take a familiar tune or sound and then riff on it a while. It was impressive, and he was clearly more intelligent than any of the other species we owned but this of course meant that he needed more to keep his mind busy.
A particularly frustrating thing in the early days was that we couldn’t get him to eat anything apart from sunflower seeds for several months. If we’d cut out the seeds entirely and leave only the fruit and veg he would have starved to death. But with his very gradual relaxation came a ginger willingness to try the occasional new food and eventually corn became his favourite although he ended up enjoying grapes, dragon fruit, long beans and kale among other things.
Over time his flight feathers grew back. I was too scared and inexperienced to try and trim them myself so we paid a veterinarian to do it but they did such a poor job that he was flying around again within a couple of months so we just let him have the run of the downstairs area of our house. You may think that this would lead to having bird poo all over the place but in fact the places where we’d see poo would always be the same few places where Pugwash liked to perch most, which were the curtain rails. We had ceramic floor tiles so cleaning up was easy and never once did I have to deal with poo on any soft furnishings.
The main losses in terms of destruction were the curtain rings, which were all chewed up and had to be replaced. Wall fans would also get attention, being another favoured perch. One time I went in the exercise room and found the electric wall fan cable chewed through with a burn mark on the wall it ran down but I don’t know if it was Pugwash or Ray that did it. Either way, lessons were learnt. The replacement cable was placed well out of reach.
The curtain rails were his favourite places to hang out, literally. He’d frequently climb along them upside down or perform splits like some feathered trapeze artist. I know it sounds crazy since parrots pretty much have a fixed expression on their faces, but sometimes when I looked at him it would almost appear that he was smiling.
Thanks And Goodbye
So after about 4 years of sharing our lives with him it all came to a very sudden and unexpected end. A friend of mine came to visit from abroad and we had planned to drive straight down to a beach house south of Bangkok for the weekend as soon as they arrived. The front door was carelessly left open when they arrived and Pugwash exited stage left. Heartbreakingly, we couldn’t hang around to wait and see if he would come back. We had to leave immediately and only came back after 3 days and he was never seen again.
I like to think he has found a food-laden tree or fresh market somewhere not too far away where he can stay and thrive, but of course the fear is that he would not be able to sustain himself or that he got jumped by one of the thousands of stray cats in Bangkok. His beak was a formidable weapon but who knows what can happen. Although we never really could get ‘close’ to Pugwash either physically or emotionally – he never once stood on our hands in four years – we feel lucky to have had him and hope we did right by him for that time.