Clara told me so much about her parrot Perico that I finally went to see him. Something she’d said left an impression on me: if she’s busy cooking and the telephone rings, the parrot will squawk: ‘Leonella, pick up!’ (Leonella is Clara’s daughter.)
And there we went, to a house on the way out of Ezeiza, home to not just one but two parrots. Marta the parrot was also there in the cage next to Perico’s, silent and overshadowed next to her companion’s antics. Each in a house of their own. Marta the parrot (I can’t bring myself to call her Marta directly, the way they do) looks over at Perico as if he were a dastardly relative who’s always getting caught up in some fresh scandal every day. She stares at me with great attention as well. I comment on this.
‘Ah, she never misses a trick,’ says Clara’s husband.
The house provides a great deal for the parrots to study; Clara and Alberto move about swiftly. While she cooks, Alberto sets the table. Clara takes it for granted that the parrots are able to understand nearly everything.
‘Do you have a mirror?’ I ask. She gives me a hand mirror, which, to the parrots, would be body-length. I want to see if they’ll look at themselves in it. Marta recoils into the back of the cage; she saw something, though I don’t know what. Perico won’t even look because he can’t stop putting on his show: he laughs with a human laugh, a sinister and forceful cackle, and it’s hard to believe that it should emanate from a body so small. I recall what Frans de Waal said about the tests that humans put to animals; it’s never certain to what extent they really are able to solve them because, like Perico, they have other concerns. He doesn’t look because he’s looking at himself. Clowns aren’t watching themselves in the mirror. Clara goes over to the cage and tells him: ‘Do the ape-man.’
Sure enough, he makes a full loop upward, skirting along the cage, and then another around the base. Then he laughs with that laughter of his meant for special effect. Beyond the half-closed door appear two dogs, one wearing a supplicant expression, wishing to enter. Perico looks at them and says: ‘Enough!’
Clara says that he doesn’t like dogs much; he’ll say ‘Enough’ and ‘Go away, filthy dog.’ And he once said ‘Enough’ when two girls, age five or six, were having a fight in the house. When Clara tells him to soak his cracker in the water because it’s too hard, he goes over, dips it in, and makes himself a bit of soup.
Perico says ‘Clara’ with a rasping voice. The voice disappoints me slightly, as if I’d been expecting him to speak like a presenter on the BBC. But it’s time to say grace, and Clara says to him, emphatically: ‘Look at that long face!’
Perico inclines his head and covers his face with one foot, as though despondent.
Both of them tell me that if someone makes a strange noise with their body, Perico will say ‘yuck’; he’d done so just then, but I’d missed it and wasn’t about to go asking them to make strange noises just so as to study him. Then Perico coughs, a measured cough, like he’s faking it. Throughout this entire display, Marta the parrot has remained forgotten, and it’s clear that she’s used to being overlooked, she’s all eyes.
‘She doesn’t speak?’
‘No, only in private, she’s shy.’
‘And what sorts of things frighten them?’
‘They’re scared of thunder and storms. Whenever he hears the sound, Perico will squawk ‘inside.’ And when the telephone or the buzzer rings, both of them squawk “go”.’
I think that, just as other animals will signal each other if there’s some need (due to danger), parrots speak properly in limit situations. Fear of a storm, for example, or deep emotion. Clara says:
‘One time Tato came to visit; it had been a year since I’d seen him. Perico used to love him, and he recognized him and squawked out, ‘Tato.’’
Then she adds: ‘He practices words at night – it’s like he’s running lines.’
This is an excerpt from Animals by Hebe Uhart, forthcoming from Archipelago Books on June 15th.
Image © Philippa Warr