If you have an African Gray in your family, you already know. If you don’t – think about it before you get one! They’re beautiful, bright, terribly intelligent, amazing, and sometimes a pain in the neck. They have strong, razor-sharp beaks, and if they’re scared or angry, they draw blood. It’s a constant challenge to keep them busy enough that they don’t get bored and start feather-plucking.
Sam already knows 140 words and uses them in more than 140 phrases. He “parrots” a word or a phrase until he’s sure of it, and then he starts combining and recombining the words to see what works and what doesn’t. Right from the start, we told him “Sam is a pretty bird. Sam is a sweet bird. Sam is a smart bird.” Once he had those down pat, he told me “Janet is a sweet bird.” Which led to explaining about the difference between birds, and kitties, and persons. For a while, then, he repeated “Sam is a bird. Janet is a person. Bob is a person.” He doesn’t like the word kitty, though, so he insists that the cats are persons. If you’re not a bird, you must be a person. And this week, he told me, “Janet is my Christmas tree.” (Wouldn’t it be sweet if he actually understood what he was saying?) He once used the s**t word – in exactly the right situation, when he dropped a toy –and we adjusted our vocabularies immediately. Now, if he drops something (or if I drop something), he says “Oh, crumb!” When he hears water running or anything pouring in the kitchen, he says “water”. When he sees or hears me drink anything, he quietly “glugs” along with me. As I finish cleaning his cage and fixing breakfast, he announces “Now Janet sweep.” When Sam is scared of something, he panics and falls off his perch and flaps around. Early on, we discovered that if he knows a word for something, he’ll use his word instead of panicking. So when the cats raced through the living room and he panicked, I told him “Zoom! Kitties zoom, don’t they?” Nowadays, I can hear it from the kitchen: when a cat races through the living room, Sam chuckles and says “Zoom!” Yup – he chuckles just like I do.
The garbage truck is very big and our living-room window is pretty close to the road, so the garbage truck fills the whole window when it drives by. Panic. Flop off the perch. So I told him it’s a garbage truck, and it makes noise, and it’s big. Every once in a while he thinks of it and says “Garbage truck. Noise. Garbage truck tomorrow?” And when he’s feeling insecure for any reason, with no prompting, he tells the story of how I leave but I always come back: “Janet go to store. Green beans for Sam. See you later. Be a good bird. I’m back! Janet’s home!” When he wants to be touched, he says “Would you like a pat?” and he usually means it. If he just said it to be talking, he’ll back away when I approach him. And sometimes, I can hear him in the other room, “Would you really like a pat? No? Okay.” He also knows “Sam bite.” All by himself, out of the blue, I’ll hear “Sam bite. NO!” and I know this is a good day to be careful around him. The first time he bit me I didn’t think, and I hollered “OW!” For the rest of that day, Sam practiced “ow. OW! OW!!” in every tone of voice he knew! The next time he happened to bite me, he actually chuckled, and said “Sam bite. OW!” So I don’t say ow any more, I calmly say “Don’t do that.” That’s become part of his vocabulary, too. When a cat scratches the furniture, he hollers “STOP THAT! That’s a bad no! Don’t do that.” The best toy I ever found for him was a set of interlocking plastic rings from the baby-toy section in the grocery store. I stick them together and then stick them to the bars of his cage, and he takes them apart and sticks them in other locations, where he’ll leave them for a couple of days and then move them again. He put one of them onto the rope of another toy, and left it there permanently. I’ve seen him sit for 15 minutes at a time with 2 rings, taking them apart and putting them back together over and over again. All those things are lovely, and fun, and interesting, and occasionally painful. The rest of his “vocabulary” isn’t so lovely. He can imitate the burglar alarm, and every once in a while for a few days he’ll screech it whenever anyone touches the doorknob! And he can imitate the peeping sounds it makes when we set it or turn it off, so if he thinks I’m sleeping too late in the morning and he wants his breakfast, he’ll start repeating that peeping like a metronome until I get up and turn off the alarm and turn on the lights. Once he’s seen me or heard my voice, he starts in with “Breakfast for Sam. Janet and Sam fix breakfast for Sam. Janet fix Sam’s breakfast. More!” And one laundry day, he brought me running up the basement stairs twice by making the sound of the oven timer, which I use to tell me when it’s time to take care of the washer and dryer. He can imitate every single creak and bump sound of Bob getting out of his recliner. He can imitate the screep of the sliding door until it drives you crazy. The squeak of the refrigerator door. The sound of my computer chair when I sit down. And he’ll get on one track, like “Bob loves Sam”, expecting “That’s right, Bob loves Sam.”, and saying it again and waiting for a response, and again, and again … until I heard Bob say one day, “We’ve already discussed that, Sam. Let’s talk about something else now.” “Bob loves Sam….” And during a football game one Sunday, “SAM! SHUT UP!” Luckily, he didn’t copy that one. Sam is wonderful company. He’s always initiating conversations or lessons about the words he knows. He’ll announce, “Sam count. One … two …”. He can count to 7, but he also likes me to fill in the odd numbers, and we switch back and forth. And when Bob died 2 years ago, we started saying “Sam and Janet. We’re a family. We’re a good family.” Now, he’ll suddenly say, “Sam loves Janet. We’re a family.” I never feel alone! He also asks me every single day, “Where’s Bob? Bob in the shower? Bob go potty? Bob in the garage?” I say “Bob is all gone, Sam. No more Bob.” And he says “We’re sorry.”
Sam came to live with us 2 years ago this February, to fill a conure-sized hole left when our companion of 20 years died. Zeke had kept Bob company while I was at work, ate from our plates standing on the table between us, hollered after us when we left the room, and though she never talked, she made her presence felt all the time. When we started to get desperate for a bird, Lisa let us have Sam, although she had intended to keep him to herself. For 2 years, now, Sam has given us things to laugh or smile about even when there wasn't anything else.6 months after Sam came to our house, Bob went from walking with a cane to walking with a walker to not being able to walk or stand up. He went into the hospital for surgery in August, and came home from rehab in October in a wheelchair. While he was away, I spent days working and on a grand jury and house-hunting, to get us into a house with no stairs. Sam was there every evening when I came home, leaping off the cage and thudding to the floor and waddling to find me if I left the room. He asked about Bob every night, "Bob go potty." "Bob in the shower." "Bob out for a cigarette." and I told him Bob is away now, but he'll be back. Bob will say Hi, Sam, and Sam will say Hi, Bob. "Bob be back! Hi, Bob!" I took him in a carrier to see Bob in the nursing home, and everybody enjoyed seeing him (but he never said a word!)We moved into our new house in September of 2007, Sam and the cat and I, unpacked boxes and arranged furniture for wheelchair and walker paths, and Sam kept talking about Bob. When Bob came home in October, we went out to 4 and 5 doctor visits and lab tests a week, and visiting nurses and physical therapists came in, and Sam talked a blue streak for everybody who came into the house. Actually, he doesn't talk for anybody, he only talks when nobody is paying attention to him! Bob is in constant pain with his back, and during the last year has had cataract surgery and then cancer treatments, but he laughs out loud when Sam shows off.Before anybody leaves the room, we tell Sam where we're going. Gotta go out for a while, Sam, but we'll see you later. Be a good bird. Sam doesn't say a word until we're home, and he gives us a silent glare when we come in, but 5 minutes later he starts with "Gotta go out for a while, Sam. Be a good bird. We're back! Hi, Sam!" He always tells the stories of what we say and what we're going to say, I think rehearsing for himself that he knows the routine and it will be all right. When Bob goes to take a shower, while he's gone Sam says "Gonna take a shower, Sam, but I'll be back. Hi, Sam!" Then he asks me "Where's Bob? Bob in the shower?" and I say that's right, Bob's in the shower, but he'll be back. "Bob in the shower. Be right back. Hi, Sam!" While "we" are washing dishes in the kitchen he says "Sam is go out for a while. See you later, Bob. Hi, Bob! Hi, Sam!" and after a while, "Go see Bob. Hi, Bob!" But does he say it when we get there? Nope. Sam hasn't learned many words from me - I guess my voice isn't as interesting - except for the first time he bit me and I hollered. For the rest of the evening, he practiced "OW!" over and over and over. And when he's wrestling with a recalcitrant toy, he hollers at it "NO!!" When the cat wants to come in he says "Toby at the door." and sure enough, she is! Of course, he says it sometimes when she isn't, too. And one day when he bit off a piece of a toy and it fell on the floor, he looked down at it and said in a little voice, "oops". The first time he had a very different new toy in his cage, he stood way back and looked at it for a while, and then moved toward it and said in a VERY tiny voice, "hi?"When we're eating dinner we share what we have on our plates, and originally Sam started saying "Bob loves Sam" when he wanted another bite. Then it got shortened down to "Bob....?" Eventually Bob told him he would get more pieces if he said "Janet, more." Say Janet, more. So Sam said "Say Janet, more". Bob finally got him to the point where he would just say "More", and now he says it whenever he's hungry. When I start fixing his breakfast in the morning I put a few half-peanuts into the green toy he has to open, and he works on that for all of 30 seconds until the peanuts fall out, eats the peanuts, and says "More!" In the evening when I'm cutting up the fruits and vegetables to put in his plastic container for morning, he knows he'll get half a green bean, and he leans out to watch me and says "More!" or "Janet, more!"Sam can count to 7, and when nobody is paying attention to him he does it right, from 1 to 7. Then he says "Good boy!" When we're paying attention, though, he teases me by leaving out numbers. "One. Three. Four. SEVEN!!" I laugh and say No, Sam, you skipped two! and he says "Two." and chuckles. "Sam is a smart bird." Yes, Sam, you're a smart bird. "One. Two. SIX!" and another chuckle.When Bob goes to bed he tells Sam first, and Sam sits there giving him the eagle eye and saying nothing. While we're down the hall getting Bob into bed, Sam calls "Time for me to go to bed, Sam. See you in the morning." That's right, Sam. See you in the morning. "But I'll be right back." (That's me.) He repeats the two things over and over, to get each of us to answer him so he knows where his flock is. Then I come back into the living room and he says "Where's Bob? Bob in the shower?" No, Bob went to bed. He'll see you in the morning. "Night-night, Bob. See you in the morning." I tell him now it's time for Sam to go to bed, too. Sleepy Sam. "Would you like a pat?" he says, and I give him one more pat and he tells me "Sam is a good bird. Sam is a smart bird. Bob loves Sam. Bob, Janet, Sam. We're a - " and he waits for me to fill in we're a family. After that, he quietly talks himself to sleep. I hear long sentences that could be conversations between Bob and me, with occasionally words I can understand, like "toy" and "shower" and "good bird" and "sweet bird" and "where's Toby?" and "would you like a pat?" and I tell him no pats now, you just had a pat. Now it's time for Sam to go to sleep. The talking dwindles off, quieter and quieter, and finally I realize I haven't heard anything in a while. Sam is asleep.
Join the comical antics of Sam, an african grey adopted from Parrot Haven IN 2004.