For the Birds

This is Patricia’s own accounting of her relationship to birds throughout her life.

When I was about 8 years old, my parents & I went into an art gallery off the Atlantic City pier. The store’s resident Umbrella Cockatoo was a remarkable mimic. After perfectly imitating my father speaking, he proceeded to imitate each of our laughs. Delight! A bird just like Baretta’s who laughed MY laugh.

The next year, my grandparents took me to Parrot Jungle (now re-imagined as Jungle Island), a Miami institution which took parrots “to the next level” for me. First, a photo with 2 Macaws on each arm and a fifth on my head. So many different birds. Then the shows! My 9 year old self was enthralled by the parrots firing cannons, doing all sorts of stunts, riding bicycles on a high wire (funny in retrospect as they can FLY).

Another year or two went by and I had a class that was very focused on the emerging field of Animal Intelligence. Simply rapt, I devoured information about Koko (lowland Gorilla) and Washoe (chimpanzee), dolphins and their brain/mass ratios, everything I could find.

Fast forward to college where I spent a lot of time studying language and psycholinguistics and furthering the study of 2 foreign languages.

Living in an apartment in Cambridge, my eventual desire for a pet led me to birds as dogs weren’t allowed. My oldest friend had a budgie when we were kids and I was quite comfortable with birds. After a year’s experience with a lutino cockatiel, I met a six week old Goffin’s Cockatoo. Planning on acquiring a conure or some less challenging bird, it mattered little; I was smitten. Buster became my long term companion.

At the time, there was no internet and not a lot of reliable research or information about parrots. Mostly myths and misunderstandings regarding pure mimicry vs. contextual language use. Fanciful ideas, on my part as well.

BusterThe first thing I decided to teach Buster (so named because he famously did his own stunts) was to Roll Over, like the dog I couldn’t have. It’s absolutely hilarious and he does it to this day. Playing Tug of War was a different thing; he quickly changed the basic rules by grabbing the toy with his foot and biting my hand so I’d let go. OK, this isn’t Toto and it’s not Kansas either.

Three decades later, the world knows a great deal more about parrots, wild and captive. And so do I. The Goffin’s is an amazing engineer, as well as a troublesome sprite. Not gifted talkers but always mischievous.

And they play games. Like most creatures.

Buster & I have games we play together regularly. First among those is The Stick Game. Given a “stick” (popsicle, tongue depressor, etc.), Buster then performs an ever-changing samurai sword show with said stick: under/over the wings, around the neck, down the tail. He’d never drop it if he didn’t choose to but he eventually does. My objective? To catch the stick before it hits the floor. His objective? To fake me out. We play to 7 points and the relative scores are announced at the end of every turn. He knows the scoring system. I have credible witnesses.

Macaws at Jungle IslandComing home one day, I was wiped out. But there he was, alone while I’d been at work, waiting to play. So I played. Without enthusiasm, but I played. And he was beating me mercilessly. Game point, 6-0. He juggled the stick for a moment and then it dropped into my outstretched hand. I triumphantly thrust my fist in the air and announced the score. He juggled the stick a bit longer this time and I had to grab for it when it fell. At first, I was elated; slowly, it dawned on me that he knew the game was about to end, that playtime was over, that I wasn’t having fun. So, he threw me a bone. And it WORKED.

Ten years ago, this realization, that my BIRD had a better understanding of game design and what motivates players than many professional game designers, started me down the path toward creating games that could enrich Buster’s experience of the world. Tablet & phone based games designed specifically to be of interest to different parrots everywhere grew out of this desire to bring greater joy to this most significant companion.