Karma Gets a Swimming Lesson


Copyright 2002 by Jon Bondy, All Rights Reserved.

You may send copies of this to individual friends, but you may not publish this work without permission

Jon Bondy, jon@jonbondy.com


Life here in Vermont is, well, a tad slower than life down in the lower 47.  We’re not complaining, mind you, but there are moments when we seek out the kind of extreme excitement that is so commonplace to those of you who live in the inner city.

I would often to out to lunch or dinner with my friend, Stacey, and afterwards we would want to do something but not want to make the time commitment that a movie represents.  So, we often went to pet stores. Big mistake.

One day, we went to a pet store that had some baby parrots on display.  After watching someone else handle them, I put my hand out, and the bird stepped onto my fingers.  I was pleasantly surprised.

I had expected cold skin and sharp claws.  Silly me.  I knew birds were warm blooded, so the warmth of the skin should not have surprised me.  And, scaly as it is, their skin is soft, not hard.  And the claws are not so sharp as to cut you.  All in all, it was a nice experience.

The bird wandered up my arm and across my back, making cute little noises.  Then down my other arm, towards my elbow.  It wanted to continue up to my hand, but my hand was higher than my elbow, so it reached out with its beak to grab the flap of skin between my thumb and first finger.  I prepared myself for some pain, but none resulted.  This baby bird was smart enough to grab me just hard enough to pull itself up, but no harder than that.  I was fascinated.  I was in love.

Stacey had seen this in me before, and, wisely, said “Jon, buy a book about parrots”, so I did. Weeks passed.  It almost seemed as if the fever had passed.  But then we went to another pet store and saw an African grey parrot.

African grey parrots are very smart, and very vocal.  They can mimic noises precisely, and often use words meaningfully. Research has shown that they can distinguish colors, materials (wood vs paper vs plastic), and shapes, and can count up to seven or so.  When offered a platter with perhaps a dozen objects that differ in material, shape, and color; and then when asked “How many red squares”, they will answer “three”.  Pretty amazing critters.

One weekend, we toured all of the pet stores in Burlington, Vermont.  We saw some year old birds that had not sold when they were young, and a number of younger birds. Prices ranged from $1,500 down to about $900.  Cages were additional.  Some of the birds were pretty cold, ignoring you when you tried to interact with them.

At one store, the bird was asleep.  I stood there, watching it, and a clerk approached me, asking if I wanted to see the bird.  I said that, since it was asleep, I could wait, but the clerk, sensing blood in the water, insisted.  Waking the bird up, he was placed on my extended fingers.  In a matter of minutes, he had bit me, drawing blood.  It turns out that he had just been weaned, and was not in a very good mood.  I put him back.

At the end of the day, Stacey and I considered which birds were worth pursuing.  When I mentioned the bird that had bitten me, to my surprise, Stacey agreed.  That bird was the most in touch with reality; the others were space cadets.

I called the store the next day, and asked, innocently, what the price was on the bird.  To my surprise, the price had gone down to $800, and the cage was included.  I drove straight down and purchased him.  His store/slave name had been Milo.  I decided he should be named Karma, a name which was androgynous enough to recover should it turn out that “he” was a “she”.  Good thing, too, since Karma is a girl, a hen.

Bird owners are cautioned to keep their bird’s wings “clipped”, so that they cannot fly.  The flight feathers are cut short to reduce the “bite” the wings have in the air.  I was to learn, soon enough, that even a bird with clipped wings can fly if the conditions are right.  Or wrong.  But I didn’t know that then.

Karma was my constant companion.  When my college reunion arrived, I packed her in the car, and drove down with her.  She sat on my shoulder throughout the reunion, occasionally emitting a loud squawk, and often providing a thin veneer of guano.  Perhaps an editorial comment.  Who can say.

After the reunion was over, I spent an afternoon with a friend.  We went out to a nearby field and, hoping to give Karma an idea of what flight was like, I tossed her into the air.  I figured she would flutter down to the grass.  That was almost how it happened.

In fact, I tossed her into the wind, and that extra air speed was enough to enable her clipped wings to function better than usual.  I watched, stunned, as she actually started to fly off.  All I could do was shout “Karma! Karma! Karma”

Maybe she heard me.  In any event, she took a turn and headed back towards to me.  Unfortunately, with the wind behind her, her effective air speed dropped dramatically.  With the loss of the wind, her clipped feathers began to function as designed, and she plummeted towards the ground.

Well, not exactly towards the ground.  Towards a reasonably large duck pond, complete with ducks, geese, and snapping turtles.  Ker-splash, and she was in the middle of the pond, flapping her wings, and startling all of the other birds.  None of them had ever seen a bird land quite like that before.

With my friend laughing his head off, I stripped down to shorts and shoes and took a swim.  It only took a minute or two, but since Karma had not had any swimming lessons yet, I was pretty concerned.  I would imagine she was too, in her own inscrutable way.  I reached her and put my hand under her feet.  With her perched on my hand, I swam back to the edge, one handed.  That’s not quite as easy to do as it is to write.

So, there we were with a drenched parrot and a drenched Jon.  Jon was able to shower and change cloths, but what to do with Karma.  After watching her shiver for a while, we piled into the car and cranked both the heat and the air conditioning.  Ten minutes later, she was doing much better.  She never became angry or scared, at least that I could see.  Very calm.  Or well defended.

There was another occasion where I lost Karma in the woods for a day, under similar circumstances.  She was sitting on top of a cage, on top of a deck, on top of a small hill.   I dragged a large box out, she became scared, and tried to fly away.  The height was enough to give her some air speed, and off she went, into the woods.  I called for her all day, and had given up on ever seeing her again when, just as it began to get dark, she started calling for me.

So, now I don’t clip her wings at all.  But I also don’t let her outside.  Clipped wings may be better than nothing, but an even better approach is to not let her outside at all.  I’ve seen Karma swim as often as I wish to.