Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Tuco: it's about an African grey parrot, but also much more

Usually, I write about travel in this space, although that does encompass a broad spectrum of sub-genres.

Today, I'm reviewing a book. Tuco is not a travel book, although the author, Brian Brett, does describe some of his travels in places like British Columbia, Mexico, Thailand, and other destinations in the book.

At some point, paddling is mentioned in the book, although not in a big way.

It's also not a book about the third of the three protagonists in the Sergio Leone 1967 spaghetti western, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," played with panache by Eli Wallach. (Although as the author reveals, there is a connection with the movie.)

The book is about the author's relationship with his African grey parrot. It is an excellent read, and you don't have to have lived with a parrot to appreciate it. While Brett's relationship with his African grey is an important part of the book, it's also a springboard for much deeper conversations about the world we live in and the way we relate to it.

Subtitled, The Parrot, the Others and a Scattershot World, A Life with Birds, Brett delves into his relationship not just with Tuco, but with other birds and the world at large. The book actually is a third version of a three-set volume that is a memoir of his life and its struggles, paralleled by the struggles humankind has in the world, struggles to accept others as they are, struggles to prosper without destroying the world - a "scattershot" world as Brett views it - and how they are both reflected in this out-of-place bird's life.

I say out of place, because Brett views Tuco as an "other" of sorts. He himself was an "other," an outsider growing up, because of being born with Kallman syndrome (a condition that causes a form of androgyny) that created huge issues for him as he entered puberty and grew into young adulthood. "Othering" is what we all do to various degrees to anything we see as strange or different. It's othering that often mutates into bullying, something Brett put up with frequently while growing up in British Columbia.

We "other" birds, animals, people of different religions, races, sexual orientations - the list is almost endless.
An African grey parrot, at Bloedel Conservatory.

The theme of othering crops up many times in the narrative as Brett weaves his way through a tapestry of topics that include science, environmentalism, animal cruelty, bird-watching, travel, small-town politics, his early experiences with pet birds, and life with an African grey parrot.

It's all enjoyable to read, but as someone who has spent close to a quarter-century living with African grey parrots, those anecdotes about Tuco's antics were the most enjoyable, the parts I re-read over and over again, sometimes aloud to anyone who would listen (or anyone who would read the passages I posted on my Facebook page regularly while reading the book.) And there were so many of them that reflect and almost eerily parallel the experiences I've had with my greys. For example:
"When a joke is told in our house, Tuco is always the first to laugh, chiming in milliseconds before anyone else. Does he get the joke? Probably not. What he does is even smarter. ... For Tuco, the crucial factor in a joke is not the joke but the way it makes us behave. He measures the speaker's tone and recognizes it's a joke, not a drama or narration of events. Then, if he is in the room, assessing the speaker's inflections and body language, he can anticipate the timing of the punchline faster than any person can, and that's why he always beats us to the laugh."
That happens all the time in our house with my 15-year-old grey, Coco. 

The book is full of passages like that, stories that will have anyone who lives with parrots smiling, and perhaps even chuckling out loud.

Even those who do not live with parrots will find them humorous - and perhaps a bit hard to believe. But believe me, all the stuff he describes in the book about Tuco's behaviour is real. Most parrot keepers have experienced even more bizarre or outrageous behaviours by their feathered companions.

Tuco is one of the rare books that both entertains and informs. It also stimulates thought and introspection about how we view life, how we might deal with some of the issues described in the book.

The author does reach some conclusions, of sorts, and while I won't tell you what they are, some of what I read still percolates around my coffeepot of a brain, occasionally seeping out through its filters into my conscious. 

If you want to read a book that is just silly parrot stories, you might be disappointed. However, if you want to read a book full of those that also deals with some much more serious life issues - like bullying, environmentalism, or dealing with death - then this is a read for you.

African grey parrots in the wild. From the World Parrot Trust.


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