For most people, clicks and tweets are the heartbeat of social media.
For me, they’re a daily avian conversation.
“Hey, Chompy, how’s it going?”
Don’t call the cops – the screaming’s not coming from the victim of an attack, nor from a hyped-up concert crowd. These are the excited calls of Chompy, our 16-to-17-year-old cockatiel (like his feathers, his age is a little fuzzy) who has become a Bird of Legend among our family. His mighty beak defies all but a chosen few who approach his cage. His piercing song could stretch to the farthest reaches of The Stadium We All Know Is Really Mile High – probably from our own living room.
And somehow, over the past few years, he’s decided I’m his best friend in the world.
This is usually an honor that gets bestowed on my wife Heather, who is one of life’s Bird Women. She has gathered feathered friends to her since childhood: finches, parakeets, everything short of a Long John Silver parrot (and I wouldn’t make bets against that someday). It’s a little like living with Snow White, but without the squirrels who do housekeeping.
Chompy loves her, of course. But I’m the one who gets him dancing. And maybe that’s because I’m the one who knows the tune.
I mimic. Often unconsciously. In my reporting days, I had to be careful during an interview or I’d start picking up the accent of the person I’d just been talking to. It’s a minor talent that’s been handy on stage, or while reading bedtime stories to Missy, or even just for little pranks. (Imitating a cricket during a quiet moment is a great way to make a room full of people do a double-take.)
During all the years that we had parakeets, I would do my own take on the clicks, pops and flowing whistles of their song. It was a harmless way to join the chatter, and even after our last (for now) parakeet passed away in 2019, I kept doing it out of habit.
All I can say is, Chompy must have missed his ‘keet neighbors. Because Heather soon noticed that every time I whistled the song, our big ol’ cockatiel would hustle to the cage side nearest me and begin calling out, excitedly dancing and playing with his toys.
Mind you, I have no idea what I’m saying. It could be parakeet Shakespeare or the bird equivalent of “We’ve been trying to reach you about your extended warranty.” But regardless, it’s what Chompy’s listening for. It’s what he enjoys and responds to. And so, it’s what I give him.
It’s amazing how fast a friendship you can build when you try to speak someone’s language. Feathers or not.
I don’t just mean talking to people. We do that constantly, blasting our thoughts at every hour of the day through every medium at hand. Calls, texts, social media, even face-to-face (or mask-to-mask?) conversation … the barrage rarely stops.
But for all our expertise at shouting out – not unlike Chompy’s SHRIEK! – many of us are still learning to listen. And that means many of us aren’t really being heard. We’re talking to ourselves, but with a larger audience.
To really talk, we first need to hear.
That can be as simple as listening to the words they choose (do they say “I see” vs. “I hear you”) or as deep as listening for the story and emotions behind them. It’s the skill of the actor, not just reciting from memory but responding to the moment. Or the quality of the parent or teacher, hearing the things that aren’t being said and need to be known. Or the ability of the friend who wants to understand.
And it’s the gift that more of us need to possess.
When we take the time to understand, we can be understood. When we listen, we can be heard. It’s how we can be a “we” in the first place, able to shoulder a world’s challenges that need every one of us.
And that’s something worth shrieking about.