I bought my first parrot, Polly Esther, as a six-week-old chick: a domestically hatched African gray. "An African gray?" a pet-shop owner said. "They're the Rolls-Royce of parrots! The best talking parrots there are."
I was thrilled. I couldn't wait.
Every evening after supper I put her on my hand and took her into a quiet room. "Hello, hello, hello," I'd repeat. My entire vocabulary was an endless string of hollow hellos.
Polly Esther would cock her head and give me a bewildered look. Out would come a sweet little "peep!"
She would not talk. There wasn't a "hello" to be heard, beyond mine. This went on day after day, week after week.
About this time I was having some renovations done on my home. A local carpenter came every day, working alone on an upstairs bedroom while I was at work.
One day he went downstairs to use the bathroom. Quiet, and quite alone, he thought.
Suddenly, he heard a voice!
"Shut the door!" came a loud, clear command. He bolted to the bathroom door and slammed it shut.
After a moment he ducked his head out. "Hello?" he said cautiously.
"Shut the door!" came the response.
Peering into the other room, he saw ... Polly Esther. "Shut the door!" the parrot insisted. Her first words.
That was several years ago, and Polly Esther's vocabulary has grown considerably: "Stand back, I'm an eagle!" for example, and "What's for supper?" She calls the dog when I go to let her in, and she finally did learn to say "hello" - but only when the phone rings.
She also learned to imitate the hair-raising, high-pitched shriek of a smoke detector when its battery needs replacing. How do you un-teach a parrot? That's another story.