- Karl Thunemann
Meditating with Dinosaurs
Okay, the truth is that I have only once tried meditating with my wife’s parakeets. During much of the session they sat in their open cage and made a racket. Later, they flew over to perch on my armchair to have a closer look at me. I knew they were close by, but they remained silent and we did not interact. I was afraid to look at them, into their tiny, inscrutable black eyes that see everything and reveal nothing. It would have broken my meditative state and underscored the vast difference between our species. Eyes closed or open, that gulf remains unchanged.
Which is not to say these parakeets project an alien presence. They are cheery little fellows who greet the morning with a chuckling tuneless warble that eventually ascends into a crescendo. They are flock animals—and prey animals—and on most days they embrace the instinctual imperative to set a watch. Their cage rests near the junction of two walls, one lined with windows, the other featuring a sliding glass door with slatted, partially open blinds. On good days each looks out a separate window and generates his own cheerful all-is-well warble. If they see something amiss they fall silent, in effect a word of warning to the flock that danger lurks nearby. In truth, no threatening presence ever appears at the windows. But early in our relationship, the birds would fall silent when I entered the room. Nowadays, not so likely.
Maintaining a flock with only two members is not easy. We humans can turn to You Tube to see huge flocks of parakeets in their native Australia, flooding the sky, borne by the sort of collective intelligence that we associate with starlings, sandpipers, and sardines —even, in their own shabby fashion, with American coots. In these settings no huge burden seems to settle upon any single bird. Faith has played videos of small flocks of parakeets in large cages for our birds. Who knows if our duo take notice?
It is difficult to determine the gender of young parakeets. Did you know that over time they will display a telling color above their beaks? Blue for males, pink for females. How corny can Nature be? Both of our birds showed up male.
When Faith decided to get a parakeet, she bought only one. He was a beautiful sky blue. She named him Chico, Spanish for little. They formed a sort of bond, but it was awkward. He had not been raised by hand and so felt no affinity for humans. She decided he deserved a companion, so she went out and found Piccolo, Italian for little. All the guidebooks warn that parakeets in pairs form bonds with each other, not with humans. This has proved true of our birds, though it helped that Piccolo had been hand-raised and seemed to feel no fear of humans. He would shadow Faith when they needed food, following her on talon, making no sound, hoping to shepherd her to the cabinet where the food is kept. Fortunately, there were two humans, so I could call out his presence. He was so vulnerable … one step back and …
Piccolo is a typical classic green parakeet, a little stumpy, not a great beauty like his companion. Let us say he has all the attributes of a … may I call him a henchbird? If there were riots over a great food shortage, he would see they were both well-fed.
When Faith brought Piccolo home she followed the guidebook standard of keeping him in a separate cage. A month must pass before bringing them together. But from the moment Piccolo saw there was another bird in the room he was frantic to join him. He fluttered madly about his smaller cage, intelligent enough to understand how it was latched but unequipped to effect its opening. Needless to say, the month was foreshortened, and they quickly became lovebirds.
It is difficult to determine the gender of young parakeets. Did you know that over time they will display a telling color above their beaks? Blue for males, pink for females. How corny can Nature be? Both of our birds showed up male. Faith was happy she would not have to deal with eggs. Both were equipped with healthy sex drives, and they tried frenetically—if in vain—to consummate their relationship. Plus they had to define roles. Chico became the boss—he would snap at Piccolo and force him off a common perch. And then they would spontaneously fly to another spot in the room, where they would enter into a low-keyed, affectionate colloquy. Faith says that in the wild female parakeets are dominant. In this unisexual world, perhaps Chico, as the older and more beautiful, had to take this role.
Sometimes, under the coffee table Chico will stand still while Piccolo madly circles him with grand figure eights. Or perhaps they are repetitions of the infinity symbol, intended to demonstrate his unbounded devotion. When I make such observations, Faith sometimes accuses me of anthropomorphism. And what can I say? I have been this way a long while.
Still, I have yet to address the spirituality of these birds. My awareness of it arose more from pique than spirit. One day they perched on the back of my armchair. I grew annoyed and cleared them away with a wave of my hand. They flapped to the back of the couch. In 30 seconds they were back, even more intrusive. This scenario kept recurring until I finally realized they were playing with me. This profoundly changed our relationship. They have become more familiar. Now when I sit down in the armchair they are apt to alight on its left arm, paying their respects. They dislike being touched, but they love to perch on my slippers when I’m sitting in the armchair. Once when I was wearing shoes they sent up a clatter of disapproval and flew across the room in a huff.
They have no interest in the slippers if I am not wearing them. It is the fellow-creature aura that draws them to the soft, pliable slippers, where they can gnaw on the laces and absorb my warmth through their naked talons. When I rise, they stand right next to my feet, as if no harm could come from a misstep.
Ah, but are they meditators? Faith says that all creatures meditate to some degree. These two little birds do not seem to have a capacity to be contemplative, but … if they were meditators, I would place them among adherents of Be Here Now, the 1971 book that made a cultural icon of author Ram Dass.
They always live in the present. They never complain when days have been dark for weeks on end. Every day matters to them in and of itself. They neither sigh for what is past nor cry in apprehension for what lies ahead. They love the moment. When Faith and I sit down at the table, one or both of the birds will make a circle of the room, flying close enough to ruffle our hair, renewing our status as provisional members of the flock.
They make excellent companions for the pandemic. They are amulets against loneliness, The other day, as Faith and I took part in a Zoom meeting, Chico and Piccolo frequently circled over the table, welcoming these visitors to the flock. In the background, they were quite vocal. They love visitors, actual and virtual. That makes them quite a source of gratitude.
Yes, but Are Birds Really Dinosaurs?
DinoBuzz, a remarkable website published in Berkeley, makes it clear that a sizable majority of scientists agree that birds are not simply descended from dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs. An enthusiastic rearguard is trying to fight this conclusion, but DinoBuzz says it is a losing cause. Some would exclude birds because they are warm-blooded. DinoBuzz says that so were many fossil dinosaurs, and offers an exegesis on superior terminology to warm- and cold-blooded.
And, as if being dinosaurs weren’t enough, DinoBuzz also says that birds are reptiles. Consider the common qualities of birds and “other” reptiles: “Like all other reptiles, birds have scales (feathers are produced by tissues similar to those that produce scales, and birds have scales on their feet). Also, birds lay eggs like other reptiles. The soft anatomy (musculature, brain, heart, and other organs) all are fairly similar; birds are more [developed] in some aspects owing partially to their endothermic metabolism and their ability to fly. There are numerous skeletal resemblances between birds and other reptiles. …”
Check out: DinoBuzz: