Rio’s been part of our extended family for five years now. Our daughter Laura rescued him when he was abandoned in a nest in a nearby tree and nursed him to health. He has lived with her ever since.
The flocks of parrots that live around Pasadena are fascinating. They’re native to Mexico, but they seem right at home here. Locals believe the flock took to the trees when an East Pasadena pet shop burned in 1959, and the original few have bred and flourished to the point where hundreds may roost in a favorite grove of trees in the evening just before sundown.
These are Rio’s peeps. He thinks he’s one of us. He imitates Laura’s laugh and cough, and he barks and meows along with her other pets. He says, “Water” and “What’s up?” and when Laura opens the door for the dog to go into the yard, Rio says, “Geisha, Go Potty!” But he can’t hide his bill and his feathers. He’s still a parrot.
In the afternoon, when the wild parrots start squawking in the trees outside, Rio instinctively senses that it’s roosting time; he flies to wherever Laura and other family members are and tries to enter the conversation. But there’s something not quite right about their bonding. Sometimes when he hears the calls of the flock outside, you can see him cock his head to one side and let out an involuntary squawk, even though he knows his featherless family don’t get it. Rio likes us and doesn’t seem to want to leave, but on a deep primal level he realizes that his destiny, the ultimate meaning of his life, is tied to that flock outside.
There is much more solidarity among animals of one species than we usually realize. It’s very clear in the cases of ant nests or bee hives. The queen is the heart/soul/brain of the colony. The workers, soldiers and drones only have meaning as they relate to her. They have no separate destiny or significance. Scientists who have closely observed how they operate believe it makes more sense to see the entire colony as an organism than to try to analyze the isolated behavior of one ant or one bee.
Those of us who have had the privilege of studying various aspects of evolution are often amazed at how animal behavior benefits the entire group, often at the cost of an individual’s life. In certain bird and rodent species, one animal may sound an alarm when a predator is near, but in saving the others attracts the predator’s attention and puts its own life at severe risk. Another example of this species solidarity can be seen in the behavior of a male praying mantis in approaching the much larger female to mate, which also puts him close enough to be eaten by her afterward, all for the nourishment of the hundreds of babies she’ll hatch a few weeks later.
Poet Henry Longfellow wrote about “Nature red in tooth and claw.” As a lifelong naturalist, I share with Longfellow, pet lovers and vegans a sense of outrage that predation, suffering and death are so dominant in the animal kingdom. Christian theologians usually explain this as part of the Curse resulting from the human race’s Fall into sin, citing Romans 8:21-22. This has always seemed a stretch to me. I think the reality of suffering and death is built into Creation itself. I believe that, if we could see from God’s perspective, we would realize that the whole realm of living things, plants, animals and even humans, are involved in a profound interdependence and solidarity. Maybe his ultimate purpose can’t be seen by looking at one individual living thing, as intricate and wonderful as it may seem, or even by reflecting on an entire species and its evolutionary emergence, but on the whole complex, throbbing super-organism that is Life itself.
What a miracle!
(Rio will continue his reflections next week, as he turns his parrot eyes on the human race.)