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Winging It: A Memoir of Caring for a Vengeful Parrot Who's Determined to Kill Me Hardcover – March 16, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery Books; 1st Printing edition (March 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439157618
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439157619
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,161,243 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Jenny Gardiner is the author of the novel Sleeping with Ward Cleaver. Her writing has appeared in Ladies Home Journal, the Washington Post, and NPR’s Day to Day, and she has a column of humorous slice-of-life essays that runs in the Charlottesville, VA Daily Progress. Jenny lives in central Virginia with her husband, three kids, two dogs, one cat, and, of course, a gregarious parrot.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Man in the Yellow Hat

“Look. Don’t blame me because you were kidnapped from the jungles of Africa.”

This sounds like something the man in the yellow hat might say to Curious George. But in my case, it’s a mantra. Something I repeat daily—sometimes ten, fifteen times—to Gracyie. In fact, it’s a wonder she doesn’t repeat it back to me.

Graycie has been a member of our family, albeit a reluctant one, for over nineteen years. She was a gift from my brother-in-law. A gift, I’m fond of saying, that keeps on giving.

Our African gray came to us at Christmas in 1990, shortly after we’d moved into our very first home in Springfield, Virginia, a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., four months after the birth of our first child, who was still waking every two to three hours at night, thereby assuring a personal mental incoherency unmatched since. This was back when we were still cloaked in the stupor of new parenthood, bleary-eyed and sleepless, unable to get a handle on one needy two-legged individual who counted upon us for virtually everything, and suddenly we found ourselves with yet another. Only this one had beady gray eyes, a beak that could snap my finger off, and a wingspan that would eventually extend a full eighteen inches.

It’s not that we didn’t want Graycie. We did. But as parents of a newborn, we were already wondering if we could trade in the exhausting baby for a pretrained child with good posture and even better manners. We couldn’t deal with the parrot starter kit that would require multiple all-nighters for assembly: we wanted this sucker neat, sweet, and ready to tweet. We needed a maintenance-free bird—one that would regale us with its uncanny mimicry and not make too much of a mess. I realize now that this is like expecting a baby who never cries.

We probably owe our fascination with parrots to my husband’s childhood in Rio de Janeiro. Scott lived with his sister Laurie, brother Mark, and parents Mia and Keith in Brazil for several years after his father’s job took him to South America in the late 1960s. While there, Mark got a green Amazon parrot for his thirteenth birthday. Mengo was a beloved family pet whose untimely demise prompted Mark to stuff the thing and mount him so he could be perpetually remembered. Now we live in central Virginia, outside a small city that is surrounded by plenty of quiet countryside. Because of that rural influence and commensurate hunting culture, it’s not at all uncommon to encounter all sorts of dead critters on display in folks’ homes: deer, squirrels, rabbits, even the occasional bear. But I think I can safely assume that Mark’s visitors routinely did a double take upon encountering the corpse of his soulless parrot staring down at them from the wall of his D.C.-area home, back when the cadaver used to be on public display.

I suppose I came to the relationship with a modest interest in parrots thanks to my uncle Bill, who bred parrots years ago and had raised a stunning aquamarine-colored macaw from an egg. This parrot was imprinted from birth by my uncle, and despite his imposing size—macaws can grow to be a foot and a half long with a nearly four-foot wingspan—was an extraordinarily gentle creature. Billy took that bird with him everywhere: to the retail store he managed, on joyrides in his convertible, on the golf course. He loved it as if it was his child, and the bird reciprocated those feelings: Billy was its father, for all intents and purposes.

So perhaps when Scott and I ended up together, we were both just curious enough about parrots that it was inevitable that, with the help of one generous relative, a feathered friend (or foe) was in our future.

Scott and I met through mutual friends while undergraduates at Penn State. We were dating other people at the time and didn’t start going out until we were both living in the D.C. area the year after we graduated. I was working on Capitol Hill as an assistant press secretary for a U.S. senator, and he was working for a federal government contractor for the Agency for International Development. Before we actually started dating, we’d run into each other at social functions all the time and say, “Hey, we should get together sometime!” But each time we set something up one or the other of us would cancel plans at the last minute. Such was the lifestyle of young professionals in D.C. When we finally got together we realized all we had in common; we couldn’t figure out what took us so long.

Early on in our relationship I realized that Scott hailed from a pet-friendly family. When I encountered the menagerie of crea tures at his parents’ home, where he was living when we first started dating, it included two old and smelly golden retrievers and a couple of cats. Then I met his brother’s latest venture in parrothood: some type of green Amazon parrot named Plato who had the personality of Sheetrock and entertained no plans of talking. Plato was best known for cowering and trembling in a corner of his cage. He did not talk, coo, growl, chirp, whistle, or sing. He simply existed. Oh, and crapped a lot.

Meanwhile, I was living with my sorority sister and good friend Tammy in Alexandria while working on the Hill. We had a fabulous time rooming together, occasionally threw amazing parties, and greatly enjoyed our yuppie lifestyle. But after over a year of dating it became apparent that it made more sense for me to move closer to Scott, who’d moved in with his two best friends in Arlington. When I wasn’t at work, I was spending my free time at his place, and my costly condo rent on a very meager congressional staffer’s salary didn’t do my wallet any favors. It didn’t take me long to relocate. I learned that a room had become available in a group house where Mark lived, just minutes from Scott’s town house. The house was cozy, cheap, and a quick commute into the city, so I jumped at the chance to move in; once I became pseudo roommates with Scott’s brother (he lived in the basement in a separate unit), I got to spend plenty of time around Mark’s parrot.

Each morning as he left for work, Mark would turn on a parrot training tape for Plato’s education/entertainment. Poor Plato got to listen to that tape, on which Mark had recorded two words on an endless loop, for hours. Even I got sick of hearing “pretty bird” as the words drifted up through the air ducts, and to this day I can still hear Mark’s voice ringing in my head saying that mind-numbing phrase.

I’m fairly certain that Plato had been driven insane by the time he moved in with Scott and Mark’s parents when Mark moved to Africa to work in the embassy in Zaire a couple of years later. And when Mark eventually got married, Plato—still alive, but without much of a life—was soon relegated to Mark’s isolated upstairs office, where he was left to keep company with Mengo, high atop his death perch. Of course Mark was very fond of Plato, but after a while, what do you do with a scared bird who won’t come out of his cage?

The icing on our parrot-shaped cake came a year or two later when Scott’s parents celebrated their thirtieth anniversary by taking the family (by then Scott and I had married) to the Caribbean to sail on a hand-hewn schooner, skippered by a prototypically bearded captain named Ed and crewed by a sleek white cat and a yellow-naped parrot with the improbable name of Barnacle Bill, who did a damn good job of replacing a television in our lives during that week on the high seas.

No better or simpler amusement can be found than being in the company of a gregarious parrot. I think the sheer unexpectedness of conversation from a lipless creature enhances the entertainment factor. Barnacle Bill had the requisite parrot patter that any seagoing parrot worth his salt could say: Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum, Polly wanna cracker, and the like. But his repertoire reached far beyond the basics. He had us all in hysterics as he repeatedly sang “A Pirate’s Life for Me” and the refrain from “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music, complete with the Doo-doodle-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doodle-doo-doo-doo-doo. (I admit it. I filched the idea from Captain Ed.)

Captivated, we simply had to have a parrot. Scott and I were like young newlyweds upon seeing a tender baby sleeping peacefully in a mother’s arms. “Oh, how sweet,” we said. “We definitely need one!”

Those words would come back to haunt us. Upon returning from Mia and Keith’s anniversary trip, I set out to buy my husband his very own parrot for his birthday. Back then, unsavory merchants conducted a steady trade in wild-caught parrots, and only the really ethical vendors went to the trouble of breeding parrots domestically (though unfortunately today parrot mills are common). Raising birds from eggs is tough work. In fact, not too long ago they could only determine the sex of birds surgically, so it was a bit of a project even to impregnate a parrot. Once hatched, infant birds have to be fed practically hourly by dropper. If you think a newborn baby is hard to keep alive, just think about nursing a scrawny, naked, defenseless little parrot.

So I researched the big purchase and found I could get an imported bird for roughly the price of a really expensive dinner out, which worked with my limited budget but not with my morals. I couldn’t have it on my head that I’d contributed to the demise of a species, as these inexpensive birds were caught en masse by poachers who clear-cut trees in the jungle to get baby birds still in their nests. The mortality rate was high, as was the suffering: birds by the hundreds would be jammed into small crates with little food or water, ultimately bound for clueless consumers in the United States who, like us, wanted an amusing pet.

Well, I couldn’t support that. I’d have no part in gratuitous cruelty for the sake of the almighty buck. Alas, there was no budget for a hand-raised parrot, which would cost roughly the same price as our week in the Caribbean.

So instead, we got a dog.

Unbeknownst to us, there was still to be a parrot in our future. Just not quite the type of parrot we had envisioned.

© 2010 Jenny Gardiner

Customer Reviews

I laughed out loud many times while reading this book, and really enjoyed it.
Kristen Bogren
This book is a true tribute to family life with pets who don't always turn out to be all that can be, but who are none-the-less very loved by their humans.
Sara M
Even in admitting the parrot's difficulties and bad behavior are her own fault, she doesn't seem to grasp the manifest profundity of the problem.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

78 of 84 people found the following review helpful By Karen Tiede VINE VOICE on April 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
If you want a madcap story of the hilarity of raising three children with a smallish number of animals and you love Christmas card letters, you'll probably find Winging It more fun than I did.

I was disappointed. I wanted this book to be about the parrot, and it's about the family, of which the parrot is a neglected and incidental member. If you know about Alex (the African Gray who learned to talk and respond intelligently to questions) and want to know more about what these birds can achieve, consider Winging It as a negative example--what happens when you DON'T give a bird the attention it needs.

Winging It is written in the tone of those Christmas card letters that make you call your best friend and say, "Would you believe what they're up to this year?!?" Throughout the book, the author writes, "What were we thinking?..." "Why didn't I figure this out?" "I couldn't fathom..." Those phrases sum up the book for me.

At one point, Graycie is described as "irrational." I'm not so sure it's the bird who's the birdbrain, if you get my drift. AFAIK, Graycie is doing nothing more, or less, than normal parrot behavior under the circumstances. Parrots in general, and African Grays in particular, are among the most intelligent animals on the planet. She's isolated, largely ignored, and bored out of her little brain. The family repeatedly makes a point of their "commitment" to their animals, but I don't see this as a good thing. If you can't give an animal the home it needs, there's no sin in finding it a better place to live. Why not add a Border Collie to the mix, and then wonder why the dog goes nuts under the same conditions?
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Avid Reader on April 3, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Gardiner should have written a book centered around her family since those were the most interesting parts for me. The bit parts about the bird were sad, very sad and made me think - if you can't take care of this bird give it to someone who can! I really am surprised the great vet mentioned in the book, who had to sew up!! this bird a few times didn't suggest it to them.
On the other hand, the issues with the children, seizures, getting run over by a car, were a bit more heartwarming and interesting. The parts about the parrot were more negative and disheartening. Here's a bird who constantly wanted to bite the owners but I didn't feel sorry for the owners, just the bird. It's in many ways a downer of a book. The book can stand as a warning though to anyone who thinks having the responsibility of a parrot would be fun and easy.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Harkius VINE VOICE on April 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
First, go read Karen Tiede's review and give it a helpful vote, because it is really accurate.

I was disappointed in this book in virtually every way. In every form and fashion, it is inferior to Irene Pepperburg's similarly concepted "Alex and Me", which is also a story about a parrot and his human.

The author's intention was, apparently, to write a book about her parrot. She failed. UTTERLY. The parrot is oftentimes shuffled off to the corner of the living room (and book) and ignored for pages at a time, while we are instead told about the dog with allergies to everything, the cat that wandered away, the daughter who developed a neurological disorder, and how tiring pregnancy is. While it is clear that, in the penumbra of the novel, the parrot is around and doing things, we only occasionally get a good idea of what they are. It could be claimed that it is about her family. But that isn't right either. Instead, she wrote a book about herself. It isn't really clear by the end if she even realizes it, but this is possibly the most narcissitic thing that I have ever read.

When the parrot is mentioned, it is without a single trace of empathy. While the author eventually, and then on often, admits her lackluster abilities in parrot-raising, she never really seems to take to heart the fact that her miserable experiences with the family parrot are her own fault. If you cannot raise a pet properly, you should not make the commitment to taking it in the first place. Yes, it was a gift. No, that does not mean that you cannot get rid of it. The family's ethic about pets not being disposable aside, there is no reason that they should have had a parrot.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Theoden Humphrey VINE VOICE on April 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As I suppose anyone would, I wanted this author's experiences to resemble my own: I, too, owned a vengeful parrot who was determined to kill me, at least by proxy through my wife, whose parrot it was. So I was disappointed when Jenny Gardiner's memoir of her life with Graycie the African Gray did not really come close to our time with a Blue Crown Conure with a nasty disposition. But despite that, this was, I thought, a nice book overall.

Gardiner starts out by making some good and valid points about the dangers and complications inherent in buying parrots, particularly when her family adopted Graycie twenty years ago: at the time, and to a lesser but still serious extent now, many of the parrots on the market are captured from the wild and smuggled into the US. This is not only illegal, of course, but it is harmful to the environment -- the birds are often captured through the simple expedient of cutting down the tree where the young birds are in the nest, and then picking up the stunned chicks out of the wreckage -- and extremely damaging to the birds, which makes them, shall we say, problematic pets. Since parrots are highly intelligent, curious, and possessed of some pretty dangerous weaponry, in beak and claws, and since they can live for decades -- some even longer than the humans who "own" them -- having a psychologically scarred wild animal for a problematic pet is really not a good thing.

Fortunately for Gardiner, Graycie isn't nearly that bad. Oh, she has her troubles -- she is not affectionate as some parrots can be; she is aggressive and attacks Gardiner constantly; for the first few years of their life together, Graycie plucks out her own feathers and chews herself bloody, a fairly common parrot problem.
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More About the Author

Hi! I'm the author of the #1 Kindle bestselling novel SLIM TO NONE; the award-winning novel SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER; the novel SOMETHING IN THE HEIR (1st in the IT'S REIGNING MEN series); the memoir WINGING IT: A MEMOIR OF CARING FOR A VENGEFUL PARROT WHO'S DETERMINED TO KILL ME (Simon Spotlight/March 2010)--> now renamed BITE ME: A PARROT, A FAMILY AND A WHOLE LOT OF FLESH WOUNDS and available digitally; ANYWHERE BUT HERE; ACCIDENTALLY ON PURPOSE; and WHERE THE HEART IS; as well as the essay collection NAKED MAN ON MAIN STREET. I also have a short story in Wade Rouse's fabulous anthology of humorous dog stories, I'M NOT THE BIGGEST BITCH IN THIS RELATIONSHIP that features such authors as Jen Lancaster, Rita Mae Brown, Sarah Pekkanen, and more. I've published two stories for Kindle: THE GALL OF IT ALL: And None of the Three F's Rhymes with Duck, and IDOL WORSHIP: A Lost Week with the Wackos and Wannabes at American Idol Auditions.

I've had pieces appear in Ladies Home Journal, the Washington Post and on NPR's Day to Day. I joke that I honed my fiction writing skills while working as a publicist for a US Senator. Other jobs I've held have included: an orthodontic assistant (learning quite readily that I wasn't cut out for a career in polyester), a waitress (probably my highest-paying job), a TV reporter, a pre-obituary writer, and a photographer (claim to fame: being hired to shoot Prince Charles--with a camera, silly!). I live in Virginia with my husband, three kids, two dogs, one cat, one rabbit and a gregarious parrot. In my free time I study Italian, dream of traveling to exotic locales, and feel very guilty for rarely attempting to clean the house. Visit me at my website,; my blog, ; my facebook fan page , or twitter

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