Wednesday, October 13, 2004

crazy birds

I'm reading a great book called Dreambirds: The Strange History of the Ostrich in Fashion, Food, and Fortune by Rob Nixon, a South African who emigrated to America. The book, which is part journalism and part remembrance, contains a hilarious passage at the beginning about a family parrot named Prince Charming. Prince had a bizarre relationship with the author's grandfather, a Scotsman who emigrated to South Africa back in the day. Young Rob would occasionally hear his granddad, or "Gaffy" as he was known, start to boom, "I'm a murderer I am, a murderer twice over!" to which the parrot would respond with an even more tragic screech: "I'm a murderer I am, a murderer twice over!" It was a ritual that caused Nixon's grandmother a bit of discomfort.

Prince Charming had one blue eye and one "mad" yellow eye. If he was in a good mood, he'd show you his blue eye. If he was in a bad mood, you'd get his mad yellow eye. According to Nixon, the parrot was found dead one day, not long after Gaffy had died. The cause? Nixon was initially told it was some sort of parrot's disease that did Prince Charming in, but later on he discovered it was his grandmother who'd strangled the parrot, whose Gaffy-like "I'm a murderer I am, a murderer twice over!" was too much of a grim echo for the woman.

I'm halfway through the book now; fascinating read, and my first real glimpse of South African history. The book deals mainly with ostriches, whose brains are apparently not much larger than a teaspoon in volume. Although I knew ostriches ate rocks to aid digestion, I had no idea they were responsible for the inadvertent spreading of diamonds over a great stretch of the South African Karoo, causing many a failed diamond rush as people were misled into thinking they were in diamond-rich territory. If you have the time and inclination, I recommend Nixon's well-written book to you.


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