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A lesson at the zoo, from Baby, Twizzler

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2002

The birds zoomed in at me making a noise that bore no relation to a melody.

The birds zoomed in at me making a noise that bore no relation to a melody.

They screeched and squawked and when they landed on my fingers, forearms and shoulders, their claws pinched.

I have no idea how many birds were hanging on me. I was trying not to tremble while holding the tiny cup of nectar that they were fighting over and preparing myself to be bitten.

This was lunchtime Friday at the Lorikeet Landing at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo.

The Landing is an aviary dedicated to these bright and raucous parrots. You pay a dollar for a cup of the nectar and watch what happens, after your anxiety passes. This is not a jeep safari on the Serengeti, but given the smaller scale of a city setting, it will certainly do.

The birds are small, delicate, close at hand but -- even when they're on your finger -- beyond reach. When you inhabit their lush enclosed space, you are as far from your own cares as you can get without leaving Earth.

The lorikeets are a kind of parrot that come from Australia and Indonesia. Their colors are so bright that they appear to have been dipped, patchwork-style, in paint. You see one and immediately get that I-gotta-have-a-puppy response. You want to go out to some pet shop and get one of these birds.

Then the aviary keeper, Christine Miller, steps in.

"They make lousy pets," she said. "They're loud. Their diets are utterly liquid, and so is their poop.

"And they're not tame at all. They're trained to come to the cups (of nectar). If you try to pet them, they'll bite you.

"And we don't want them being very nice to you," Miller said.

It's a question of self-defense for the birds. Miller has stories about people coming into the aviary who insist on teasing or even trying to kick the birds. I find it almost hard to believe. What kind of a sicko would hit a screechy songbird?

And isn't a place like the zoo supposed to be a refuge?

I consider it so not just for the animals but for the weary rest of us. I went to the zoo Friday, frankly, to play hooky, to steal a couple of hours for myself at the end of a week I'd have rather skipped entirely.

Except for a walk along Bayshore Boulevard (as cars whiz by doing 60), the zoo is the best place in Tampa for a cheap and pleasant escape. You can sit on a bench and peer closely at a world that has no relation to your own and forget yourself.

In this world called Lorikeet Landing, 71 species flew about. Christine Miller said that the birds can live as long as 25 years in captivity. Each carried a metal identification band around one leg and had a name of his own, like Stinky Feet or Joe -- two who landed on me -- or Baby, Toeless Joe and Twizzler, so named because he is the same drop-dead red of licorice.

As I sat on a bench and watched, other visitors came in. One woman posed for a photograph with a lorikeet on her head. Parents with birds on their fingers bent over to show them to shy children. More cameras appeared. More pictures were taken.

All the while, the birds were as fickle as could be. They would go to anyone holding a cup of nectar. It didn't matter if you'd been waiting for a minute or waiting 15 minutes.

There's a life lesson in this: The birds took what they wanted, when they wanted, and you, their admirer, were not the least bit in control of the circumstances. You had to take them on their terms, if you wanted any pleasure. You had to watch carefully and learn to sit still.

-- Mary Jo Melone can be contacted at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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