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Parrot's words set off squawking

Bubba can whistle, sing and, it seems, curse. Or so his neighbors say. They want him silenced by moving him indoors.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


SOUTH PASADENA -- Bubba squawks. Bubba talks. Bubba chirps, sings and speaks Czech. He even whistles Beethoven's Fifth.

But does Bubba, a 7-year-old African gray parrot whose outdoor pet home has drawn the ire of his neighbors, also curse?

"He's very intelligent," says Jasmina Fischer, kissing Bubba's beak as he nibbles her index finger. "He picks up things."

Just how much Bubba has picked up -- and the hours and decibels he chooses to use what he knows -- are at the heart of a South Pasadena neighborhood squabble. The dispute has heated up steadily the past two years, drawing the attention of the Sheriff's Office and the city's code enforcement officer.

Now the city is hoping Fischer will simply acquiesce to her neighbors and keep her pet inside, abandoning his outdoor perch that oversees her neighbors' pool. If she doesn't agree, the city might force her.

"We've sent the friendly letter trying to persuade her to get along with the other citizens," said Philip Charnock, director of community improvement for the city of South Pasadena. "If we have continual complaints from these people, I will probably have to get with the city attorney."

On one side of the Shore Drive bird battle is Fischer, who lives on the fourth floor of the Hemingway condominiums and allows Bubba to move freely between his indoor, air-conditioned cage and his outdoor parrot jungle gym, which occupies most of Fischer's screened-in terrace. Her neighbors at the Faylore apartments next door claim Bubba hangs out on his parrot pad most of the day, harassing them at their pool below with wolf whistles and loud mimics.

"The bird gets on my nerves," said Darlene Howard, a Faylore resident. "Even if it's whistling or doing things other guys think is cute, I come down to the pool to relax and enjoy myself. I don't want some bird up there whistling and yelling and cussing and screaming."

That's right -- cussing. Neighbors say that as the dispute has escalated, so has the severity of Bubba's vocabulary.

No longer just fowl-mouthed, Bubba has turned foul-mouthed, Fischer's neighbors say. Surely, if a loud bird wasn't against city code, a cussing bird will be, the neighbors reason.

Fischer, however, isn't buying it.

"I don't believe he uses profanity, except that he says "shut up,' " she said.

Judging from the phrases Bubba is accused of using, he is likely mimicking not his owner, but the neighbors below who have tired of his talking.

"I was out there with my grandson," Howard said. "The bird said, "Shut the f-- up, you son of a b--'."

Howard was furious. She immediately complained to City Hall, but Carole Arrowood, the city code enforcement officer, was one step ahead of Howard. The previous day, July 18, she had sent Fischer yet another warning letter.

It's the third letter Fischer has received, and the third one she has ignored.

"It seems to me that City Hall -- without any proof, actually -- was on their side," Fischer said. "If there's noise, then there needs to be proof."

Indeed, Arrowood admits she has barely ever heard the bird squawk, much less curse or make loud, obnoxious noises. To build a case against Fischer, city officials must hear the noises themselves or collect affidavits from neighbors who have.

The city has accused Fischer of violating a rule that forbids anyone from "allowing, maintaining or failing to mitigate habitual noises emanating from any animal or bird ... which said noises can be construed as loud and raucous."

To mitigate the situation, Charnock said, Fischer needs to bring Bubba inside.

"You'd think this situation would be very correctable," he said.

Arrowood thinks Fischer should be more conscientious of her neighbors. "She's not cooperating, and it's not fair that the other people should have to deal with this," Arrowood said.

African gray parrots are considered to be the most elite of the talking birds. The parrot is also the longest-living bird on the planet, with lifespans of more than 70 years in captivity.

Once thought to simply be excellent mimics, research now shows the birds have some startling cognitive abilities. Some researchers are even working to teach African gray parrots how to read.

They also are known for their high-pitched screams and loud, clear whistles, though they are surprisingly shy when approached by strangers. They originated in the rainforests of Africa.

Fischer insists Bubba needs the freedom of the outdoors. He enjoys mimicking the sea gulls and other birds, as well as exercising on his rope swing and other amenities.

Bubba is also an empathetic friend to Fischer. When she stubs her toe, he says "ouch!" When she sneezes, he sneezes. When she coughs, he coughs. She wants him to be as happy and as comfortable as possible, and she enjoys his trips to the veterinarian, who always remarks on what a healthy bird she has.

"I live by myself. This is my only companionship," Fischer said. "He means a lot to me. I mean, really, a lot."

Fischer also points out that her neighbors have not been saintly throughout the dispute. Recently, one of Bubba's foes posted fliers at Faylore and Hemingway, listing Fischer's home number and urging complainers to call her. She has received several anonymous early-morning phone calls that rouse her from bed.

"Lady, shut up your bird," the caller says.

And besides, she said, most of her neighbors love Bubba. She thinks even the complainers down at the pool shelter a closet affinity for her bird.

"They kind of provoke him," she said. "I know they enjoy it."

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