Grin 'n' Parrot 

Bird trainer is looking for the next Paulie

Teaching card tricks to birds doesn't require a "full deck," Jenny Gabel points out with a cheerfully self- deprecating tone.

"I'd always thought that birds were stupid pets," says Gabel, who was once active in training horses and dogs, but is now the ringleader of Bird Brains Performing Parrots. "A bird sits in a corner, it eats seeds, it makes a mess, and it bites."

But when Gabel's daughter won a coloring contest at school two years ago and brought home a parakeet cage and a pet bird "starter kit," a flight of fancy formed. Gabel began to research on the Internet. Suddenly, birds didn't seem so sloppy and obnoxious. Faster than you can say "Mommy, can we get a bird, can we, huh, can we?" the family had a parakeet, Rocky.

"I had to tame it," explains Gabel. "But that was really easy. It was such an interactive little bird." Gabel was hooked.

She soon added Dusty, a two-year-old male cockatiel who performs tricks ranging from "horseback" riding and retrieving the mail to setting the table, and her performing ensemble -- and vast array of parrot props -- began to take shape.

"I thought, "Gee, this is fun, but it'd be more fun if I had another bird,'" Gabel says.

And along came Tango, a bright green quaker parrot commanding the spotlight with his martial-arts prowess and basketball-playing ability. At 18 months, he does mean impersonations of a chicken and a Chihuahua, and he's no dodo when it comes to playing the shell game.

Then there's Frankie, an 11-month-old Timneh African Grey -- and aspiring big-screen queen. A ballerina wannabe who roller skates, Frankie has her beady little eyes set on Hollywood. When Gabel "shoots" her, Frankie slowly slumps, gingerly rolls over onto her back, and points her feet skyward.

While most of Gabel's shows are private affairs -- 30-minute in-home performances that require a fee -- she and the birds are currently branching out with a series of programs throughout the Cuyahoga County Public Library system.

"A lot of people told me I should use them to make money to pay vet bills, which can be high," Gabel says.

It seems to be paying off. The bird bit, though geared toward children, is even a hoot for old codgers who think birds are messy and mean. -- Jeff Woodard

Speaking of Highlights

More by Jeff Woodard


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