June 04, 2001 12:00 PM

by Joanna Burger

Everybody knows parrots can be taught to mimic speech. But in this brilliantly observed memoir, ornithologist Burger reveals what parrots can teach us. The tropical birds, who often live as long as people do, express rage, fear, jealousy, trust, compassion and even love for human caretakers. Yes, that kind of love. Turns out Polly wants much more than a cracker.

Burger, 60, knows that in the wild parrots mate for life, but her training didn’t prepare her for Tiko, a 46-year-old male she adopted 15 years ago. When he builds “nests” under furniture during mating season, it’s funny; when he tries to lure her in by nipping her toes and scurrying back to his nest, it becomes unnerving. The straight man in this bedroom farce is Burger’s parrot-pecked husband, who endures dive-bombing attacks when he snuggles with his wife.

After Burger gets Lyme disease, Tiko becomes her nurse, carefully preening her hair for hours as she sleeps. Human emotions, Burger decides, should not be excluded from animal behavior. “The dog-eat-dog world is touched by gentler forces,” she writes. It’s an elegant idea in an unusually thoughtful book. (Villard, $23.95)

Bottom Line: A literary coo

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