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The ‘tail’ of Morgan, a 26-year-old Congo African gray parrot

Sound System
Morgan, a 26-year-old Congo African grey parrot, enjoys a cracker on Thursday, June 8, at her home in Meridian. Zach Petroff/Butler Eagle

BUTLER TWP – Growing up, most children find themselves wanting a furry four-legged companion to play with.

That was not the case for then-17-year-old Erann Heltzell.

“I was allergic to dogs,” Heltzell said. “When I was kid, there was this parrot show that came to town with one of the farm shows, and the birds were doing all kinds of tricks and talking. I just found them so fascinating.”

After some persuasive pleading, Heltzell was able to talk her mom into allowing her to get Morgan, a Congo African grey parrot.

Morgan is a lovable and sometimes mischievous bird who loves to mimic a ringing phone or smoke alarm to get her family’s attention. And while Morgan provides plenty of love and amusement to her family, owning a pet that can live up to 80 years is quite a commitment.

“I’ve had kids come over with their parents and then all of a sudden they want a bird, and I’m like ‘Do not get a bird because you met Morgan, and you think it’s easy and fun,’” Heltzell said. “You really have to think about the time that’s invested and the space you need.”

Morgan’s veterinarian, Dr. Marc McDanel, also is aware of the challenges that come with owning a parrot.

Finding something to do with Morgan when the family goes on vacation also presents a set of challenges.

“From my perspective, to take care of them, it’s not a pet for an average person for sure,” McDanel said. “I think the big thing is the longevity of the bird. They can outlive their owners.”

He said in his career, he has many birds that have been re-homed. Owners bringing their new bird to his office sometimes tell him it’s the bird’s fourth or fifth home.

“The birds get set in their ways, and the changes can be very stressful for them,” McDanel said.

Congo African grey parrots typically weigh just slightly under a pound, standing a little over a foot tall with a wingspan between 18 and 20 inches. Their heads usually are a grayish color with wings that typically are darker than the body.

They are most known for their red tails and high level of intelligence.

Cristian Gutierrez-Ibanez, a biologist at the University of Alberta in Canada, has done extensive research on the similarities between the brains of humans and parrots.

“Independently, parrots have evolved an enlarged area that connects the cortex and the cerebellum, similar to primates,” Gutierrez-Ibanez said. “This is another fascinating example of convergence between parrots and primates. It starts with sophisticated behaviors, like tool use and self-awareness, and can also be seen in the brain. The more we look at the brains, the more similarities we see.”

Morgan is no exception, as her intelligence fuels her loving, yet ornery, personality.

“She mimics,” Heltzell said. “She mimics words and voices and sounds that we use every day that you don’t realize she hears every day.”

Morgan, however, is not just reiterating sounds. She is adapting to her environment and using the Heltzell’s landline as a way to get attention.

“You could tell when she was on the phone,” Heltzell said. “She would make the sound that the phone makes when you press a button the 10 times for a phone number and then you would hear her say ‘Hello’ and she would carry on a whole conversation.”

The confusion required the Heltzells to double-check every time the landline would ring.

Erann Heltzell enjoys her Congo African grey parrot, Morgan, at their home in Butler Township. Zach Petroff/Butler Eagle

“When we had the landline, if we heard ringing,” Heltzell said, “we would have to listen and hear if the phone was ringing in the whole house or was the ringing just coming from where she was at. That’s the only way we could tell, She sounded identical to the phone ringing.”

The bond between Morgan and Heltzell was cultivated during the past quarter-century. Morgan has been there for every major moment in Heltzell’s life, including moving, having children and getting married.

“I told my husband before we got married,” Heltzell said, “’You’re not just marrying me, you know you’re getting two of us.’”

Just as the Heltzell family has accepted Morgan as one of their own, Morgan considers Heltzell a “part of the flock.”

“I feel like they can sense when they know something’s going on (by) just the way she’ll act,” Heltzell said. “When I need her to be in a good mood and you know, do something silly because I had a bad day or something’s bother me, talking to her and playing with her kind makes me forget about what might be going on.”

“I feel like she’s a companion that knows when you need her.”

Erann Heltzell and her Congo African grey parrot, Morgan, play at their home in Butler Township. Zach Petroff/Butler Eagle
Erann Heltzel and her Congo African grey parrot, Morgan, spend time together at their home in Butler Township. Zach Petroff/Butler Eagle

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