The Birdman of Minneapolis

Talk about crackers, say hello. Just don't mention avian flu.

Polly wanna feel sexy? Walk into the Birds 'N' Stuff shop off Bryant and 50th in south Minneapolis, and a couple of parrots will greet you with wolf whistles that'll blow up your skirt and pretty much make you feel like Brad Pitt walking past an all-girl construction site.

Polly wanna feel welcome? Call 612.827.3882 and hear shop owner Tom Morgan's voice, as four green-headed cockatoos methodically untie his shoelaces. Or you may get him live. "Hello? Birds 'N' Stuff," Morgan will say, as his backup singers kick in on cue, just as they do every time the phone rings.

Herbie: "Hello?"

Birds 'N' Stuff owner Tom Morgan with four of his feathered friends
Tony Nelson
Birds 'N' Stuff owner Tom Morgan with four of his feathered friends

Chewie: "Hello?"

Cassie: "Hello!"

Hello: "Hello."

Herbie: "Hello?"

Chewie: "Hellooo?"

Cassie: "HELLO."

Hello: "Hello!"

Herbie: "Hello, hello."

Chewie: "Hello, hello?"

Cassie: "Hello?"

Hello: "Hello?"

Polly wanna feel a little nuts? Spend more than a couple of hours in Birds 'N' Stuff, and you will discover that the "stuff" part should stand for Clozapine. You might feel like you've stepped into an outtake from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, the part where the lovebirds that trill in the cages behind the "Birds 'N' Stuff" counter rally the store's 100 other birds not to dive-bomb, but to slowly chirp their victims to death.

"This isn't so noisy," says Morgan over a din of late-afternoon songbirds that recalls the Amazon. "When you think about it, there's only 10 or 15 voices going on right now, and there's over a hundred birds here. The only reason he's showing off is because you're here," Morgan says, pointing to Chewie, a green-ruffled-feathered African parrot. "Middle of the afternoon, it's siesta time. Their most active time is early morning and early evening—[then, they're] nonstop talkers and chirpers. But once the lights go out, they don't make any noise.

"Any parrot has the ability to speak. Whether he does or not will be up to his normal habits or if he feels like doing it. Usually males will talk better than females. Females quite often will be friendlier than males. Males will almost always be better mimickers. They don't really speak. They mimic the sounds they like: the microwave, the doorbell, the phone ringing."

Polly wanna get anthropomorphic? It's often said that pets start to take on the appearance of their owners, and vice versa. And its no stretch to say that the "older than dirt" (fortysomething) Morgan—a divorced father of two who lives a few blocks away with his youngest teenage son and six "non-pet" birds—is birdlike. His eyes are small, wary, and alert. His smile is all lips, pursed into something of a beak. His movements are methodical, no wasted energy.

He is a man at home with his birds. He is a man more at home talking about his birds than he is talking about himself. He is a man whose schedule revolves around the feeding and grooming of his birds. He talks to them. They talk back.

"I hope I'm not flighty," cracks Morgan, who opened the shop in 1997 after moving to Minneapolis in the mid-'70s from his hometown of Chicago. "Lots of things have been bred out of humans over the last hundred or so generations, or however long humans have been de-animalizing themselves. The birds can smell water in the back room. Humans would sit here and thirst to death if you didn't know there was a faucet back there."

Morgan grew up with birds, and fondly remembers parakeets sharing the family water faucet. He's had birds ever since: "Bird people are pretty trustworthy. Pet people are, in general, but bird people make the extra step."

Polly wanna rush? Spend some time hanging out with Morgan's birds, most of whom loaf outside of their cages. Fifteen yellow and white parakeets scamper about in two blue children's wading pools. A few cockatiels mosey about the floor. A half-dozen lovebirds hang in cages behind the counter. Three big parakeets rest on stands, talons clasped around sitting poles, feathers ruffling at the occasional customer who reaches out to touch.

"He loves you to talk to him, but he doesn't like you to pick him up," Morgan says to a little girl about Chewie. Then, about Cassie: "She loves little girls." He places Cassie on the girl's shoulder, and the bird "kisses" her cheek. When her father cockily takes the bird from the girl and puts it on his shoulder, the bird pecks at the man's cheek and almost draws blood.

Herbie, a large green parrot with an awesome wingspan, lords over the shop. He belongs to Morgan and is not for sale. He's not mean, but like all the birds at Birds 'N' Stuff, he does not cotton well to Captain Jack-wannabes, or any other bird-fools. "He's been out of his cage for the first time today after being in his cage since the spring," Morgan says. "He was feeling his male hormones kicking in." The birdman tugs at Herbie's beak. Herbie retaliates with a squawk and a peck, and drops to the floor. For a moment it's unclear who's in charge here.

"They're more like dogs and less like cats," says Morgan. "Supposedly they're smarter than dogs and cats; the big thing is that their maturity level is [that of] a two-year-old. Always getting into trouble, always tearing something apart. They know when your back is turned. Herbie will wait right on top of that cage, and as soon I go into the back room I'll start to hear all this stuff falling off the shelves. And when I come back around—foom!—he's back right up on that cage."

Polly wanna laugh? Get Morgan to tell the story about the obnoxious grandmother who came in and started goading a bored parrot.

"She was a nice woman, and she had her granddaughter with her," grins Morgan. "She came up to this bird in the front and said, 'Hello.' He said, 'Hello' right back. He usually doesn't talk to people; in fact, rarely will he talk to a stranger. He was probably only talking because there was a little kid there, and felt more comfortable.

"So she said, 'Janey, come over here! This bird's saying, 'hello.' Now I'm feeding the birds and doing my thing, and I'm hearing the bird say, 'hello, hello' and she's, 'Janey, Janey, listen, listen,' and I know what's going on here and I'm moving from the back as fast as I can to make sure everything's all right.

"And I'm running up there and, 'Janey, Janey, come here,' and just before I get there the bird goes, 'Asshole! Asshole!'

"I had the water in my hand, and by the time I got to there, she was already gone. Dragged that kid right out the door."

Goodbye!

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or jwalsh@citypages.com

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