By Nancy Ruhling
You can’t miss Kar Red Roses.
As colorful as her name, she’s standing in her floral Dr. Martens on the sidewalk outside Trinity Lutheran Church on 37th Street, clutching a chic carrying case, her red hair like a flickering flame in the whipping wind.
Long and lean and wearing jeans and a wide-brimmed straw hat, she looks like a model or at least someone who looks like a model or a celebrity.
She sits on the church steps and opens her case, liberating Albert, her 34-year-old Congo African grey parrot.
He perches on her hand, pecking at her silver rose-shaped ring and planting parrot kisses on her lips.
Kar Red Roses’ red spectacles match his tail feathers.
The churchyard, with its benches, rose bushes and shady trees, is one of Albert’s favorite places.
Kar Red Roses – that’s not the name she was born with, but it’s the one people know her by, so we’ll go with it — is the only parent that Albert has ever known.
He talks and sings what she calls “chicken bolero” opera and makes farting sounds when he’s displeased or joking around.
He interrupts our conversation several times to intone, “Sorry.”
He calls her Karen Bird. “I feel honored that he has given me bird status,” Kar Red Roses says.
He joined her flock – or as he would tell you, she joined his flock – when he was only 6 months old.
But Albert’s not the first bird Kar Red Roses has ever loved. (Please don’t tell him – he will be crushed.)
Kar Red Roses’ passion for her feathered friends began when she was 5 and her father bought a peach-fronted conure for her mother’s birthday.
“Before that, I think I was a normal kid,” she says. “Parrots took over my life – I became obsessed.”
Kar Red Roses, who describes herself as a “classic only child,” grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
In addition to birds, she loved the arts and at one time envisioned herself as a textile designer.
But by the time she got to college, her focus had shifted to animals, particularly horses (among other jobs, she worked on a track as a galloper).
Oops. Albert has had an accident.
He just had breakfast, and well, you know, shit happens.
Kar Red Roses takes a bottle of water out of her bag and calmly cleans her jeans.
“The saying ‘eats like a bird’ is incorrect,” she explains as Albert does it again. “Birds eat constantly. In fact, they eat one-fourth of their weight every day. They have a very high metabolism. Their lives consist of eating, foraging, cleaning their feathers and napping, rinse and repeat.”
Albert, she explains, had a hearty, hot meal this morning: a poached quail’s egg blended with ZuPreem pellets and corn, squash and string beans.
He’s a big fan of ZuPreem: It’s his photo that’s on several of the brand’s products.
When Albert arises each day, he waddles across the kitchen table demanding food and sits in his own human-size chair, which is slipcovered just in case, and eats from his own personal plate.
“It’s so cute – he makes lip-slapping sounds,” Kar Red Roses says.
Albert, whose wings are not clipped, has free rein of the apartment when Kar Red Roses and her husband are home. When they are out, though, certain areas are off limits because of safety concerns.
“Parrots are sentient beings who are very loving and as super-intelligent as a chimpanzee or a dolphin,” Kar Red Roses says, adding that Albert’s “gotcha day” is July 9, 1990 and his hatch date is New Year’s Eve 1989. “They live to be 40 to 50, so they’re in your family for life. But they never mature beyond the mental age of 3. It’s like living with a toddler.”
It was her then-boyfriend who suggested they get an African grey.
Kar Red Roses has to admit that she wasn’t keen on the idea, but she went along with it because she had told him she’d accept any bird breed he selected.
“I thought they were grumpy,” she says as she massages Albert’s pencil-thin neck.
Six years after adopting Albert, Kar Red Roses moved to the East Village, where she lived with the boyfriend who would become her husband. They settled in Astoria two decades ago.
In the beginning, she worked in a bird store. By this time she had learned bird grooming. (Albert doesn’t exactly love the parrot pedicures she gives him, but he does tolerate them, sometimes making farting noises in protest.)
Eventually Kar Red Roses became a florist, retiring in 2013.
Birds aside, collecting antique postcards is Kar Red Roses’ other passion. She has 10,000 of them dating from 1905 to 1914. They are organized by subject – night scenes, Paris, England, and of course, birds.
She and Albert do everything together.
“I love to travel,” she says, adding that there will be more time for it when her husband retires next year and they move to Providence, Rhode Island. “He’s been to the ocean, and he loved it. I want to take him to the mountains and the desert.”
Albert cocks his little head while she’s talking.
“Albert will be with me forever,” she says as she puts him back in his carrying cage along with a plastic dish of cashews as a snack for the trip back home around the corner. “I don’t need more than one bird in my life.”
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected]; @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.