Walk into Java on Ocean coffeehouse in San Francisco, and it sounds a bit like an aviary. While an espresso machine hisses in the background, two canaries and a green singer finch chirp noisily from cages hung by a window looking out onto Faxon Avenue.
But the star of the show here is a fourth bird named Oliver, a 2-year-old parakeet who has been known to share a customer’s bagels, often plays happily (and fearlessly) with a cat named Zd, and who has twice flown off only to be discovered miraculously many miles away and returned to his perch in the coffeehouse.
“He’s a character,” said Oliver’s owner, Hossam Kaddoura, who opened Java on Ocean 22 years ago. “I have customers who come in just for him.”
Technically, Oliver is a green pineapple conure, a species of parakeet sometimes called the clown of the parrot world and known for intelligence and playfulness — characteristics that Oliver displays in abundance.
Although Oliver does have a cage, he is often (at least, in pre-COVID-19 days) free to roam the coffeehouse. Not the least bit reserved, he will hop onto a proffered hand to be lifted out of his cage, then fly to perch on the shoulders — first, maybe of a customer, then a dishwasher, then on to a new customer.
“He loves attention, he loves to play, and he loves to be petted,” said Kaddoura.
“He’s the social highlight of my day,” said Dan Seiden, a retired computer programmer who lives a few blocks from Java.
Seiden is a special friend of Oliver’s, coming to the coffeehouse every morning for coffee and a bagel, small portions of which get happily consumed by the sociable bird.
“He likes the espresso foam,” said Seiden.
Caffeine is said to be toxic to birds, but Oliver enjoys his coffee and doesn’t seem to suffer any ill effects. And along with snacks from customers, Oliver’s diet typically includes plenty of bird seed and a variety of fruit and vegetables.
Kaddoura, who lives in San Carlos, has always loved birds, having first raised them as a child in Beirut, Lebanon. In America, in addition to owning two coffee shops (the other is in San Mateo), Kaddoura raises racing pigeons from breeds found in Italy and Portugal. He got Oliver from a friend who breeds birds in the Castro District, and originally, Kaddoura wanted the bird to keep his daughter company while she was away at college. But when she came home for the summer, Oliver came home with her.
Back in San Carlos, the conure was a quick study. True to his parrot nature, he learned to say “hello,” and, improbable as it seems, he was housebroken — learning to use his cage for elimination. He would also come to Kaddoura when called, so it wasn’t long before Kaddoura decided he could take Oliver outside for exercise.
“We would go in the garden, and Oliver would fly around the neighborhood,” Kaddoura said. “When it was time to go in, I could just whistle, and after a bit Oliver would whistle back and come home.”
One day, though, Oliver didn’t come back. Kaddoura whistled and whistled, searching the neighborhood, but there was no whistle back, and no Oliver. Kaddoura decided Oliver had been chased away by another bird.
Desperate, Kaddoura turned to the app, NextDoor, posting a missing bird notice with an appeal that anyone who sighted Oliver should call him. Not long after, Kaddoura got a call from a woman in San Jose, more than 25 miles away, who had seen his NextDoor post. Oliver had landed in her garden. Then, friendly bird that he is, he had flown onto her shoulder. And so Kaddoura drove down to retrieve him.
Once Oliver returned, Kaddoura brought him to Java on Ocean, where he quickly made friends with patrons. In the coffeehouse, Oliver has a cage where he sleeps and sometimes plays on a swing, but as often as not his days are spent out of the cage.
“He’s very polite,” said Kaddoura. “He senses who wants his company and who doesn’t.”
For his favored customers like Seiden, Oliver makes a special whistle, Kaddoura said. And the bird is, in general, a crowd pleaser, his appeal enhanced by a propensity for “dancing” — swaying and bobbing when he likes music that’s being played.
“He’s a very funny guy,” said Kaddoura.
Nor does Oliver only bond with humans. Leaving for home one evening, Kaddoura left his cat, Zd, in the coffee shop and also mistakenly left the birdcage open. Realizing what he had done the next morning, he was terrified by what he might find. But when he came into the room, he found Zd fast asleep by the open cage door and Oliver perched alongside, gently scratching the feline’s head with his beak. The two animals have been fast friends ever since, playing together and clearly liking each other’s company.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, Oliver had another misadventure one morning when Kaddoura opened the empty store’s door to let in a customer. In a flash, Oliver flew out the door and took off.
”He was gone, just like that,” said Kaddoura. “We whistled and called and called, but there was no sign of him.” Now, there was no issue of being chased by another bird. Kaddoura thinks Oliver simply wanted to explore.
So once again, the coffeehouse owner turned to NextDoor, but this time the social network came up short.
And then, out of the blue, came another phone call, from a Mission District resident who had attended comedy nights at Java on Ocean and recognized the bird. Oliver had flown in from nowhere, he said, landing on his shoulder and then just staying there.
And so, Oliver came back to the coffeehouse.
These days, people aren’t sitting at the tables in Java on Ocean. If you want coffee, or a bagel, you order it, get it and go.
But while you’re waiting, you can walk over to Oliver’s cage, put your hand in and watch him hop on.
And if he likes you, he might just do a little dance.