"Don't worry, Bess," eight-year-old Nancy Drew told her best friend. "We're going into the birdhouse, not the bughouse."
"Are you sure?" Bess Marvin asked nervously. She twisted a strand of her long blond hair around one finger.
Nancy's other best friend, George Fayne, rolled her dark eyes. "Give me a break, Bess," she told her cousin. "You're acting like you've never seen a bug before."
"I have," Bess said. "That's the problem!"
It was summer vacation, and the first day of Park Pals. For two weeks Nancy, Bess, and George would meet every day at the River Heights park. They wouldlearn about birds, trees, and even bugs.
The girls had already met their leader, Ranger Lynn. They also met the other kids in their group, Joey Fusco, Andrea Singh, and Todd Steckler.
"Isn't the name of our group cool?" George asked. She began to hop on one foot. "The Grasshoppers."
Nancy nodded. "And the best part is, we're all in third grade."
Todd Steckler stepped in front of the girls. "I want to be a Bullfrog," he said.
"So?" George said with a shrug. "Jump up and down and croak."
"Du-uh!" Todd said. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I meant I want to be in the Bullfrog group."
"The Bullfrogs are for fifth graders," Nancy told Todd. "Aren't you in the third grade like us?"
"So what?" Todd said. "I know more about nature than anybody here. I'm going to be a park ranger some day."
Nancy giggled. Todd was already dressed like a park ranger. He wore a dark green shirt and matching shorts. His ranger hat was just like Lynn's, and he carried a red backpack over one shoulder.
Bess grabbed Nancy's arm. She pointed to three plastic bug pins on Todd's shirt.
"Eew!" Bess cried. "They look real."
"I wish they were," Todd said. He patted his spider pin. "Bugs are excellent. Except for grasshoppers. They're dumb."
Nancy frowned. She knew Todd was talking about them.
"Why don't you be like your pins," George snapped, "and bug off?"
"Very funny," Todd snapped back. He turned around and walked over to Joey.
"I wish he was in the Bullfrogs," Bess said. "Then he wouldn't be in our group."
Ranger Lynn clapped her hands for attention.
"Are you all ready to visit the aviary?" Lynn asked. She pointed to a small brick building behind them.
"Aviary?" Andrea said. "I thought we were going into the birdhouse."
Todd sighed. "An aviary is a birdhouse. Bird brain."
"Todd is right," Lynn said. "An aviary is where we keep birds. But that was a very good question, Andrea."
Andrea stuck her tongue out at Todd. Then they followed Lynn into the aviary.
"Wow!" Nancy said.
There were three big cages filled with all kinds of colorful birds. They sat on perches and made loud, squawking sounds.
"Awesome," George gasped.
"They're so pretty," Bess said.
Nancy covered her ears and giggled. "And noisy," she said.
Lynn led the group to a tall cage. It was filled with brightly colored birds.
"Here are the tropical birds," she said. "Have any of you ever seen a parrot before?"
Nancy, Bess, and George looked at each other and smiled.
"Our friend Katie has a parrot named Lester," Nancy said. "She takes him everywhere she goes."
"So you girls probably know a lot about parrots," Lynn said.
"I know even more," Todd said. He stuck out his chin. "I know that parrots have pointy beaks so they can crack nuts. I know that parrots are the best climbers of all birds. I know that parrots can talk -- "
"Not as much as you do," Joey interrupted.
Nancy and the Grasshoppers laughed.
"Very funny," Todd grumbled.
The group turned back to the cage. Nancy saw a big blue parrot sitting alone on a perch. It was the most beautiful bird she had ever seen.
"Bess, George, look!" Nancy said.
George gave a whistle. "I never saw a parrot that color before."
"It's almost violet," Bess said.
"That's Carmen," Lynn said. "She's a hyacinth macaw. A macaw is a kind of parrot."
"Isn't a hyacinth a flower?" Nancy asked.
"Yes," Lynn said. "Very good, Nancy."
"I knew that," Todd mumbled.
"Nancy," Bess whispered. "That parrot is the same color as something else."
"It is?" Nancy asked. "What?"
"Your detective notebook," Bess said.
"You're right, Bess," Nancy said.
Nancy's detective notebook was bright blue. She wrote her clues in it whenever she worked on a new mystery. She also carried it wherever she went.
"Shall we get a closer look at Carmen?" Lynn asked.
The Grasshoppers nodded as Lynn unlocked the cage and reached in.
"Arrk!" Carmen squawked as she jumped from the perch onto Lynn's arm.
"Where do hyacinth macaws come from?" Andrea asked.
"South America," Lynn said. "But there aren't many left. That's why they have to be protected."
"Are they endangered?" Nancy asked.
"Yes," Lynn said. "But as long as we keep Carmen here, she might have babies. Then there'll be more hyacinth macaws."
"Rrraaaaa!" Carmen squawked.
"Polly wanna cracker?" Joey joked.
"Parrots like crackers," Lynn said. "They also eat fruit, nuts, and small bugs."
"Bugs?" Bess shrieked. "That's the grossest thing I ever heard."
"Bugs are not gross," Todd insisted.
Nancy watched Todd reach into his backpack. He yanked out a glass jar filled with big fat beetles.
"These guys showed up when we turned on the porch lights," Todd said. "Are they neat or what?"
Oh, great, Nancy thought. Todd is holding the jar in front of Bess's face.
"Quit it, Todd!" Nancy scolded.
But it was too late. Bess let out the loudest scream that Nancy had ever heard.
"Eeeeek!" Bess cried.
"Squaaaaawk!" Carmen screeched.
The blue parrot hopped off Lynn's arm. She flapped her wings and flew toward the open door.
"Carmen!" Lynn called. She waved her arms in the air. "Come back!"
Everyone stared as Carmen flew out of the door and into the park.
"Oh, no," Nancy groaned. "Carmen has flown the coop!"
Copyright © 1999 by Simon & Schuster Inc.