This culprit may be the cause of your visit almost half of the time.

Of all the things that can be wrong when you're troubleshooting, there's one that is the culprit, oh, at least 50 percent of the time. One thing. And it's so simple that we usually wait until last to even look at it. Isn't that amazing? Fifty percent of the time this is the problem, but we don't look at it until every other possibility is exhausted. That could be days of investigative work before looking at the obvious.

If you hired a private eye at a mere $60 per hour at eight hours per day for two days, that's almost $1,000. So you hire this private eye and $1,000 into the job he or she says, “Ya know, I've looked at everything imaginable and there's only one thing left it can be. I don't really want to dig into this, because it's not my favorite thing to check out - frankly, that's why I saved it to last - but since there's nothing else left, I'll have a look.”

What could this mysterious 50 percent-of-the-time problem be? I'm not telling you yet. I'm going to tell you a story first. Maybe you can guess.

A Holiday Service Call

One holiday morning I picked up my phone - probably to do some catch-up work; after all, it's a holiday and I can get ahead of the game if I sneak in a little work before the kids get up and wonder what we're doing today. The line was dead. I have three lines in my house (isn't this just a ridiculous state of affairs we've gotten ourselves in - three phone lines in one house!). I tried the second line - it was OK. I tried the third. Silent.

I certainly couldn't get through a holiday with just one working phone line, so I called the phone company. Frankly, I was surprised that they answered at all. I was even more surprised when they said they'd have a technician there that day. (Yeah, right.) A few hours later, he arrived.

“What's your problem, lady?” the tech, whose shirt said “Bob,” asked.

“No dial tone on lines one and three. Both of the phone lines are dead.”

I grew up in the days when we feared the phone company. They could bust you for having unauthorized extension phones. The rumor was that they could do even worse things to you if you had other “unauthorized devices,” such as an answering machine. A lot of years have passed since then, and I have numerous devices attached to my phone lines (fax, answering machine, heck, a couple of computers - none of which I even pretend to understand how they work on the phone line and, admittedly, rarely think about because most of the time they “just work”).

So I have a lot of devices, authorized or not, and I was figuring that this phone company guy was going to start in saying that the problem was my stuff, which would make the problem my problem and, “That'll be a hundred bucks for the service call. Good luck on figuring it out; call someone else if you can't.”

But that's not what happened.

He started exploring.

Immediately he found my bird. Well, the bird's pretty obvious from the start. He lives right in the middle of the house - on the bar between the kitchen and the family room. His cage is about 3 ft. x 3 ft. x 3 ft. He prefers to sit on top of his cage rather than inside it, and that's fine with me, because he's a little quieter there. All in all, though, he's obnoxiously noisy and messy. Gotta find that thing a new home.

His wings are clipped, but that doesn't mean he's not mobile. From the top of the cage he watches the cats. I imagine that from the top of the cage, the cats look like big furry targets. Sometimes, for no reason that I can figure, he just jumps down for a cat. His aim is lousy. He usually lands in front of the cat. Heck, I don't know, maybe that's where he wanted to be. Then he crouches low, flaps his wings and hisses. The cat just stands there. It's a cat-bird standoff. The bird hisses and flaps some more. The cat looks confused, and walks a wide arc around the bird. The bird looks annoyed.

A Tech With Experience

Technician Bob was an older guy, said he retired from somewhere else and was working for the phone company now. Looking at the bird, he said, “My wife and I have one of these cockatiels. It just showed up one day, sitting on the front porch railing. My wife knows birds a little. She put out her finger, and the bird just climbed on. We put signs all around the neighborhood and watched the paper for a lost bird ad, but nobody ever claimed him. We call him Bud. Where's the basement? I'm going to check out your phone lines down there.”

I have the bird because my son's girlfriend gave it to him. Of course the girlfriend is gone. And the son's gone to college. And I have the bird. Birdie. Gotta find that bird a new home.

I could hear Tech Bob poking around in the basement. After what seemed like a long time, he came back upstairs.

“What are those panels down there? Looks like they have something to do with heating. I've never seen anything like that.”

“That's my zoning system,” I answered. “It lets me keep different parts of the house different temperatures. Actually, the way it works out, since the upstairs is usually hotter than the downstairs, it lets me keep all of the house the same temperature if I want to. But now that the kids are away most of the time, it lets me shut off their rooms entirely.”

“Well, it doesn't have anything to do with your phones. I was just wondering. I've seen a lot of wiring and done a lot of troubleshooting, but I've never seen anything quite like that.”

And back to the basement he went. He was gone another long time. The only thing that was giving me any hope at this point was that he said he'd done a lot of troubleshooting.

Birdie was raising heck as usual: “Pretty Bird. Pretty Bird. Wolf whistle. Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk. Pretty Bird.” He flapped his wings from the top of the cage. Feathers flew, as usual. Whatta mess. Gotta find that bird a new home.

You've Got A Bad …

Finally. Tech Bob came back up from the basement. He stood in the middle of the kitchen floor. He studied the bird.

Finally, he said, “I found your problem. You've got a bad bird.”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I know that. But what about my phones?”

“See that phone wire next to the bird cage?”

Sure enough, the phone cable runs from the wall outlet along the counter next to the birdcage. The cord was covered with Birdie beak-shaped indentations.

“Oops,” I said. “I never noticed that before. That's a mess.”

“Yep,” he continued. “When your bird bit the phone cord, it shorted together your phone lines. That's why they don't work. Like I said, you got a bad bird. Get yourself a new phone cord, keep the bird away from it, and you'll be all set.”

Whenever I'm tempted to start a troubleshooting job with, “It's gotta be a bad . . .,” I remember the bad bird. It might have been a bad bird, but the problem was a wiring problem.

(Bob the Tech must have had a bad bird, too, because I never got a bill for that holiday service call.)