Had it been incarcerated in a paper-lined cage in the corner of someone's living room it might have escaped my attention, or simply served as a distracting annoyance.

But there it was - a splash of vivid color in the browning grass of Farragut Square.

It was the more colorful and flittingly perky contrasted, as it was, with the drab, clumsy pigeons among whom it cavorted.

My first glimpse of it - head deep in the grass, snaffling up the remnants of some secretary's lunch - brought instant delight, curiosity and an inexplicable sense of protectiveness.

Had anyone stopped to look at me, grinning broadly as I watched, they might have decided I was demented.

But there was little danger of this: Most people rushed through the square looking neither left nor right, careful to avoid eye contact with other humans and seemingly oblivious to the beauty of the park itself.

They may have walked through hunddreds of times, never noticing the trees, the flowers, the people - anything. Or perhaps they noticed once, decided it would remain forever the same and refused to bestow their attention upon it again.

But it was not the same this day, nor, I suspect, is it ever so.

There was this bright yellow-green-and-blue parakeet darting in and out among the bedraggled pigeons with a stylish flair: hopping, skipping, flitting from spot to spot.

And most people never noticed him.

Those who did, and I counted ten during the half-hour I witnessed the performance, all tried to capture the bird.

When they saw him, their attitudes changed. After looking closely to see if they saw what they thought they saw - a parakeet, free, out in the open - the juice of avarice began to flow.

It was as if they had spotted a $20 bill on the ground. Something clicked in their heads. This was valuable. It belonged in a cage, not free, and each appointed himself the jailer.

A large man walked through the grass, approaching the bird awkwardly, unused to the stealth he was trying to simulate. When he was about five feet away, he lunged clumsily forward in a vain attempt to grab the bird.

Just before the would-be captor reached him, the parakeet hopped nonchalantly out of range.

After repeating the scenario several times, the man stalked away, a disgusted look on his face.

A smallish, Milquetoast type next spotted my friend - the parakeet's effortless escapes enhanced his beauty and made me a devoted fan - and plotted his capture.

First, peering over his steel-rimmed glasses, he carefully inspected the area to determine if anyone was watching.

Reassured, Milquetoast went to a waste can, extracted a discarded piece of bread and carefully crumbled it in his hand.

He then approached the parakeet, very slowly, dropping a few crumbs when the pigeons began to rustle and move away.

Ever so carefully, he worked his way into the middle of the group where the parakeet was feeding. He dropped some crumbs directly in front of the colorful bird.

Closer and closer he leaned, now reaching one hand out behind the bird while continuing to dribble crumbs with the other.

I was getting panicky, my hands growing clammy. It was hard to hold back a shout of warning.

Then, just as he spread his fingers to engulf the bird, the parakeet hopped a foot or so away, seeming not to have noticed his would-be captor, simply saved by a lucky impulse.

Again Milquetoast made his stealthy approach; again capture was averted by an apparently lucky hop.

Of course, we - the parakeet and I - knew it was not luck but careful timing. He was snaffling up the proffered bait, escaping with little effort, but making his escape seem close enough that it did not discourage his inadvertent benefactor. It was just a question of how long he could continue to con the weirdo into continuing the handout.

Half a dozen identical stalking expeditions later, Milquetoast shuffled away, scratching his head.

A number of other passersby continued the futile attempts at capture, with minor variations.

The most flamboyant effort was made by a middle-aged woman who was walking by with two male escorts.

When she spotted the bird she squealed and grabbed an arm of each man, stopping them in their tracks.

"It's mine," she screamed as they stared at her.

After pointing out the object of her excitement with little finger-jabs, still squealing, she confessed that the bird wasn't really hers, but certainly was going to be.

She demanded that the younger man give her his coat and, in the face of repeated demands, he gave in.

Spreading the coat out in her arms, she took a few cautious steps toward the bird then lunged, trying to fling it over him.

The squealing scene captured the attention of many, including the parakeet, and they were all pointing in his direction as the coat sailed toward him.

Apparently tired of the mealtime disturbance, he flew casually to the top of a nearby tree and, once the crowd gathered there, to another and yet another, at last eluding everyone but me.

They searched the branches of the wrong trees as I watched him out of the corner of my eye, keeping his final hiding place a secret until the interest of the searchers waned and they wandered away.

I wondered, briefly, how people can arbitrarily decide that something free and beautiful should be captured and claimed as theirs. How do they decide they have the right to put something in a cage?

How, too - if you're one of those considered fair game by everyone - can you escape permanent, incapacitating paranoia?

But there was the parakeet now, again pecking jubilantly at his meal in a new spot, undetected by anyone save me.

Reluctantly, I left my friend and ambled back to the office, vaguely concerned about the possibility that someone would out-smart him and wondering how he would survive in the fast-approaching cold weather.

From what I witnessed, however, I figure he'll elude everyone and will probably leave in a week or so to winter in Florida or on some Caribbean island.

Would that I were smart, and free, and beautiful.

But then, I suppose, everyone would be out to get me.