Hello! Everyone loves a talking, squawking parrot, right? Actually, discovers YELENA MOSKOVICH, these brilliant featherbrains have a long history not only of charming but of betraying their loyal owners.
Before the parrot took its place on a pirate’s shoulder, or babbled in cartoons, the Kama Sutra listed teaching this bird to speak among its sixty-four arts of pleasurable living.
Possessing one of the highest intellects among all birds, with a brain-to-body size ratio comparable to that of higher primates, and exhibiting the social appetite of a three-year-old child, this chattering avian creature has been kept as a house pet for thousands of years, firstly by the upper classes in Asia and Africa, and then by the European aristocracy, after Alexander the Great’s army returned in 327 BC with a variety of ring-necked parrot known to this day as the ‘Alexandrine parakeet’.
Marie Antoinette cherished her African grey, Queen Victoria’s Coco sang ‘God Save the Queen’, and Pope Martin V appointed a Keeper of Parrots to look after his dearests, creating a dedicated parrot room — Camera di Pappagallo — at the Vatican for future parrot-doting popes.
Steven Spielberg’s darling is named Blanche, and fourteen US presidents have kept a talking bird of one species or another at the White House.
Amazingly, the parrot imitates speech without vocal chords, lips, teeth or palate (try saying ‘b’, ‘m’, ‘p’ or ‘w’ without using your lips), by squeezing its syrinx, located between the trachea and lungs, as air goes through; yet this has often been overshadowed by its ancient reputation for seeing — and repeating — what it should not. The Bible warns us of this time-worn tattletale who ‘may carry your words [and] report what you say’ (Ecclesiastes 10:20), and an old Basque legend paints the parrot as a perceptive bird, able to detect lies in children.
Today the parrot remains a beloved pet, but the privileged eye it casts over our human dramas, and its ability to replay the voices within them, has never diminished.
In 2006 in Leeds, Ziggy, an eight-year-old parrot belonging to a man named Chris, started making kissing sounds whenever the name Gary was spoken on TV, squawking out ‘Hiya Gary’ in imitation of his girlfriend Suzy’s voice when her mobile phone rang and, finally, proclaiming à la Suzy, ‘I love you, Gary!’ Gary, Chris realised, was Suzy’s ex-colleague — and current lover.
In 2016 in Kuwait, where infidelity is punishable by prison or hard labour, a wife brought in her bright-green rose-ringed parrot to the police, where he repeatedly mimicked her husband and their maid’s voices in what Al-Shahed newspaper reported as a ‘flirtatious exchange’.
A parrot proved to be a valuable crime witness in Sand Lake, Michigan, in 2015. Martin Duram and his wife, Glenna, were found shot — the former dead, the latter unconscious but alive. The sole witness was Martin’s parrot, Bud. The parents of the deceased overheard Bud yelling out an argument between Martin and Glenna (in their respective voices), finishing in Martin’s voice, ‘Don’t f—ing shoot!’ When Glenna awoke from her injury, she attested that she did not remember anything. After nearly a year of stalled investigations, Bud’s testimony helped lead to Glenna’s arrest.
Similarly, when Neelam Sharma and her dog were murdered in 2014 in Agra, India, the police were stumped. But then her husband noticed that their pet parrot, Hercule, would start screeching in panic at the mention of the name Ashutosh. When his nephew, Ashutosh, came to visit, things fell into place. During interrogation, Ashutosh confessed to killing his aunt when she had come across him trying to steal money and valuables from her home, and to stabbing the dog as it wouldn’t stop barking. He’d overlooked Hercule, watching silently in his cage.
Last year, Evie, another devoted parrot, who had gone missing for over three weeks, hailed a cab to get back to her owner, Peter Jackson, in Tamworth, Staffordshire, who had acquired the bird for company after his wife passed away.
And when Guillermo Reyes, aged forty-nine, was pulled over at a routine checkpoint in Mexico City, his pet parrot, perched on the back seat, yelled out, ‘He’s drunk, he’s drunk!’ Reyes indeed failed the sobriety test. The officer arrested the man, who confessed to intoxication, but pleaded not to be separated from the bird. Eventually, police let the parrot accompany Reyes to jail.
YELENA MOSKOVICH is a Ukrainian-born American author and playwright living in Paris. Her debut novel is The Natashas (Serpent’s Tail, 2016), and her plays have been produced in the US, Vancouver, Paris, and Stockholm. She’s never dreamt of parrots, but has worked in an office with one, named Romeo.