The Things Birds Say!
By Elizabeth Wright
‘Bird Brains? No parrots are just as bright as apes.’ Experts from the Charles University in Prague declared that, ‘In many respects, these birds are now regarded as intellectual rivals of chimps, gorillas and orang-utans.’ Certainly many have played dramatic or amusing parts in their owner’s lives. Although an item printed in a Michigan newspaper in June 2006, under the heading ‘Will the parrot turn stool pigeon?’’probably overestimated this belief when it reported that Bud, an African grey parrot, the family pet of Martin and Glenna Duram, was being considered by the local police as a witness to his owner’s murder. During the investigation he began squawking and shouting “Don’t f***ing shoot,” which Martin Durham’s father believed were the last words uttered by his son.
My own talkative Amazon green parrot, called Lulu, caused the mass evacuation of nearby local shops by loudly screeching out, “Fire, fire, fire,” a word that she had picked up from a television drama the night before. Attending members of the fire brigade were less than amused; “Hoax call and trying to blame a defenceless bird,” was bandied about as the crew left in a huff, refusing to believe that the panicking public had been conned by vocal bundle of green feathers.
Romances have been broken; indiscretion by an African grey called Ziggy led to the parting of the ways by Chris Taylor and Suzie Collins. As they snuggled up together on the settee, Ziggy shattered this domestic harmony by uttering, in Miss Collin’s voice, “I love you Gary,” followed by loud kissing noises. The unidentified Gary turned out to have been a frequent secret visitor and lover of Miss Collins. It was not reported as to whether any further words of passion were uttered.
The 315 members of the parrot family have been kept as talking pets for centuries, certainly since the days of Ancient Greece, and possibly before. Legend has it that Hannibal, on his famous trek across the Alps in 218BC, took along not only his war elephants, but also his favourite talking green Indian ring-necked parakeet for company. In the early 1500s it is said that King Henry VII kept a pet African grey at Hampton Court and German naturalist, Johann Matthaus Bechstein wrote in 1774 that Cardinal Ascanius owned an African grey that could recite the Apostles’ Creed in an articulate manner.
Of all the parrots, the best talker is the red-tailed African grey (Psittacus erithacus); highly intelligent and possessing a superb memory capable of retaining an extensive vocabulary. A noteworthy chatterer was ‘Prudle’ a male belonging to Mrs. Lynn Logue, of Golders Green, London, which was listed in the Guinness Book of Records from the 1960s onwards as having a repertoire of over 1,000 words. A total show-off, he won the Best Talking Bird Award at the National Cage and Aviary Bird Exhibition for twelve consecutive years. His amusing additional party-piece was to hang upside down from the top of his cage, swing backwards and forwards, shouting “I’m a tick-tock, I’m a tick-tock.”
One of the most noteworthy and smartest African greys was ‘Alex,’ which had a limited vocabulary of around 100 words, but possessed the ability to show scientist Irene Pepperberg that he had not only the gift of actually understanding certain words, he could identify and name many shapes and colours with exceptional accuracy. If asked to tell the difference between two identical blue coloured keys, he was astute enough to reply “None.”
Parrots have even saved lives; painter and decorator Richard Stone from Chedder, in Somerset had good reason to be grateful to a talking bird. He drove his van up to an allotment opposite a caravan park and jumped out to open the gates. But he had forgotten to put the handbrake on and the van rolled forward, knocking him over and pinning him to the ground. It was getting dark and in spite of his cries for help, not a single person was in earshot. But Sonny, a handsome Scarlet Macaw, who was kept as a pet in a nearby mobile home, heard Richard Stone’s screams and decided to copy the sounds on a much larger scale. His screeching of “Help, please help me,” were heard by two caravan site workers who were convinced these desperate shouts of distress were of human origin. Che Moore, Sonny’s owner, said, “The men were working about 200 yards from the van, so they wouldn’t have heard his cries for help if Sonny hadn’t picked them up and repeated them. When they came over to see what was wrong they were close enough to hear Mr. Stone shouting. They managed to get the van off him, dusted him down and fortunately found that he had only minor leg injuries.”
Some years ago, Steve Nichols, of the National Parrot Sanctuary in Lincolnshire, stated in the media that a few of his 756 unwanted birds had been taught by previous owners, “language so foul that it is worse than you would get on a building site.” One parrot, Paco, had learnt a great deal of filthy language, much of it unrepeatable, but “Oi, fat arse, shift” and “I’ll get you, you fat cow” being some of his milder utterances. Another feathered resident loved to shout to passing women “Get your knickers off!” whilst his aviary partner could whistle the signature tune for EastEnders followed by, “Not that bloody programme again.”
Even budgerigars have had their linguistic moments. Little Pip Pip, a light green budgie, put his talking abilities to good use when he flew out of the window of his owner’s home and got lost. Barmaid Ruth Durbin found him perched in a tree at the bottom of her garden. As he hopped onto her hand he said, “I’m Pip Pip, I live at number seven Strawberry Close, Nailsea, got that? Whose a clever boy then?” As a result he was reunited with his owner, retired factory worker Arthur Bendon, who said, “Trying to get him to say Strawberry Close was difficult, he kept saying Sodbury Close at first. I spent months teaching his name and address, just in case something like this happened.”
Sparkie Williams is acknowledged as probably one of the best talking budgies ever. He was the much loved pet of Mrs Mattie Williams, who had bought him as a six week old baby bird in 1954. Under the caring tutoring of this ‘childless housewife with a husband, a perm, string of pearls and large framed glasses’ this new pet had, within three weeks learnt to say “Pretty Sparkie,” “Hi Puss” and his name and address because, as Mattie said, “This was just in case he got lost.” At the age of three and a half years this talented budgie won the BBC International Cage Word Contest, beating 3,000 other chatterers. He was courted by various companies and ‘signed up’ to front an advertising campaign for Caperns bird seed. Mattie Williams Geordie accent was exquisitely duplicated in “Mamma’s prrrecious birrrd, mamma’s little treasure, I love my mamma.” His voice was once described as ‘sounding like that of a middle-aged woman from Newcastle playing a polite Dalek.’ One of his favourite sayings was
“I’m just a little bird,
But I can talk and chat all day.
Nursery rhymes plainly can be heard.
I’m a clever little budgie, aren’t I, eh?”
Sadly he only lived to the age of eight, his last words as he lay dying in the cupped hands of his grieving owner were, “I love you Mamma.”
And it is not only Parrot type birds that have the ability to talk. Glossy black Hill Mynahs from India and Malaysia are credited as the finest talkers because their enunciation and tonal quality produces an almost perfect imitation of the human voice. We owned Maurice (Maurice Mynah, get it!) and he once got my poor aged father into trouble. Dad had a bad leg and liked to sit on a chair on our shop forecourt and watch the world go by. Maurice was often out there in his big cage vying for an audience with his non-stop chattering, he especially loved reciting nursery rhymes in a childlike voice. A pretty girl went by and Maurice suddenly changed vocals, broke off from a highly exaggerated rendering of ‘Humpty-Dumpty’ to let rip with another of his favourite sayings, “Cor, what a smasher,” followed by a loud wolf whistle. The resultant slap mark on my father’s face could be seen for days.
The better-known talkers are not the only ones capable of mimicking sounds;
Crows, rooks, magpies, jackdaws and ravens are all highly intelligent birds with conspicuous personalities and imitative talents. Apart from their natural vocabulary they often attempt to copy a wide range of noises. In his book, ‘Birds of the World,’ author Oliver L. Austin explains that crows have ‘the mental ability of a high order. Experiments with captive crows show they have considerable learning ability; that they can count up to three or four and learn to associate various noises and symbols with food…with patience captive ones can be taught to say a few words.’
A common crow I named Cocky, was a regular visitor to my garden bird table. For over a year he had an ongoing tetchy relationship with a feisty and somewhat aggressive male collared dove. When I put out food they would often both arrive to feed at the same time. In spite of his size and spiteful beak, Cocky was a bit of a wimp and retreated when threatened by a much smaller, but pugilistic rival. He would take refuge in an adjacent buddleia tree and violently bounce around in the branches like a spoilt child, uttering bad tempered grumbling noises. The dove, meanwhile would back up his foothold by fluffing up his feathers accompanied with a threatening display of bobbing and cooing. Not to be outdone, Cocky would, from a safe distance, retaliate with a rip-roaring outburst of presumably filthy crow language. Craftily he started to use his ability to mimic by copying the dove’s cooing noises. Confused, the dove would take off to seek out this upstart of a rival and Cocky would seize the opportunity to crash down on the bird feeder and grab some choice food. This ploy worked for a while but eventually the dove got wise to these dubious imitations and the stand-offs resumed.
And sometimes eloquent chatterers don’t talk when they could. I was invited way back in 1959 to take part in a popular TV programme of its time called ‘What’s My Line?’ Hosted by the affable Eamonn Andrews, a panel of four celebrities, Gilbert Harding, Louise Collins, Cyril Fletcher Fletcher and Lady Isobel Barnett, had to question guests to find out their job. I went along as a ‘bird manicurist’ and was asked to take along my two best talking birds. I was the last person to appear, and after I’d won a coveted ‘Beat The Panel’ diploma, my two chatterboxes, Lulu, the Amazon green parrot and Cocky, a Lesser Sulphur Crested cockatoo, were brought onto the stage by a member of staff. We had been through a rehearsal prior to this live show, and the birds had chatted away;. But that day things did not quite work out as we had arranged. Having been carefully placed on the desk in front of us, the duo, regulars at entertaining the public, would usually have started chatting away. But Cocky, the white cockatoo, a female, decided that she rather fancied Eamonn Andrews, climbed up his arm and started to nibble his ear. Lulu went to follow her pal, but tripped over one of the small microphones jutting out from the woodwork. Picking herself up she took revenge on this small length of metal by angrily attempting to tear it to pieces. The sound engineer nearly fainted as the grating noise of disintegrating equipment permeated his systems. This was live TV; I sat there with an idiotic forced grin on my face and felt so grateful to Eamonn for saving the day by stroking Lulu and encouraging Cocky to sit on his hand. The programme finished with a close up of the cockatoo showing off by flapping her wings and raising her bright yellow crest. This was a show remembered for a long time afterwards by millions of viewers simply because of the amusing entertainment the birds provided without saying a single word!
Elizabeth Wright—Family pets have won 4 x 1st; 4 x 2nd; 3 x 4th; 2 x 5th; 1x 6th in the Talking parrot classes at the National Bird Shows between 1959 and 1966. A past breeder and trainer of budgerigars. Appearances on TV and spots on radio with talented birds. Author of ‘Who’s a Chatty Boy Then?’Available from Amazon.