I am not an admirer of pet parrots. To me, and I have made the discovery that to many others too, it is a depressing experience, on a first visit to nice people, to find that a parrot is a member of the family. As a rule he is the most important member. When I am compelled to stand in the admiring circle, to look on and to listen while he exhibits his weary accomplishments, it is but lip service that I render: my eyes are turned inward, and a vision of a green forest comes before them resounding with the wild, glad, mad cries of flocks of wild parrots. This is done purposely, and the sound which I mentally hear and the sight of their vari-coloured plumage in the dazzling sunlight are a corrective, and keep me from hating the bird before me because of the imbecility of its owners. In his proper place, which is not in a tin cage in a room of a house, he is to be admired above most birds; and I wish I could be where he is living his wild life; that I could have again a swarm of parrots, angry at my presence, hovering above my head and deafening me with their outrageous screams. But I cannot go to those beautiful distant places—I must be content with an image and a memory of things seen and heard, and with the occasional sight of a bird, or birds, kept by some intelligent person; also with an occasional visit to the Parrot House in Regent's Park. There the uproar, when it is at its greatest, when innumerable discordant voices, shrill and raucous, unite in one voice and one great cry, and persons of weak nerves stop up their ears and fly from such a pandemonium, is highly exhilarating.
Of the most interesting captive parrots I have met in recent years I will speak here of two. The first was a St Vincent bird, Chrysotis guildingi, brought home with seven other parrots of various species by Lady Thompson, the wife of the then Administrator of the Island. This is a handsome bird, green, with blue head and yellow tail, and is a member of an American genus numbering over forty species. He received his funny specific name in compliment to a clergyman who was a zealous collector not of men's souls, but of birds' skins. To ornithologists this parrot is interesting on account of its rarity. For the last thirty years it has existed in small numbers; and as it is confined to the island of St Vincent it is feared that it may become extinct at no distant date. Altogether there are about five hundred species of parrots in the world, or about as many parrots as there are species of birds of all kinds in Europe, from the great bustard, the hooper swan, and golden eagle, to the little bottle-tit whose minute body, stript of its feathers, may be put in a lady's thimble. And of this multitude of parrots the St Vincent Chrysotis, if it still exists, is probably the rarest.
The parrot I have spoken of, with his seven travelling companions, arrived in England in December, and a few days later their mistress witnessed a curious thing. On a cold grey morning they were enjoying themselves on their perches in a well-warmed room in London, before a large window, when suddenly they all together emitted a harsh cry of alarm or terror—the sound which they invariably utter on the appearance of a bird of prey in the sky, but at no other time. Looking up quickly she saw that snow in big flakes had begun to fall. It was the birds' first experience of such a phenomenon, but they had seen and had been taught to fear something closely resembling falling flakes—flying feathers to wit. The fear of flying feathers is universal among species that are preyed upon by hawks. In a majority of cases the birds that exhibit terror and fly into cover or sit closely have never actually seen that winged thunderbolt, the peregrine falcon, strike down a duck or pigeon, sending out a small cloud of feathers; or even a harrier or sparrow-hawk pulling out and scattering the feathers of a bird it has captured, but a tradition exists among them that the sight of flying feathers signifies danger to bird life.
When I was in the young barbarian stage, and my playmates were gaucho boys on horseback on the pampas, they taught me to catch partridges in their simple way with a slender cane twenty to twenty-five feet long, a running noose at its tip made from the fine pliant shaft of a rhea's wing feather. The bird was not a real partridge though it looks like it, but was the common or spotted tinamou of the plains, Nothura maculosa, as good a table bird as our partridge. Our method was, when we flushed a bird, to follow its swift straight flight at a gallop, and mark the exact spot where it dropped to earth and vanished in the grass, then to go round the spot examining the ground until the tinamou was detected in spite of his protective colouring sitting close among the dead and fading grass and herbage. The cane was put out, the circle narrowed until the small noose was exactly over the bird's head, so that when he sprang into the air on being touched by the slender tip of the cane he caught and strangled himself. To make the bird sit tight until the noose was actually over his head, we practised various tricks, and a very common one was, on catching sight of the close-squatting partridge, to start plucking feathers from a previously-killed bird hanging to our belt and scatter them on the wind. Sometimes we were saved the trouble of scattering feathers when we were followed by a pair of big carrion hawks on the look-out for an escaped bird or for any trifle we throw to them to keep them with us. The effect was the same in both cases; the sight of the flying feathers was just as terrifying as that of the big hovering hawks, and caused the partridge to sit close.
This way of taking the tinamou may seem unsportsmanlike. Well, if I were a boy in a wild land again—with my present feelings about bird life, I mean—I should not do it. Nor would I shoot them; for I take it that the gun is the deadliest instrument our cunning brains have devised to destroy birds in spite of their bright instinct of self-preservation, their faculty of flight, and their intelligence. It is a hundred times more effective than the boy-on-horseback's long cane with its noose made of an ostrich feather—therefore more unsportsmanlike.
To return. The resemblance of falling flakes to flying white feathers does not deceive birds accustomed to the sight of snow: it is very striking, nevertheless, and so generally recognised that most persons in Europe have heard of the old woman plucking her geese in the sky. It is curious to find the subject discussed in Herodotus. In Book IV. he says: "The Scythians say that those lands which are situated in the northernmost parts of their territories are neither visible nor practicable by reason of the feathers that fall continually on all sides; for the earth is so entirely covered, and the air is so full of these feathers, that the sight is altogether obstructed." Further on he says: "Touching the feathers ... my opinion is that perpetual snows fall in those parts, though probably in less quantity during the summer than in winter, and whoever has observed great abundance of snow falling will easily comprehend what I say, for snow is not unlike feathers."
Probably the Scythians had but one word to designate both. To go back to the St Vincent parrot. Concerning a bird of that species I have heard, and cannot disbelieve, a remarkable story. During the early years of the last century a gentleman went out from England to look after some landed property in the island, which had come to him by inheritance, and when out there he paid a visit to a friend who had a plantation in the interior. His friend was away when he arrived, and he was conducted by a servant into a large, darkened, cool room; and, tired with his long ride in the hot sun, he soon fell asleep in his chair. Before long a loud noise awoke him, and from certain scrubbing sounds he made out that a couple of negro women were engaged in washing close to him, on the other side of the lowered window blinds, and that they were quarrelling over their task. Of course the poor women did not know that he was there, but he was a man of a sensitive mind and it was a torture to him to have to listen to the torrents of exceedingly bad language they discharged at one another. It made him angry. Presently his friend arrived and welcomed him with a hearty hand-shake and asked him how he liked the place. He answered that it was a very beautiful place, but he wondered how his friend could tolerate those women with their tongues so close to his windows. Women with their tongues! What did he mean? exclaimed the other in great surprise. He meant, he said, those wretched nigger washerwomen outside the window. His host thereupon threw up the blind and both looked out: no living creature was there except a St Vincent parrot dozing on his perch in the shaded verandah. "Ah, I see, the parrot!" said his friend. And he apologised and explained that some of the niggers had taken advantage of the bird's extraordinary quickness in learning to teach him a lot of improper stuff.
Another parrot, which interested me more than the St Vincent bird, was a member of the same numerous genus, a double-fronted amazon, Chrysotis lavalainte, a larger bird, green with face and fore-part of head pure yellow, and some crimson colour in the wings and tail. I came upon it at an inn, the Lamb, at Hindon, a village in the South Wiltshire downs. One could plainly see that it was a very old bird, and, judging from the ragged state of its plumage, that it had long fallen into the period of irregular or imperfect moult—"the sere, the yellow leaf" in the bird's life. It also had the tremor of the very aged—man or bird. But its eyes were still as bright as polished yellow gems and full of the almost uncanny parrot intelligence. The voice, too, was loud and cheerful; its call to its mistress—"Mother, mother!" would ring through the whole rambling old house. He talked and laughed heartily and uttered a variety of powerful whistling notes as round and full and modulated as those of any grey parrot. Now, all that would not have attracted me much to the bird if I had not heard its singular history, told to me by its mistress, the landlady. She had had it in her possession fifty years, and its story was as follows:—
Her father-in-law, the landlord of the Lamb, had a beloved son who went off to sea and was seen and heard of no more for a space of fourteen years, when one day he turned up in the possession of a sailor's usual fortune, acquired in distant barbarous lands—a parrot in a cage! This he left with his parents, charging them to take the greatest care of it, as it was really a very wonderful bird, as they would soon know if they could only understand its language, and he then began to make ready to set off again, promising his mother to write this time and not to stay away more than five or at most ten years.
Meanwhile, his father, who was anxious to keep him, succeeded in bringing about a meeting between him and a girl of his acquaintance, one who, he believed, would make his son the best wife in the world. The young wanderer saw and loved, and as the feeling was returned he soon married and endowed her with all his worldly possessions, which consisted of the parrot and cage. Eventually he succeeded his father as tenant of the Lamb, where he died many years ago; the widow was grey when I first knew her and old like her parrot; and she was like the bird too in her youthful spirit and the brilliance of her eyes.
Her young sailor had picked up the bird at Vera Cruz in Mexico. He saw a girl standing in the market place with the parrot on her shoulder. She was talking and singing to the bird, and the bird was talking, whistling, and singing back to her—singing snatches of songs in Spanish. It was a wonderful bird, and he was enchanted and bought it, and brought it all the way back to England and Wiltshire. It was, the girl had told him, just five years old, and as fifty years had gone by it was, when I first knew it, or was supposed to be, fifty-five. In its Wiltshire home it continued to talk and sing in Spanish, and had two favourite songs, which delighted everybody, although no one could understand the words. By and by it took to learning words and sentences in English, and spoke less in Spanish year after year until in about ten to twelve years that language had been completely forgotten. Its memory was not as good as that of Humboldt's celebrated parrot of the Maipures, which had belonged to the Apures tribe before they were exterminated by the Caribs. Their language perished with them, only the long-living parrot went on talking it. This parrot story took the fancy of the public and was re-told in a hundred books, and was made the subject of poems in several countries—one by our own "Pleasures of Hope" Campbell.
Nevertheless I thought it would be worth while trying a little Spanish on old Polly of the Lamb, and thought it best to begin by making friends. It was of little use to offer her something to eat. Poll was a person who rather despised sweeties and kickshaws. It had been the custom of the house for half a century to allow Polly to eat what she liked and when she liked, and as she—it was really a he—was of a social disposition she preferred taking her meals with the family and eating the same food. At breakfast she would come to the table and partake of bacon and fried eggs, also toast and butter and jam and marmalade, at dinner it was a cut off the joint with (usually) two vegetables, then pudding or tart with pippins and cheese to follow. Between meals she amused herself with bird seed, but preferred a meaty mutton-bone, which she would hold in one hand or foot and feed on with great satisfaction. It was not strange that when I held out food for her she took it as an insult, and when I changed my tactics and offered to scratch her head she lost her temper altogether, and when I persisted in my advances she grew dangerous and succeeded in getting in several nips with her huge beak, which drew blood from my fingers.
It was only then, after all my best blandishments had been exhausted, and when our relations were at their worst, that I began talking to her in Spanish, in a sort of caressing falsetto like a "native" girl, calling her "Lorito" instead of Polly, coupled with all the endearing epithets commonly used by the women of the green continent in addressing their green pets. Polly instantly became attentive. She listened and listened, coming down nearer to listen better, the one eye she fixed on me shining like a fiery gem. But she spoke no word, Spanish or English, only from time to time little low inarticulate sounds came from her. It was evident after two or three days that she was powerless to recall the old lore, but to me it also appeared evident that some vague memory of a vanished time had been evoked—that she was conscious of a past and was trying to recall it. At all events the effect of the experiment was that her hostility vanished, and we became friends at once. She would come down to me, step on to my hand, climb to my shoulder, and allow me to walk about with her.
It saddened me a few months later to receive a letter from her mistress announcing Polly's death, on 2nd December 1909.
I have thought since that this bird, instead of being only five years old when bought, was probably aged twenty-five years or more. Naturally, the girl who had been sent into the market-place to dispose of the bird would tell a possible buyer that it was young; the parrots one wants to buy are generally stated to be five years old. However, it may be that the bird grew old before its time on account of its extraordinary dietary. The parrot may have an adaptive stomach, still, one is inclined to think that half a century of fried eggs and bacon, roast pork, boiled beef and carrots, steak and onions, and stewed rabbit must have put a rather heavy strain on its system.
Many parrots have lived longer than Polly in captivity, long as her life was; and here it strikes me as an odd circumstance that Polly's specific name was bestowed on the species, the double-fronted amazon, as a compliment to the distinguished French ornithologist, La Valainte, who has himself recorded the greatest age to which a captive parrot has been known to attain. This bird was the familiar African grey species. He says that it began to lose its memory at the age of sixty, to moult irregularly at sixty-five, that it became blind at ninety, and died aged ninety-three.
We may well believe that if parrots are able to exist for fifty years to a century in the unnatural conditions in which they are kept, caged or chained in houses, over-fed, without using their enormously-developed wing-muscles, the constant exercise of which must be necessary to perfect health and vigour, their life in a state of nature must be twice as long.
To return to parrots in general. This bird has perhaps more points of interest for us than any other of the entire class: his long life, unique form, and brilliant colouring, extreme sociability, intelligence beyond that of most birds, and, last, his faculty of imitating human speech more perfectly than the birds of other families.
The last is to most persons the parrot's greatest distinction; to me it is his least. I do not find it so wonderful as the imitative faculty of some mocking birds or even of our delightful little marsh-warbler, described in another book. This may be because I have never had the good fortune to meet with a shining example, for we know there is an extraordinary difference in the talking powers of parrots, even in those of the same species—differences as great, in fact, as we find in the reasoning faculty between dog and dog, and in the songs of different birds of the same species. Not once but on several occasions I have heard a song from some common bird which took my breath away with astonishment. I have described in another book certain blackbirds of genius I have encountered. And what a wonderful song that caged canary in a country inn must have had, which tempted the great Lord Peterborough, a man of some shining qualities, to get the bird from its mistress, an old woman who loved it and refused to sell it to him, by means of a dishonest and very mean trick. Denied the bird, he examined it minutely and went on his way. In due time he returned with a canary closely resembling the one he wanted in size, colour, and markings, concealed on his person. He ordered dinner, and when the good woman was gone from the room to prepare it, changed his bird for hers, then, having had his meal, went on his way rejoicing. Still he was curious to learn the effect of his trick, and whether or not she had noticed any difference in her loved bird; so, after a long interval, he came once more to the inn, and seeing the bird in its cage in the old place began to speak in praise of its beautiful singing as he had heard it and remembered it so well. She replied sadly that since he listened to and wanted to buy it an unaccountable change had come over her bird. It was silent for a spell, perhaps sick, but when it resumed singing its voice had changed and all the beautiful notes which everyone admired were lost. The great man expressed his regret, and went away chuckling at his deliciously funny joke.
The ordinary talking parrot is no more to me than the ordinary or average canary, piping his thin expressionless notes; he is a prodigy I am pleased not to know. On the other hand there are numerous authenticated cases of parrots possessed of really surprising powers, and it was doubtless the mimicking powers of such birds of genius which suggested such fictions as that of the Totá Kuhami in the East; and in Europe, Gresset's lively tale of Vert Vert and the convent nuns.
It was perhaps a parrot of this rare kind which played so important a part in the early history of South America. It is nothing but a legend of the Guarani nation, which inhabit Paraguay, nevertheless I do believe that we have here an account mainly true of an important event in the early history of the race or nation. This parrot is not the impossible bird of the fictitious Totá Kahami order we all know, who not only mimics our speech but knows the meaning of the words he utters. He was nothing but a mimic, exceptionally clever, and the moral of the story is the familiar one that great events may proceed from the most trivial causes, once the passions of men are inflamed.
The tradition was related centuries ago to the Jesuit Fathers in Paraguay, and I give it as they tell it, briefly.
In the beginning a great canoe came over the waters from the east and was stranded on the shores of Brazil. Out of the canoe came the brothers Tupi and Guarani and their sons and daughters with their husbands and wives and their children and children's children.
Tupi was the leader, and being the eldest was called the father, and Tupi said to his brother: Behold, this great land with all its rivers and forests, abounding in fish and birds and beasts and fruit, is ours, for there are no other men dwelling in it; but we are few in number, let us therefore continue to live together with our children in one village.
Guarani consented, and for many years they lived together in peace and amity like one family, until at last there came a quarrel to divide them. And it was all about a parrot that could talk and laugh and sing just like a man. A woman first found it in the forest, and not wishing to burden herself with the rearing of it she gave it to another woman. So well did it learn to talk from its new mistress that everybody admired it and it grew to be the talk of the village.
Then the woman who had found and brought it, seeing how much it was admired and talked about, went and claimed it as her own. The other refused to give it up, saying that she had reared it and had taught it all it knew, and by doing so had become its rightful owner.
Now, no person could say which was in the right, and the dispute was not ended and tongues continued wagging until the husbands of the two women became engaged in the quarrel. And then brothers and sisters and cousins were drawn into it, until the whole village was full of bitterness and strife, all because of the parrot, and men of the same blood for the first time raised weapons against one another. And some were wounded and others killed in open fight, and some were treacherously slain when hunting in the forest.
Now when things had come to this pass Tupi the Father, called his brother to him and said: O brother Guarani, this is a day of grief to us who had looked to the spending of our remaining years together with all our children at this place where we have lived so long. Now this can no longer be on account of the great quarrel about a parrot, and the shedding of blood; for only by separating our two families can we save them from destroying one another. Come then, let us divide them and lead them away in opposite directions, so that when we settle again they may be far apart. Guarani consented, and he also said that Tupi was the elder and their head, and was called the Father, and it was therefore in his right to remain in possession of the village and of all that land and to end his days in it. He, on his part, would call his people together and lead them to a land so distant that the two families would never see nor hear of each other again, and there would be no more bitter words and strife between them.
Then the two old brothers bade each other an eternal farewell, and Guarani led his people south a great distance and travelled many moons until he came to the River Paraguay, and settled there; and his people still dwell there and are called by his name to this day.
Only, I beg to add, they do not call their nation by that word, as the Spanish colonists first spelt it in their carelessness, and as they pronounce it. Heaven knows how we pronounce it! They, the Guarani people, call themselves Wä-rä-nä-eé, in a soft musical voice. Also they call their river, which we spell Paraguay, and pronounce I don't know how, Pä-rä-wä-eé.
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