To prepare for writing Wolves and Deer, I read some of Dora Jordan’s letters to Prince William, Duke of Clarence, later William IV. Copies of these were available from The Huntington Library. It was easy to get access to the copies but not easy to read them. I’m losing the ability to read handwriting, or at least, old school handwriting. From what I could decipher, she was a faithful and warm correspondent with no inkling of the betrayal that was to come.
In one letter, she expresses concern for the family parrot, Polly. I was captivated by her concern for poor Polly, who seemed to be lonely and in need of a parrot companion which she planned to purchase. It made her seem both romantic and a little indulgent. Her children, it seems, had plenty of pets, and plenty of love. But what about the parrot? How did tropical parrots come to be popular pets stuck in a most un-tropical country–England? It all started with Columbus.
When he landed on San Salvador, the natives gave him a generous gift of 40 Bahaman parrots, a cultural icon. Upon his return to Spain, the parrots caused a stir and parrot exporting began immediately. Parrots were elevated to status symbols and considered a little bit of paradise for the rich to cherish, fawn over, and feature in their portraits. Amazons and macaws appear to have been among the most popular parrots. Royalty and clergy in particular prized them as pets. Some claimed that parrots were prophets! It is believed that Henry VIII had a parrot. Since the birds were exported from the caribbean across the seas, pirates probably did have parrots, although some sources say it is simply a fiction made popular by Treasure Island. It is believed that as far back as 1582, a pirate captain used parrots to bribe officials.
By the 1600s, parrots were so common in Spain that ornithologists stopped listing them as exotic birds. Parrots were commonly sold in London markets and many middle class families had one. As parrots became more common, they became less of a status symbol and more an agent of comedy. Their mocking of human speech was seen as entertaining. In literature, they became symbolic of an endearing, entertaining servant who was not too bright but well-meaning and sometimes insightful. Parrots in literature and sometimes in real life, often blurted out either the right thing (who the murderer was) or something inappropriate such as a string of cuss words. Owners viewed parrots as objects that a master could train and “subjugate.” To the most snobbish, parrots were associated with servants in that they could talk but were not too smart. Servants must not be human since even parrots can talk.
Playwright Ben Johnson was the first person to connect parrots and the name Polly.–a combination of parrot and Molly. Several US presidents, including George Washington, had parrots, often named Polly.
Why does Polly want a cracker? This is somewhat obscure. Pet birds were fed seeds and nuts and something called “german paste” that was a mixture of cooked grain, chopped eggs, and seeds. Minerals were added to birds’ diets by placing a rusty nail in the pet’s drinking water twice a week. Crackers were first introduced to the public in 1801 and commercial bird food in the 1840s. No doubt since both crackers and parrots were novelties in the early 1800s, Polly was often offered a cracker, especially in the days before bird food.
In the early 1900s, birds were the most popular indoor pet in the United States. Parakeets were the parrot of choice although songbirds and canaries in particular were much more en vogue, Today around three percent of homes in the US have a pet bird. In the UK, only 1% of all homes enjoy a pet bird. However, across the globe, parakeets remain one of the most popular pets.
Parrots are endangered and wild caught parrots make bad pets. Even parrots born in captivity can be a handful, although, there are some cool people out there who love them.
Parrots can get depressed and manifest this by screaming, biting, pulling out their feathers, and mutilating themselves.
One problem that owners can have with parrots is that a parrot will view the human as a love interest, want no other, and become sexually frustrated. I asked people I know to tell me their stories of parrots in their lives. The answers were a lively mixed bag of joys and sorrows.
“We kept his wings clipped so he spent most of the time on an open stand by his cage which he would go into by himself when wanted to. He knew the whole intro to The Days of our Lives and would sing along. We had a Husky that he would whistle for, call her name, then climb down from his perch and nip her on the nose, laughing as he climbed back up. My favorite thing was that he would imitate the smoke alarm whenever my wife would start cooking. Piss her off. Lol”
“My aunt had an African Grey parrot with many words. It was caged and not too messy. They lived in California. Her sister in law, from the Midwest taught it to say ‘Gen Dobry’ while visiting and it became a favorite expression after she left. Then her brother in law—also visiting from Chicago would whistle at the bird so when he left that is all Kukla would do after greeting you in Polish.”
This story belongs in a novel! “An African Grey, had belonged to a man who had lived a rough life including a stint in prison. Apparently the parrot picked up some colorful language. His new owners, the man a Presbyterian minister, were trying to teach him to say: “I’m a Presbyterian” so he could impress a gathering of Presbyterian pastors at their home. When the time came, they said: “Alex, say ‘I’m a Presbyterian!” And Alex said loudly and clearly: “F@#$ you!”. When I stayed with them, he would hear me get up in the morning and ask: “Wanna go outside and go potty?” When the phone rang, he answered: “Hello!” In the voice of one of his humans. And he yelled at the dogs!”
“Best friend and great company.”
One person mentioned “They produce a lot of manure, can bite hard, throw food and are noisy.”
Another said, “They do have lung issues – they can’t take drafts. We had one die without knowing that. And we had one with wings clipped, not a good idea either. Our new kitten got him.”
A friend of a parrot owner remembered this: “He jabbered away nonstop sometimes, often sounding like half of a telephone conversation, with all the inflections, but rarely using discernible words. He laughed like a maniac! While I cared for him he became very protective of me, sitting on my shoulder and sometimes flying at anyone who got too close to me. Once when perched on my shoulder, I moved too suddenly and must have startled him, because he grabbed my nose right between my nostrils and was actually HANGING from MY FACE! He often shared breakfast with me, scraping the top layer off my buttered toast. It was interesting to see him work his tongue around inside his mouth — it was like a black bean but the surface was like soft black leather. Looking back, I feel sorry for the bird. He was kind of anxious, and started pulling some of his feathers out. He’d pick at shoulders of his wings until it was like raw meat or hamburger. He had to wear the cone of shame while it healed, but then he’d do it all over again. He didn’t live all that long, probably owing to the access to a diet that was totally unnatural for him (buttered toast?). I’d never have one again, I really think it’s just wrong.”
Some parrot stories are more like horror tales: “Years ago I had one for a few months. Thing wouldn’t shut-up even when covered and was aggressive. Worse pet I ever had, couldn’t wait to get rid of it.”
“My grand-daughter had one and it almost ruined her marriage. All that noise in the morning! They bond to one person and this one was jealous. Yikes! I think she sold it back to the pet store. They live forever. It’s an amazing commitment. And yes, messy. If you let them out of their cages….well, you can extrapolate. Also, the beak is a lethal weapon! I never met the bird, but a cockatiel my nephew had took a shine to me and was nibbling on my hair which was really cute until I realized he also damaged my hollow gold hoop earring!”
“They’re flying wild birds, not domesticated. You have to clip their wings if you want them to be unable to live their instinctual life after they’ve been trapped in the jungle. Even those born and raised in a cage are still technically wild. You also need to take the case outside daily so they can get fresh air. They’re meant to live among dense foliage, so their lungs get miserable in our thin-aired homes.”
“We bought things at the estate auction of a couple who had owned an obnoxious parrot. Bought a box of books that included one on keeping parrots that the bird had pecked all to heck. We also bought a beautifully woven antique basket from the Southwest; the parrot had pecked up the rim😕
After the couple died, heirs had trouble getting anybody to take the parrot. The woman had had a deep, “smoker’s” voice, and the bird sounded like her loudly saying “A..hole!! A..hole!!” a LOT. Think they finally persuaded a granddaughter to take the ornery thing.😜”
As a child, I had a parakeet, a tiny parrot native to Australia. He was a delightful but messy little thing who lived longer than the dog we got around the same time. Imitating my Mom, he often called for the cat, which, thankfully, ignored him.
Parrots are a huge commitment. We must remember that Dora Jordan and Prince William had numerous servants to clean up after Polly. And although he was incompetent at almost everything he did, William was once a sailor and having a parrot might have been a part of his image. I can imagine him teaching it swear words and laughing–he was that kind of guy. Dora’s worries about Polly preceded her betrayal by William by a couple of years. Is it possible that Polly knew something was afoot and that soon the lives of Dora and her family would be upset forever? Who knows what William was up to as Dora was off earning money to pay the family bills? One thing we do know, he wasn’t looking for a companion for his parrot. That, and most everything else, was left to Dora.
To read more about parrots as British pets in the 1700 and 1800s, click here.
To learn more about parrots in literature, read here, although it doesn’t mention Flaubert’s Parrot.
I am grateful for the article “Men, monkeys, lap-dogs, parrots perish all” by Bruce Boehrer, published in Modern Language Quarterly (June 1998) for the information linking parrots, servants, and discrimination. He has an entire book about Parrot Culture.