Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Me When I Start Wondering About The Longest Utterance Ever Produced By A Parrot

Psittalinguistics: The Science of Talking Birds. This Being a Brief History of That Subject Along With Diverse Examples from the Archives of the Bergen Institute of Cultural Parrotology. (Third Revision of a Work in Progress.) Dedicated With Gratitude to Robert Burton.

A parrot, it has been alleged, was responsible for planting many of the more heinous perversions in the head of Tiberius, the most depraved of the Caesars, this after the bird had had read aloud to him (by a sociopathic dwarf tutor in the Caesar's employ) from an early and particularly pernicious primer in lechery. (See: A. Towson Dandridge, A Psychological Portrait of the Tyrants of Antiquity, Stanhope and Adelman, Manchester. 1949.)

We also learn, in Dr. Renata Steenblom's Unnatural Nature (University of Winnipeg, 1963), of a parrot that was allegedly capable of divining --and divulging at inopportune moments-- the innermost secrets of its mistress, including sexual fantasies of a shockingly explicit nature. The bird was notorious for regaling unsuspecting visitors with a tortuous impression of the poor woman's whinnying orgasm.

According to Fr. Xavier Empson's Curiosities of Catholicism and Marvels of Mariolotry (Eternal Image Press, Skokie, Illinois. 1957), there was, once upon a time, a parrot belonging to a tavern owner in a small village in Italy, and this bird was renowned for its ability to recite the Rosary (in Latin) in its entirety. One day, Empson recounts, the bird solemnly proclaimed, "It is the will of God, and I am but His humble servant," and promptly fell over dead.

From the pages of the children's magazine, Highlights, we learn of an unassuming insurance adjustor and confirmed bachelor in Dallas, Texas who purchased a blue-fronted parrot which, upon being installed in the man's home, was discovered to have committed a number of Faron Young songs to memory. The bird was capable of singing these songs in their entirety, and in a passable impersonation of the country legend's voice.

The annals of parrotology are full of similar wonders, from the ancient world to the modern. In a little known short story by the Russian writer, Gogol, a bird is called upon to testify in a court of law as a material witness to its master's infidelity.

There is an obscure novel, Lucifer's Bird, by a Depression-era Georgia writer by the name of Ernest Winter, which featured a talking parrot that was believed to be possessed by Satan. The bird's sinister commands and insinuations lead a God-fearing local deacon to engage in acts of depravity that shake a small southern town to its core. William Faulkner reportedly attempted a screenplay of this novel for Charles Laughton, but there is apparently no surviving evidence of this aborted project.

In the days before teleprompters, one often heard stories of Catskill comedians in their dotage who resorted to being fed their lines by parrots, which were perched on stage in full view of the audience. One such bird, Ezra, was said to be such a quick-witted master of improvisation that in time it became an actual and valued partner to the comedian Dickie Knickers. Before it eventually passed away from advanced years (the bird survived the old comedian by more than a decade), the parrot had established itself as a successful solo act --if something of a novelty-- in its own right.

The early blues musician Ishman Bracey is another performer who was alleged to have used a parrot as a prompt, often, some accounts allege, after Bracey had become so inebriated that he could no longer remember the words to his songs.

There was a minor dust-up in academia in the 1950s when a man named J. Richard Stevens published portions of his doctoral dissertation in a then reputable scholarly journal. Stevens' thesis, which was immediately and loudly discredited, was that a number of Emily Dickinson's poems had been almost literal transcriptions of the utterances of her beloved parrot, Desdemona.

In the early days of television, talking birds were often used to provide voiceover narration for cartoons, largely in an attempt to cut costs and circumvent union restrictions. The practice apparently continues --albeit somewhat clandestinely-- to this day, most prominently in the dubbing of low-budget animated films from Asia.

The debate over animal cognition, featuring Dr. Irene Pepperberg's famous gray parrot, Alex: Dr Pepperberg's pioneering studies with Alex proved conclusively that the prevailing and pejorative notion of a "bird brain," is grounded in ignorance. Many birds --parrots most particularly-- have very large brains indeed, and possess a cognitive sophistication that is as wondrous as it is little understood. Dr. Pepperberg's work with Alex is almost as important and influential as the better-known work on animal communication and referential speech that has been conducted on the great apes.

Alex's obituary from the New York Times.

The Yellow Naped parrot, the most virtuosic and versatile of the Amazonian talking parrots, can often master an impressive vocabulary of upwards of eight hundred words, and is also capable of singing, dancing, whistling, and doing uncanny impersonations of animals and household appliances.

Double Yellow Head parrots have long been recognized as accomplished opera singers, with extraordinary range. They are among the more excitable and motor-mouthed of talking birds. (See: Robert T. Nicolai, Caruso in a Cage: The Incredible True Story of Sergei, the World's Most Famous Singing Parrot, Bristol House, 1983.)

Budgerigars have been known to have vocabularies in excess of one thousand words. One such parrot, Victor, purportedly demonstrated that birds are capable of engaging in actual conversation, and was alleged to be an influential teacher and mentor to many other birds. Victor, according to its owner, presided over a de facto academy for talking birds, and a lexicon of the parrot's impressive vocabulary, along with an archive of its recordings, can be found on the Internet.

N'Kisi, a New York parrot with an almost 600-word vocabulary and psychic abilities, is purportedly capable of reading the thoughts of visitors.

There have been innumerable documented cases of talking parrots thwarting robberies, as well as engaging in espionage. 

Pretty much unrelated, but I want one: Nothing talks louder than a bird pistol, even if, strictly speaking, it does not utter a word.

Bryce Hunt, a PhD student at New York University, is compiling an exhaustive, annotated collection of talking bird samples and other recorded utterances in popular music, with an emphasis on hip hop. Hunt has been promising for six months to send me a copy of his findings to date, but I have yet to receive this research. I can attest, however, that in December of last year --in the young man's Brooklyn apartment-- I reviewed a sample introduction to Hunt's thesis and found its scholarship impressive.

Other literary examples:

Eudora Welty's, The Shoe Bird

Excerpt from John Skelton's 16th century poem, "Speke Parrot,"

Flaubert's "Un Coeur Simple." (See also: Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot)

Somewhere in the works of Balzac (and I have thus far been unable to find the source of this story, although I maintain a clear memory of it nonetheless) there is a parrot that recites "The Lord's Prayer."

There is also, of course, the foul-mouthed parrot in Errol Stanley Garner's, The Case of the Perjured Parrot.

More recently: Joe Coomer's The Loop, which features a home invasion by an elderly parrot given to cryptic utterances.

“In the seventh century, Shui Shi Tu Jing published the Book of Hydraulic Elegancies. Indeed, one continually finds descriptions of such technological wonders as mechanical flying doves, dancing apes, and talking parrots in the literatures of Islamic nations, India, China, and Greece. In fourteenth century Florence, it was none other than Filippo Brunelleschi who designed a mechanical stage to bring Paradise to life.”

--Oliver Grau, "History of Telepresence: Automata, Illusion, and Rejecting the Body."
“This defect or imperfection that stands in the way of man's communicating with animals, why isn't it as much our fault as theirs? For we don't understand them any more than they understand us.”
--Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebond"
“Yet the animals are not incapable of being taught also in our way. Blackbirds, ravens, magpies, and parrots we teach to speak; and that facility with which we see them rendering their voice and breath so supple and manageable for us, to form and constrain it to a certain number of letters and syllables, testifies that they have an inward power of reason which makes them so teachable and determined to learn.”

--Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebond"
“This story of the magpie, for which we have Plutarch himself as sponsor, is strange. She was in a barber's shop in Rome, and did wonders in imitating with her voice all that she heard. One day it happened that certain trumpeters stopped and blew a long time in front of this shop. After that and all the next day here was this magpie pensive, mute, and melancholy, at which everyone marveled, and thought that the sound of the trumpets had stunned and deafened her, and that her voice had been snuffed out together with her hearing. But they found in the end that it was a profound study and a withdrawal within herself, while her mind was practicing and preparing her voice to represent the sound of these trumpets; so that the first voice she used was that one, expressing perfectly their runs, pitches, and variations; and for this new acquirement she abandoned and scorned all she had learned to say before."

--Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebond"
“An old Danish shipowner sat and thought of his young days and of how he had, when he was sixteen years old, spent a night in a brothel in Singapore. He had come in there with the sailors of his father's ship, and he had sat and talked with an old Chinese woman. When she heard that he was a native of a distant country she brought out an old parrot, that belonged to her. Long, long ago, she told him, the parrot had been given to her by a highborn English lover of her youth. The boy thought that the bird must then be a hundred years old. It could say various sentences in the languages of the world, picked up in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the house. But one phrase the old China-woman's lover had taught it before he sent it to her, and that she did not understand, neither had any visitor ever been able to tell her what it meant. So now for many years she had given up asking. But if the boy came from far away perhaps it was his language, and he could interpret the phrase to her.

"The boy had been deeply, strangely moved at the suggestion. When he looked at the parrot, and thought that he might hear Danish from that terrible beak, he very nearly ran out of the house. He stayed on only to do the old Chinese woman a service. But when she made the parrot speak its sentence, it turned out to be classic Greek. The bird spoke its words very slowly, and the boy knew enough Greek to recognize it; it was a verse from Sappho:

"The moon has sunk and the Pleiads,

And midnight is gone,

And the hours are passing, passing,

And I lie alone.

"The old woman, when he translated the lines to her, smacked her lips and rolled her small slanting eyes. She asked him to say it again, and nodded her head.”

--Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

1 comment:

  1. Someone should make a book out of this