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Of Parrots, And All

Omar Chowdhury
3 May, 2005

NEW DELHI : Kakakaua, said by zoo officials to be India’s oldest parrot, has died at the age of 101 years in a zoo in the western state of Gujarat, the Times of India newspaper reported today, reports AFP.

The cockatoo was given by a former prince to the zoo in Junagarh town in 1925 when it was 30 years old, local officials were quoted as saying. It lived on roots, green vegetables and fruit.

“The only cause of death was old age”, a zoo official told the daily.

Now there is a discrepancy in the AFP report. Kakakaua is described first as a parrot, then as a cockatoo. This is hardly fair. Come on, AFP, a parrot is a parrot, and a cockatoo is a cockatoo, surely you can get that right! If kakakaua had guessed, before he passed into the parrot paradise promised him by his religion ornithologism, that he would posthumously be described as a cockatoo, he would have collapsed in a flurry of feathers before his time!

The parrot is among the truly noble birds. The parrot family consists of 314 species, including the famed macaw, whose plumage defies description, challenging the palette of any painter, and putting to shame the rainbow. But the Indian parrot is a versatile breed of bird, and has a very prominent part in history.

There have been many eminent patrons of the parrot. We have a somewhat conventional visual conception of the sailors of the olden time, with a parrot perched on a raised shoulder. These were trained talking parrots, which sometimes even conversed with their masters. They had sharp brains, and were keenly intelligent, some of them even possessed psychic powers, warning their old salts of looming dangers. “ Alarm, alarm”, a tar in the crow’s nest would yell, “sinister looking ship on the horizon!” Knowing better, with the help of his ten mile range of vision, the parrot would hiss in a cocked ear, “pay no attention He’s had too much rum this morning”.

Now pirates, when they first swept the Mediterranean, after the defeat of the fleet of the Ottoman Empire, developed a strict sense and practice of secrecy, careful in their confidences. Only their parrots were privy to their plans, and often were sound advisors. One immediately thinks of Long John Gold, whose exploits have thrilled millions of readers, young as well as elderly. Blue Treasure Of The Caribbean is a really bloodthirsty yarn, which still excites youngsters all over the world, in spite of their jaded, videoed, moronic, appetites for entertainment.

Another conventional visual concept of an unmarried woman, usually of advanced years, and denigrated as a ‘spinster’, is that of a lonely creature, who chooses to keep a pet, and the pet is either a cat, or a parrot, or both. These eccentric women, who give the impression that they have abjured the pleasures, and consequences, of sex, spend hours and hours teaching their parrots to talk. Visitors are sometimes greeted with a welcoming series of squaks : “Good evening, girls!” or : “Good evening, dear boys!”, the latter when relatives have sent their sons to pay duty calls. Other pleasantries are also vouchsafed guests, by polite parrots.

It is almost an accepted fact that many of the truly great heroes of history have been betrayed, or destroyed, by women whom they have adored, loved, and trusted. These hapless heroes appear never to have heard the golden maxim : Never trust a woman! There have, of course, been exceptions. Julius Caesar, who had a man-woman : woman-man personality, while resisting the maneuvers of Cleopatra, in the shadows of a watchful Sphinx, and hearing her say : “Oh Mighty Caesar, I shall give you Egypt, I shall never betray you, never!” Had the wisdom which only a Mighty Caesar could possibly possess, to reply, “I know you would never betray me, my dear, for the simple reason that I would never trust you”.

It has not been properly recorded whether owners of parrots ever kept the female of the a parrot ever betrayed its master. This great trait, loyalty, in parrots, has been a subject of deep study by ornithologists from the earliest times. Our old friend, Professor Screech, in his world famous book : Psychological Peculiarities Of The Parrot Through The Ages, available in a new six volume, paperback edition, published by Shrieker & Schreiber, New York, $88.99, gives a graphic account of parrot behaviuor. He does not, alas, provide us with details of their food preferences, but says that parrots can live to a ripe old age if they are careful with their diets. Kakakaua appears to have subsisted on roots vegetables, and fruit. No meat, obviously. Perhaps not even the tip of a finger, extended by a careless tourist, attempting a cares. But, what variety of roots? The curious nutritionist may demand to know. The authorities of the zoo in Gujerat may not easily be forthcoming. Bon appetite!

In a previous Essay, entitled Bird Feed, I wrote about a parrot which met a terrible fate, when after a five-course meal it was eaten by the intrepid canoe-crosser of the Atlantic Ocean. That unfortunate bird was not only a gourmet, but a foodaholic! Professor Screech gives many instances of parrots which became alcoholics. Among those which have become legends are admiral, which belonged to Lord Nelson, and was a steady imbiber of his Lordship’s beast brandy, and , of course, Ahoy, to which long John Gold was so attached that whenever the welcome cry : “Splice the mainbrace” rent the sea breeze, (the phrase means : Open the rum barrels), John and Ahoy would guzzle direct from a barrel, and not long afterwards, the crew, in various stages of intoxication themselves, would observe them flat out on deck, happily slurring the words of nostalgic sea songs, a favourite being : “Row me over the waves, Row me over the sea, Row me over to where My mermaid is waiting for me...”

I recall hearing from a friend the following anecdote of a real wino parrot in New York, who flapped into Charlie’s Basement Bar on 70th Street, just after closing time, when Charlie was busy polishing the pewter. He looked slightly surprised, and said to the stoned parrot : “Sorry, we’re closed”. The parrot looked boozily at Charlie and said : “Don’t give me that bird crap. Buddy, give me a whisky-sour, and pronto!”

Charlie did as he was bid. The parrot swallowed the drink in one gulp, and asked “How much?” Charlie repled : “Eight dollars, and Forty cents”. The parrot hiccupped, reached beneath a wing, and paid the guy. As he was about to take off, Charlie said : “Excuse me, sir, I’ve never seen a parrot in my Bar before, ordering a whisky-sour...” The parrot managed a steady glare and said. “Remember at those prices, But, you never will again!” and paddy the parrot flew out of the Bar, never to be seen again.

1 September, 1995.

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