Friday, March 21, 2008

How could a parrot NOT love the Baroness of Grosbeke?

My parrot, Barney, alongside the parrot from Jan Steen’s ‘The Effects of Intemperance’ (who is being given a sip of wine: a beaker full of the warm south, as Keats would say). Barney turned up at the local pet-shop, an exile from his first home, and in need of a new owner. He is reportedly six or seven, and, yes, he talks: a bird-brained tape of his first household ‘Get out the way!’ ‘Come on!’ and the like, and in his repertoire of noises, their telephone and the growling of their dog, his old enemy.

In early modern terms he appears to be:

“VII. Aldrovandus his ash-coloured or bluish Parrot.

This according to Aldrovandus is ten inches long: Of the bigness of a tame Pigeon, or the common green Parrot. The Bill is black: The Nosthrils near to one another, in the upper part of the Bill next to the Head; which part is covered with a naked white skin [we afterwards observed the same figure and situation of the Nosthrils in all other Parrots.] The whole body is of an uniform colour, viz. a dark cinereous: Yet the lower part of the Back and Belly and the Rump are paler than the rest of the body, and almost white. The Tail is red of a Vermilion colour, very short, and scarce reaching further than the ends of the Wings. The region of the Eyes [sides of the head round the Eyes] is white and bare of feathers. The feathers of the Head and Neck are shorter than the others. They say that all of this kind are brought from Mina, an Indian City of St. Georges. We have seen many of them at London.

In my photograph he is eating his chief gustatory delight, a piece of a digestive biscuit. Here is John Ray’s edition of The ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the county of Warwick Esq, fellow of the Royal Society in three books (1678) discussing those clever parrot feet:

“The Feet are of a singular fashion, for they have not three Toes standing forward and one backward, but two each way, like Woodpeckers. Jo. Faber, in his Expositions of Nardi Antonio Recchi his Animals found in New Spain, hath noted and observed concerning the Toes of Parrots something not mentioned by any Author, viz. That when they walk, climb up, or descend down the sides of their Cages, they stretch two of their Toes forward, and two backward; but when they take their meat, and bring it to their mouths, they make use of three Toes to hold it till they have eaten it up. Yea, (which may seem wonderful) they do so dexterously and nimbly turn the greater hind-toe forward and backward, that on sight of it you would confess your self not to know, whether it were given them by Nature to be used as a fore-toe in feeding, or a back-toe in walking.”

It is the happiness of the parrot to be, like small children or drunks, the regular source of a fund of anecdote:

“They do not only imitate mans voice, but in wit excell all other birds, as Aldrovandus proves by many Histories and examples. I shall not think much to set down one very pleasant story, which Gesner saith was told him by a certain friend, of a Parrot, which fell out of King Henry VIII. his Palace at Westminster into the River of Thames that runs by, and then very seasonably remembring the words it had often heard some whether in danger or in jest use, cried out amain, A Boat, a Boat, for twenty pound. A certain experienced Boatman made thither presently, took up the Bird, and restored it to the King, to whom he knew it belonged, hoping for as great a reward as the Bird had promised. The King agreed with the Boatman that he should have as the Bird being asked anew should say: And the Bird answers, Give the Knave a Groat.

CHAP. V. * Clusius his Discourse and Account of Parrots.

The Noble Philip Marnixius of St. Aldegond had a Parrot, whom I have oft heard laugh like a man, when he was by the by-standers bidden so to do in the French Tongue, in these words: Riez, Perroquet, riez; that is, Laugh, Parrot, laugh. Yea, which was more wonderful, it would presently add in the French Tongue, as if it had been endued with reason, but doubtless so taught, O le grand sot, qui me faict rire; that is, O great fool, who makes me laugh: And was wont to repeat those words twice or thrice. But among others I saw one of those great ones in the house of the illustrious Lady, Mary of Bremeu, Dutchess of Croy and Areschot, of happy memory, before she went out of Holland, the like whereto for variety and elegancy of colours, I do not remember to have ever seen. For though almost all the feathers covering the body were red, yet the feathers of the Tail (which were very long) were partly red, and partly blue; but those on the Back and Wings particoloured of yellow, red, and green, with a mixture also of blue. Its Head about the Eyes was white and varied with waved black lines, like the Head of the Canida. I do not remember the like Parrot described in any Author. Moreover, this Bird was so in love with Anna the Dutchesses Neece, now Countess of Meghen, and Baroness of Grosbeke, that where ever she walked about the Room it would follow her, and if it saw any one touch her cloaths, would strike at him with its Bill; so that it seemed to be possessed with a spirit of jealousie.”

As we all like to tell a story (at least, we will do until the ubiquity of the video camera and YouTube makes the anecdote an obsolete form), parrots have always been prized and transacted across continents. Dutch painters loved them: Jan Breughel paints the garden of Eden with an orthnithological slant, as he loves those bright colours. Or parrots riot through still-lives, the exotic bird about to attack the exotic fruits the painter has piled up.

“But that the price of those birds there was very great; so that they were not rated at less than eight or ten German Dollars. Linscotius writes, that the Portugues had often made trial to bring over of them to Lisbon, but could never effect it, because they were too tender and delicate. But the Hollanders with a great deal of care and industry brought one alive as far as Amsterdam, which though it were not of the choicest, yet might have been sold for one hundred and seventy Florens or Gilders of that Province, that is somewhat more than seventy Dollars, as I find recorded in the Diary of that Voyage. That bird by the way had learned to pronounce many Holland words, which it had heard of the Mariners, and its Master had made it so tame, that it would put its Bill into his Mouth and Ears without doing him any harm, and would put in order the hairs of his beard if discomposed: And if any one else offered to touch him, it would presently snap or peck at him, as if it had been some Dog. "

Friendly, communicative and bright, the parrot was a kind of middle-class hawk. As Ray/Willoughby notes, it shares the same shape of beak as the ‘rapacious birds’, but it is domestic and funny. In portrait paintings of the period, young men often have their hawk (difficult, expensive both in itself and for your bets on its performance), but the parrot is the subversive companion of women. Here’s an early modern version of the celebrated Einstein the parrot:

“He (Clusius) adds further, that a certain Brasilian woman, living in a Village two miles distant from the Island, in which he with other Frenchmen dwelt, had a Parrot of this kind, which she made much of; which seemed to be endued with that understanding and reason, that it could discern and comprehend whatever she said who brought it up. For, saith he, walking forth sometimes to refresh our selves as far as that Village, when we passed by that womans house, she was wont to call upon us in these words, Will you give me a Comb, or a Looking-glass, and I will presently make my Parrot sing and dance before you? If we agreed to her request, as soon as she had pronounced some words to the Bird, it began not only to leap upon the Perch on which it stood, but also to talk and whistle, and imitate the shoutings and exclamations of the Brasilians, when they prepare themselves for the battel. In brief when it came into its Dames mind to bid it sing, it sang, to bid it leap, it leapt: But if taking it ill, that she had not obtained what she asked, she said to the bird Auge, that is, be still or silent: It stood still, and held its peace; neither could we by any means provoke it to move either foot or tongue.”

Here’s Einstein (Barney has some way to go):

and here’s Ruby, the swearing parrot (a likelier outcome):


Decidedly Bookish said...


DrRoy said...

Yes, I know, but he got his name from the previous owner, and he is quite bright enough to have some sense of identity (unlike the rabbit, who simply does not know that she is 'Lupin'). On Saturday I was getting cross with my son's dilatory efforts at getting away for the weekend with his mother, and Barney was acute enough to recognise human anger, and started swearing (I was not cussing, he just was triggered by tone).