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27 August 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 5:18pm

Imitation game: the parrot that learned to mimic a ringtone

The sound of a son calling his mother again and again, and the sound of her not answering.

By John Burnside

There is a poem by Nick Lantz, in which a man buys a parrot for his ailing mother in the hope that “it will talk to her”. The implication is that the man is too busy to do this, though he is dutiful enough, telephoning regularly and occasionally taking round frozen meals (which his mother does not eat).

What he has forgotten, however, is that parrots only talk to us if we talk to them, patiently, and often. They are mimics, not conversationalists. Since the old woman does not want this substitute child, the bird learns nothing, other than to repeat the mother’s one verbal tic – the words “in fact”, which she hears as “infect”. As the poem progresses, we realise that the woman is suffering from dementia – she hides unpaid bills in the freezer, she buries picture frames in the garden – but when she dies, it is a sudden stroke that takes her, leaving the son to drive the parrot back to his house.

All the way home, though it still does not speak, the bird makes a regular sound that is “not a word”, but a ringtone: the sound of him “calling her again and again/the sound of her not answering”.

“Of the Parrat and Other Birds That Can Speake” (the title comes from Pliny the Elder) is a touching poem about human loneliness – but it also says something about the condition of the birds we imprison for their song, for their bright plumage or their gift of mimicry. In the wild, what is most striking about birds of the parrot family (which includes macaws, parakeets and cockatoos) is how gregarious they are. Monk parakeets build large communal nests, with a chamber for each breeding pair, while cockatiels and budgerigars travel together in vast, noisy flocks. Contrast this with a parrot in a cage and it becomes clear how painful such isolation must be.

Nowhere is this loneliness better captured than in Edward Lear’s wonderfully individual portrait of a red-capped parakeet, from his monograph on the parrot family from the early 1830s – a high point in the history of bird illustration, made when he was just 18.

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As was customary with his work, there is no background in the picture, just a bare sketch of the branch on which the bird perches, making it seem even more isolated – and I do not think it too fanciful to see this image as the surrogate self-portrait of a melancholic soul, a boy haunted by his father’s public disgrace and imprisonment in a debtors’ prison, a brilliant artist who had many admirers but few real friends.

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Later, plagued by eye problems, Lear was obliged to abandon the detailed work of bird illustration, moving to Italy to become a landscape artist and concocting the nonsense verse for which he is best known. Yet his first love was birds, and it is clear that he felt a kinship with his parrots, remarking in 1831: “For the last 12 months, I have so moved – thought – looked at – and existed among parrots – that should any transmigration take place at my decease, I am sure my soul would be uncomfortable in anything but one of the Psittacidae.”

I hope, should transmigration be part of the natural round, that Lear ended up as he predicted, among the parrots he so loved. I hope he woke in his new suit of feathers in a distant rainforest, or in a loud, happy nest of monk parakeets, beyond the reach of human nets and traps. I would wish for him the company of his peers, sailing through the high canopy, calling back and forth to one another, living according to their true nature. Free.

This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia