There was a video on Youtube some years ago featuring an african grey with the nastiest vocabulary I have ever heard. It said not only the worst of the worst words known to English slang, but it used them to descriptively detail human anatomy.
It was obvious that these words had not been simply overheard and repeated – they had been taught. The video had a gazillion hits on it. I am by no means prudish, but hearing these words said with an african grey’s perfect clarity, my jaw bounced off the floor.
There are those who might find this kind of thing funny. Let me tell you why it is not:
Often, unforeseen thing happen in life. People lose their jobs and their houses – eventually we all die. Circumstances may dictate that your bird be rehomed. We need to prepare our parrots in many ways for that possibility. They should be well socialized and able to adapt to change. They should NOT be able to vividly describe activities that take place in a bedroom.
A bird that has an offensive vocabulary will be difficult to rehome. It would not be suitable for a family with children or for those who are sensitive to vulgarity. It might be hard to find a willing bird sitter when you want to go on vacation, and it might cause people to not want to visit your home.
Our birds pick up enough colorful language just by overhearing what we say in their presence. Abu, my first umbrella cockatoo, learned the term “shut up” in an innocent way. A friend came by to show me a guitar he had bought for next to nothing from a person who was unaware of its value. When he told me what he had paid, I excitedly said: “Shut. Up.” (in the same way you would say “no way”). That’s all it took. From that point on, whenever the conversation in the house would get lively, Abu would tell us to “shut up”.
One day my daughter’s teacher came by to drop something off and she asked to see the parrot my daughter talked about all day long. She greeted Abu with a cheerful hello and was told to “shut up” in an equally cheerful tone. It was a bit embarrassing.
Wild parrots learn about appropriate behavior from their flockmates. For a captive parrot, that responsibility falls to us. Just as is the case with children, we have to demonstrate with our own behavior that which is acceptible, since it will likely be imitated. Ultimately, our bird will pay the price for our lapses in judgement.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.