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Saturday October 18, 2014

A flight of fancy about parrots

After a four year absence, a missing African Grey parrot has apparently been reunited with his aptly named British owner, Darren Chick, in California. A heart-warming story indeed but the most intriguing part is that when the pet returned home it was speaking fluent Spanish and uttered the immortal words, ‘¿Qué pasa?’ What happened?

I’ve never owned such an exotic creature but in Majorca I am acquainted with both a parrot breeder, and also an expat chum who keeps an African Grey. It has opened my eyes – and ears – to the linguistic abilities of these extraordinary birds although my friend’s pet only ever chatters in English. While visiting a Spanish contact in Andalusia a few years ago I was lucky enough to be treated to his parrot’s excitable shrieks which happened to be in the Spanish language. Whenever it watched a football match on television in which the Barcelona team scored it would roar ‘Olé, Barça!’ and ‘Gol!’ which drove its owner into a frenzy because as fate would decree he was a loyal supporter of Real Madrid.

Parrots certainly have their place in literature. Recently I was re-reading Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez which records the deliciously black-humoured moment when just before setting off for a funeral, Dr Juvenal Urbino falls off a ladder and dies while trying to catch his frisky parrot. And who can forget the mystery of Flaubert’s (stuffed) parrot written about so wryly in a title of the same name by Julian Barnes? One wonders whether Long John Silver, the cunning pirate in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, Treasure Island, would have held such appeal if he hadn’t had parrot Captain Flint sitting aloft one shoulder nibbling seeds.

Of course now that Darren Chick’s African Grey has come home to roost one wonders how they might communicate in the future. Will the Briton take up Spanish lessons in order for them to indulge in day to day chatter or will he attempt to re-train the bird, parrot fashion, in the English language? Perhaps a good starting point would be to show the linguistically confused creature the well worn Monty Python ‘dead parrot’ sketch starring John Cleese or better still to tell it one of my favourite old timer jokes about the parrot, the old lady and the dead plumber.

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