African Greys are great talkers! So why wasn’t my pet parrot talking? My Mother took every opportunity to repeat, “Polly put the kettle on” when she was in the kitchen near Polly’s cage. Then one day, as my Dad approached Mum to give her his customary goodbye kiss Polly went “phffch” (How do you spell the smacking sound of a kiss?) “Did you hear that, Bets?” said Dad. “Let’s try again”. He left the room, re-entered and went up to Mum. “phffch” No doubt about it! A few days later the parrot spoke. After that there was no stopping her. She picked up phrases she was taught, but better still she copied things like my Mother’s laugh. And she completely confused toddler Michael when she scolded him in Mum’s voice. “Oh-h-h! Mi-chael!” Poor little lad would look guiltily around wondering what he had done!
Michael was the one other person that Polly tolerated. When he learnt to walk he would go up to her cage and walk around it, curling his fingers through the bars to hold on. Polly would climb down off her perch and follow those tempting little fingers with her strong beak but she never, ever pecked him. She reserved her wild side for Mum and Ann. If I put her down on the floor as Ann entered the room, Polly would half raise both wings and charge, beak poised to nip Ann’s ankles! And she never relented on attacking Mum – despite the fact that Mum was her principal carer whenever I was unavailable.
By the time she had been with us three years Polly had a variety of favourite phrases. She could imitate Mum so well that when Polly called, “Arthur! Coffee” she brought Dad running. At night time she would make the most hideous screeches and only quieten when we covered her cage with blackout curtain. She hated being completely isolated, though and pecked a hole in the blackout through which she could peep. Then life grew more complicated: my Parents decided to emigrate to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) Five kids, one bird and all their household effects had to make the journey with them by sea.
Memory plays tricks, and I recall little of the train trip down to Southampton to catch the liner SS Capetown Castle except that Polly travelled in a tiny cage since her main cage had been sent ahead directly to the ship. On board ship she travelled below decks in the Ship’s Butcher’s Office which caused me great concern for her well-being. I imagined her ending up in a parrot pie! At Capetown we put Polly back in her tiny cage to make the four-day train journey with us up to Salisbury. (Harare)
That was some journey! My Mother was unwell, my sister went down with tonsillitis so my brother John I were pretty well left in charge of the two toddlers and the bird in one compartment while my Parents and my sister were in the next one. I still marvel that we did not lose one of the little boys out of the wide-open train windows. And I very nearly did lose the parrot! I never dared tell my Parents what I had done. After removing the bottom tray from Polly’s cage I decided to shake the cage out of the window to remove all the seed husks and detritus. Thank goodness that Polly clung to the perch. How she not fall off and fly away I still do not know! The stupidity of my actions hit me and I hastily pulled the cage back inside the carriage. Phew! Polly never uttered a word during our travels, but one day after we settled her back in her big cage she suddenly let out a stream of invective in the Ship’s Butcher’s voice. Mum was most relieved that she was the only one to hear the appalling language!