For the Birds

Elizabeth Haidle, proprietor of Minutiae Labs (and friend of yours truly), has published a fourth volume of her splendid miniature zine, Comicosmos.  Past volumes have explored Shaker philosophy and revisited Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  The newest provides an introduction to – and Haidle’s own illustrations for – T.H. White’s Book of Beasts – which is White’s curiously entertaining translation of a 12th century Latin bestiary.  Comicosmos No.4 pays special homage to the cryptozoological species treated in the bestiary: the dragon, manticore, griffin, etc.

White himself, however, seems to have had a special interest in birds.  One of his other books, The Goshawk (lovingly reprinted by NYRB for the US market), recounts his drunken, sleep-deprived attempts to train a sour-tempered, possibly insane goshawk.  I recommend it to everyone.

As a child I had a difficult relationship with birds.  I was fascinated by pelicans, owls and crows; I feared vultures, but was in love with the mourning doves that cooed among the ivy of my grandparents’ backyard.  One day a songbird landed on my head (attracted, I thought, by the bright blonde hair I had as a kid) and for years afterward I insisted on wearing a baseball cap out of doors.

Some of my favorite entries in White’s Book of Beasts are those for birds.  Consider, for example, the following description of the parrot, in which White lets himself play rather loose, I think, with the original text:

It is only from India that one can get a Psitiacus or Parrot, which is a green bird with a red collar and a long tongue. The tongue is broader than in other birds and it makes distinct sounds with it.  If you did not see it you would think it was a real man talking.  It greets people of its own accord saying “What-cheer?” and “Toodle-oo!”  It learns other words by teaching.  Hence the story of the man who paid a compliment to Caesar by giving him a parrot which had been taught to say: “I, a parrot, am willing to learn the names of others from you.  This I learnt by myself to say – Hail Caesar!”

Perhaps, if there’s anything to the ancient practice of augury, the bird might have seconded the advice of the anonymous soothsayer and warned Caesar to stay indoors on the Ides of March.

In the corner of California where I live -the San Francisco Bay Area- there are several groups of feral parrots of the genus Amazona.  They make an odd sight dashing about the skies in rowdy, green and red flocks of ten or twenty.  The Red-crowned Parrot (amazona viridigenalis) is an especially voluble creature.  According to Sibley, it gives “loud weeoo and dak dak dak calls.”  I’ve yet to hear one mimic the conversation of passersby.

In White’s extensive notes to the text of his Bestiary, which are at least as much fun as the translation itself, he quotes from the 1698 diary of Abraham de le Pryme who tells of a parrot which

by its long hanging in a cage in Billingsgate Street (where all the worst language in the city is most commonly spoke), had learned to curse and swear, and to use all the most bawdy expressions imaginable.  But, to reform it, they sent it to a coffy-house in another street, where, before half-a-year was at an end, it had forgot all its old wicked expressions and was so full of coffy-house language that it could say nothing but, “Bring a dish of coffy”; “Where’s the news”, and such like.

White also tells of an African grey by the name of Charlotte, kept for many years by King George V, grandfather to the present monarch.  He’d obtained the bird while a midshipman on shore-leave in Port Said.  From her perch over the king’s shoulder, Charlotte was said to have seen all the secrets of empire pass in paper over the royal desk.  She often exlaimed “What about it!” and when the king was ill reverted to sailor lingo to demand again and again, “Where’s the Captain?”

Strange that Caesar and George V should both have had parrots.  Is there something about the bird that might specially endear it to the powerful?  Perhaps persons fond of hearing themselves speak, as the powerful tend to be, are also gratified to hear their words repeated to them by fawning dependents.  As it happens, President McKinley, too, kept a parrot – which he named Washington Post.  I don’t know what, if anything, Washington Post was in the habit of saying to the president.  But one wonders if perhaps the bird might have advised him to avoid the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo that year, or warned him in a whisper: “Beware the anarchist’s bullet.”

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