An Absurd Question from Years Ago


Volume III Introduction

By W.T. Greene, M.D.

(Please understand that this information is over 125 years old and much of the information is seriously outdated and should not be followed. Of course, we know that water is absolutely essential for parrots.)

To be again asked the above question, after all, we have written upon the subject, in the course of this work, and elsewhere, is, we must confess, not a little disappointing.

Nevertheless, to get out of temper and return a short answer would not be likely to mend matters, but, on the contrary, to harden the queriest in his objectionable ways; so we reply, as meekly as we can, “They do.” “I have had my Parrot for thirty years, and it has never had a drop of water all the time,” persists our interlocutor, and we reply: “That only proves that your bird is possessed of an exceptionally strong constitution and not that your method of management is correct.” 

As a matter of fact, we have seen all kinds of Parrots resorting to water in their native country, and drinking freely morning and evening; and we know that they traverse considerable distances for the purpose of quenching their thirst.

At the same time it must be remembered that in the regions they chiefly inhabit, the dew falls much more heavily than it does with us, and the Parrots are enabled to suck a considerable amount of moisture from the leaves of the trees they inhabit, or from the grass, among which many species seek their food on the ground; yet all these birds frequent the waterholes both for drinking and bathing, and should not be debarred from following in captivity a propensity that is not only not hurtful, but, on the contrary, is indispensable to their well being. 

The deprivation of water acts injuriously on Parrots in many ways: in the first place it causes them to eat more of the “sop” with which their owners usually supply them, than they can digest; the result being dyspepsia, with all its attendant horrors; or crop-binding, from over-distension of that organ with soft food.
Secondly, the absence of the natural amount of fluid in the system, and especially the deprivation of water for bathing often give rise to dryness and irritation of the skin, causing the natural process of moulting to become painful or impossible; as well as giving rise to the objectionable habit of self-mutilation, into which these birds are so liable to fall. 

Thirdly, the practice of debarring Parrots from drinking must cause the poor creatures a great deal of unnecessary suffering, and on that account should be deprecated by every thoughtful person into whose custody one of them has chanced to pass. 
We are glad to say that since we first called attention to the subject of giving water to captive Parrots, there has been a marked improvement in this respect in quarters where it had previously been the custom to keep them without a suitable supply of this indispensable fluid, for which “soft food,” is not an efficient substitute; and we hope ere long to find the absurd superstition entirely exploded. Where it can have had its origin we are at a loss to imagine. 

As far as we can gather it is peculiar to this country, and when the practice is mentioned to foreigners it excites a feeling of astonishment not unmingled with contempt; to which we have often heard expression given, coupled with remarks about insular intelligence, that were far from complimentary. 

It is true that Parrots are not large drinkers, do not imbibe as much fluid in the course of twenty-four hours as a duck or a goose would do, but that is surely no reason for keeping them without water all the year round. They are small eaters too, and to force them to swallow, for the sake of the moisture it contains, several times as much food as their natural appetite would prompt them to partake of, is decidedly an unwise proceeding, for it is one calculated to shorten their lives, and not unfrequently does so. 

To keep Parrots entirely without water is bad enough, but we were scarcely prepared for a further atrocity, which we have reason to believe is sometimes practised in their case by cruel and ignorant people. 

Not long since we received a query from an unknown correspondent who said that he had had a Parrot (he did not name the species) for a long time, that it did not, or would not talk, and that he had been advised to split its tongue! being assured that if he did so, it would at once become a fluent speaker.

Being somewhat in doubt, apparently, as to the advisability or otherwise of the proceeding, he wrote for information, and we replied that if the bird would not talk when its tongue was in its natural condition, it most decidedly would not do so when that organ had been split in half I instancing a case in point of another correspondent who wrote to tell us of a jay he had had for some time, which had begun to talk nicely, when, acting on the advice of someone, he had split the poor creatures tongue, and it had never said a word afterwards. 

Many people write to enquire how they are to teach their Parrots to speak: are they to be kept in the dark, starved, or pampered, or should they be placed where they will always see and hear people about them? 

To this we reply, there is a great deal of difference in Parrots, even when belonging to the same species, with regard to the faculty of imitating human speech and domestic sounds. Some will pick up words and phrases they have heard but once and repeat them accurately, while others will keep on year after year without learning to say a single word. They vary in disposition and intelligence as much as children do, and no hard and fast rule can be laid down for teaching them. 

Given, say a Grey Parrot of average intelligence and docility, the best way to teach him to speak, is to constantly repeat in his hearing the word or words it is wished he should learn, and with patience and perseverance he will in all probability do so after a longer or shorter course of training; then when he has acquired one sentence or word, begin to teach him another, and continue in the same way until his repertory becomes as extended as that of the famous bird for which a Cardinal once gave one hundred golden crowns, because it could repeat the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. 

Some birds, however, will never learn to say anything, or at most but a word or two, and upon these the most patient teaching is simply thrown away; they are, in all probability females, and are as incapable of imitating articulate sounds as hen birds, in general, are of singing. 

On the other hand, we have known some good talkers, especially among the grey’s, that proved their sex by laying eggs, just as we have now and then met with females that warbled nearly as well as their mates, or hens that crowed like Chanticleer: still these are exceptions to the rule that a talking or singing bird belongs to the masculine gender. 

It is not necessary to keep a Parrot in the dark, or fasting, in order to teach it to speak, on the contrary the bird should be well fed, and supplied with everything to make it happy and comfortable; good food, hemp, maize, oats, biscuit, a bit of apple, pear, or even a slice of carrot, water, for drinking and bathing, a good roomy cage, soft wood to gnaw, and coarse grit from which to pick small - stones to aid its digestion. 

If a bird thus fed and treated is placed in one room, and its teacher takes his or her stand in one adjoining, where he or she can be heard, but not seen by the Parrot, and the same words are as frequently as possible repeated during the day; the bird will soon pick them up, and gratify the owner by giving a distinct imitation of the sounds to which it listens all the more intently, that it does not know exactly from whence they proceed. 

Do Parrots ever talk intelligently? that is to say, do they ever make intelligent use of their acquired vocabulary? We think so. Thus our lamented Goffin never screamed for “Potato!” except when he spied that esculent upon the table; and it was certainly something like intelligence that prompted another talented bird to say “Serve him right!” when his mistress, as much in sorrow as in anger, asked: “0 Polly, why did you bite my boy?” for the urchin had been teasing the poor bird unmercifully and had got no more than his deserts, when “Polly” suddenly nipped and drew blood from the offending finger. 

Parrots, as a rule, are long-lived, and instances have been mentioned to us in which individual birds have lived in the same family for periods varying from forty to seventy and even eighty years, handed down from generation to generation as valued heir-looms; but for one of these veterans that one hears of, how many poor “Pollies” are hurried to an untimely end by the ignorance of their owners, and the consequent mismanagement of the poor creatures themselves? 

We trust, however, that the readers of these pages have long ere this learned to treat their pets judiciously, because naturally, and are in no danger of relapsing into former errors respecting them, at the bidding of some friend imbued with antiquated notions, the shallowness of which has been exposed over and over again; but are nevertheless cropping up every now and then, and occasionally from the most unexpected quarters, for error dies hard, though its end is certain.




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