Potty-Mouthed Parrots.

I know this is a silly story, but it’s pretty irresistible, and people keep sending it to me, so here’s Issy Ronald’s CNN Travel report:

A British wildlife park has hatched a new plan to rehabilitate its potty-mouthed parrots after they unleashed a tide of expletives.

Back in 2020, five foul-mouthed African gray parrots, donated to Lincolnshire Wildlife Park in eastern England, were isolated from the flock in an attempt to improve their language. But, from Tuesday, the team is adopting a different, riskier approach of integrating three newly donated, cuss-happy birds – named Eric, Captain and Sheila – alongside the original five miscreants into the flock.

“When we came to move them, the language that came out of their carrying boxes was phenomenal, really bad. Not normal swear words, these were proper expletives,” the park’s chief executive, Steve Nichols, told CNN. “We’ve put eight really, really offensive, swearing parrots with 92 non-swearing ones,” he said.

If the new strategy works, the eight parrots could learn “all the nice noises like microwaves and vehicles reversing” that the other parrots in the flock favor, Nichols added. But if the other 92 instead pick up the expletives, “it’s going to turn into some adult aviary.” […]

The park has installed large signs warning visitors about the parrots’ language, but Nichols said it hasn’t received a single complaint. In fact, historically, “we did hear a lot more customers swearing at parrots than we did parrots swearing at customers,” Nichols said.

More details at the link if you need them. Thanks, Bonnie, Eric, cuchuflete, and whoever else I may be forgetting!

Addendum. Actually, cuchuflete sent me a different link, to Bill Chappell’s NPR story about the parrots, which has the following memorable ending:

All of this raises a key question: Are the parrots teaching all of these foul words to each other? Or is the profanity coming from humans?

“It’s certainly down to humans,” Nichols said. “And what makes it funnier is that this particular species actually replicates the person’s voice exactly.”

Illustrating his point, he tells the story of the lady who spoke to him about donating her parrot. Her husband had taught the bird all the profane words it knew, she said.

There was just one snag, Nichols said.

“It was quite easy to hear she wasn’t telling the full truth as it swore in her voice.”


  1. I forgot to mention that a potty-mouthed parrot features prominently in the plot of the splendid comedy series Only Murders in the Building.

  2. That’s heartless. They say they were “proper expletives”, but won’t say what they were.

    The parrot in the murder mystery twist goes back to at least Damon Runyon. I am sure he was far from the first.

    Somewhere in the distance, a parrot cursed…

  3. Dan Milton says

    I have a very vague memory of a South American parrot that was the only speaker of a language after all the human speakers died of smallpox.
    Fact, fiction, or am I confabulating?

  4. @Dan Milton. “I have a very vague memory….”

    Your recollection is accurate but it is unclear whether the story is true (https://www.iflscience.com/did-a-parrot-really-save-a-lost-language-69230).

  5. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    That story was actually on the back page of my mother’s daily broadsheet this morning. Must be true then, it’s the Christian News, and lying we know is a sin!

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    The snippet from Humboldt is real enough: the Gutenberg translation goes

    At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants said, and the fact is worthy of observation, that they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures.

    What seems to be definite is that there was a parrot, and the locals at Maypures said that it was speaking the language of the Atures, which had been extinct for a couple of decades, but which they didn’t actually claim to understand. It’s notable that H is noncommital about their claim, and “an old parrot was shown” suggests to me that this was a sort of treasured story thing to be trotted out to visitors. I mean, it’s possible

    The stuff about H bringing it home etc is surely a later embroidery. Apart from the intrinsic implausibility, Humboldt would surely have said something about it if it had actually happened.

    Maybe the parrot actually was speaking the Maypures language, but the locals had all been too delicately raised to have been exposed to such offensive vocabulary before. After all, it seems that parrots are like that …

    Or perhaps they were just too embarrassed to admit that they did understand it, so they tried to pass off its language as that of a traditional, conveniently dead, enemy …

    (The claim that Welsh has no obscene words seems curiously widespread …)

  7. it all seems like a missed opportunity for cultural exchange, is what i’m thinking – lincolnshire should’ve arranged a swap for some russian african greys fluent in mat. (i wonder if i could apply for a cursing parrot to be sent as an instructor to the rather polite flock of quaker parrots at Green-wood Cemetery?)

  8. This wonderful myth doesn’t even hold up to a reading of Humboldt. Elsewhere in the book, he refers to the Atures as relatives of the Piaroa, and defines the relation by shared/similar language. These people are extant. The wiki about them refers to Ature as a dialect of Piaroa, while their webpage says it’s just another name for Piaroa, in which case, Ature isn’t even extinct today. What seems to be true is that their language isn’t closely related to Maypure, so maybe the Maypures really had a parrot.

    Weird that none of the many recent semi-mainstream internet retellings of the story give the title of Humboldt’s book, Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America. Maybe they fear making it too easy to track down the truth.

  9. A friend of mine adopted a parrot from an old couple who couldn’t look after it any more.

    One of its routines is to do a fart sound and then say “Does that feel better?”

  10. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    My mom had a story about a lady trying to sell her deceased husband’s parrot, whose sale value was lessened by the regrettability of its vocabulary. And sadly her claim that it had learned from her husband was countered by its uncanny reproduction of her own voice.

    My point? Do we have to have points here now? Something something old people like stories about parrots.

  11. Dan Milton says

    It’s all coming back to me now.
    The first talking parrot I met sat on an open perch in the atrium of the Pan-American Union (now the Organization of American States) headquarters in Washington. Then my father told me the story of Humboldt’s parrot. Must have been 1940 or so when I was seven or eight.

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