A sulphur-crested cockatoo in a pet shop across the road from the newspaper where I started out as a young reporter gave me my first “scoop” when it was banished to a back office for using insulting language to customers.
Neither the shocked owner of the pet shop nor my editor was to know it but I and my young colleagues had been responsible for teaching the “cocky” the bad language in the first place.
We were merely introducing the bird to some of the interesting vocabulary that had been introduced to us by our news editor, a gruff man who had seen active service in the front lines during World War II.
The antics, and bad language, of a parrot called “Soldier” came to mind in recent weeks when I read a news report of a foul-mouthed bird, a common hill myna, ruffling feathers at a zoo in China.
The myna had been a main attraction at the zoo in Wuhan by singing patriotic songs and wishing good fortune for the Chinese New Year but trouble began when zoo staff overheard the bird using swear words as it chatted to visitors. The curator of birds told the New China Daily she believed visitors were responsible for teaching the bird to swear.
The zoo banished the bird from public view while it set out to correct its speech and posted a notice warning visitors not to teach other mynas on display uncivilised words.
The hill myna (Gracula religiosia), a member of the starling family, has a stunning talent to accurately mimic the speech and singing of humans, and for centuries has been a popular cage bird.
It originally comes from the hill regions of south and south-east Asia but has established feral populations far from its home range, the suburbs of mainland Australian cities included.
The bird is a serious agricultural pest in Australia and in Tasmania quarantine officials are on constant guard to stop it spreading here. A few years back a pair were destroyed in Devonport after stowing away on a ship at Melbourne.
I used to believe that mimicry in birds was a defensive device designed to confuse predators. To this end, a bird mimicking a bird of prey would deter others raptors from attacking it.
I’ve now learned that mimicry is a far more powerful tool in the avian armoury. For male birds, the ability to sing new and interesting songs proves to be an irresistible lure for members of the opposite sex in courtship rituals. A great voice, loud and resonant with many notes and phrases, also demonstrates a male bird is strong, healthy and virile.
The sulphur-crested cockatoo that so fascinated me as a young reporter in Britain actually comes several rungs down the ladder in its ability to mimic. Among perching birds the mynas and even the common starling are far more superior, and among others the lyrebird is considered the most accurate at recording all sounds – whether they be human voices, motor vehicles or even chainsaws.
As for building a vocabulary and knowing what human words actually mean, the African grey parrot comes out tops on that score, some birds building a vocabulary of human words.
A sulphur-crested cockatoo chanting “Polly wants a cracker” is well down the pecking order.
* The myna must not be confused with Tasmania’s noisy miner, a member of the honeyeater family, which can look similar in appearance. The myna is distinguished by its bright yellow wattles and dark plumage.