Foul-mouthed parrots to return to park, possibly reformed

Billy, one of the five parrots at the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park in Friskney, England, that has been swearing at visitors.

By Dan Bilefsky

When Steve Nichols, the chief executive of the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park, heard employees loudly swearing in the next room, he went over to tell them off.

But there were no employees in the next room. Just the birds.

He then realized that five parrots who moved to the park in the same week shared an unfortunate trait: They all had filthy, filthy mouths.

With more colorful language than plumage, the African grey parrots — Billy, Elsie, Eric, Jade and Tyson — used different curse words in different British accents, but they were all unprintably coarse. At one point, a group of women walking past the aviary thought the lewd comments shouted at them were from a hidden staff member, Nichols said.

The park had no complaints — in fact, visitors reveled in swearing right back at the birds — but the park officials feared children and parents might not enjoy the experience as much, he said. The chirpy birds were moved into a temporary space away from the public eye, giving them time to be around more family-friendly birds and hopefully clean up their vocabulary.

The birds are expected to be released back into the main colony Wednesday, after their time removed for bad behavior.

A major problem of the parrots’ language, he said, was that it was hilarious.

“When a parrot swears, it’s very difficult for other humans not to laugh,” he said. “And when we laugh, that’s a positive response. And therefore, what they do is they learn both the laugh and the swear word.”

“It’s not so bad with one on its own,” he continued. “But then, if you get five together, once one swears and another one laughs, and another one laughs, before you know it, it sounds like a group of teenagers or an old working men’s club.”

One parrot was especially foul-mouthed, he said: “Billy is the worst one.”

The birds arrived at the park, about 130 miles north of London, at the end of August from five different owners across Britain. Each owner apologized that their pet might have picked up a few choice words, Nichols said.

They were among about 20 birds to arrive in the same week and spent a week together in quarantine. (The others have been well behaved.) Parrots are typically quiet when they are first placed in public, so the staff thought it was safe to put them outside.

It was not. When Nichols first saw visitors gathered outside the aviary, he thought they were there to see Chico, who achieved minor fame this month for learning to sing Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy.” Instead, he saw the parrots and the guests brutally cursing each other out.

Now that the birds have been removed from the public exhibits, some guests are arriving who have heard about the vulgar birds but don’t know which cage they’re in. So they have taken to swearing at all of the birds, hoping they’ll get some abuse back, Nichols said.

The burst of levity has been needed, Nichols said. The park was forced to shut down for 20 weeks during efforts to stem the coronavirus pandemic, and it has been hammered financially. And the center has taken in more birds than ever, with working-from-home parrot owners suddenly realizing that they had forced their pets to spend too much time in cages.

Parrots can pick up frequently used words from their owners, mimicking the sounds even if they can’t understand the meanings. The park occasionally takes in such foul-mouthed birds, but having five in the same week was “the most amazing set of coincidences,” Nichols said.

The cursing isn’t usually much of a problem, he said — though parrots retain memory of the naughty words, they usually adapt their behavior to the larger colony, most of which does not call paying customers unspeakable names. Nichols expects them to be on their best behavior.

“They’ve probably got a really good vocabulary, too,” he said. “It’s just we’ve only heard the swear words.”

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