LONDON – When Steve Nichols, CEO of Lincolnshire Wildlife Park, overheard the employees swearing loudly in the next room, he went to scold them.
But there were no employees in the next room. Only the birds.
Then he realized that five parrots who had moved to the park in the same week shared an unfortunate trait: they all had dirty, dirty mouths.
With a more colorful language than plumage, African gray parrots – Billy, Elsie, Eric, Jade, and Tyson – used different profanities with different British accents, but they were all coarse and unprintable. At one point, a group of women walking past the aviary thought the obscene comments shouted at them came from a hidden staff member, Mr. Nichols said.
The birds are expected to be released into the main colony on Wednesday after their time has been cleared for bad behavior.
A major problem with parrot speech, he said, was that it was funny.
“When a parrot swears, it’s very hard for other humans not to laugh,” he said. “And when we laugh, that’s a positive response. And therefore, what they do is learn both laughter and swear word.”
“It’s not that bad with one alone,” he continued. “But then, if you put five together, once one swears and another laughs, and another laughs, before you know it, it sounds like a bunch of teenagers or an old workers’ club.”
One parrot was particularly foul-mouthed, he said, “Billy is the worst.”
The birds arrived at the park, about 130 miles north of London, in late August from five different owners across Britain. Each owner apologized that their pet may have picked up a few chosen words, Mr. Nichols said.
They were among about twenty birds that arrived in the same week and spent a week together in quarantine. (Others behaved well.) Parrots are generally quiet when first put out in public, so the staff thought it was safe to put them out.
It was not. When Mr. Nichols first saw the visitors gathered outside the aviary, he thought they were there to see Chico, who achieved lesser fame this month for learn to sing Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy”. Instead, he saw the parrots and guests brutally cursing each other.
Now that the birds have been removed from public displays, some guests are arriving who have heard of the vulgar birds but don’t know which cage they are in. Then they started cursing all the birds, hoping that “I will resume some abuse, said Mr. Nichols.
The burst of lightness was necessary, Nichols said. The park was forced to close for 20 weeks during efforts to stem the coronavirus pandemic, and was financially hammered. And the center has welcomed more birds than ever, with parrot owners working from home suddenly realizing they have forced their pets to spend too much time in cages.
Parrots can pick up on frequently used words by their owners, imitating sounds even if they cannot understand their meaning. The park occasionally welcomes such foul-mouthed birds, but having five in the same week was “the most surprising series of coincidences,” Nichols said.
Swearing usually isn’t a big deal, he said – although parrots retain a memory of bad words, they usually adapt their behavior to the larger colony, most of which don’t call paying customers by unspeakable names. Mr. Nichols expects them to perform at their best.
“They probably have a great vocabulary too,” he said. “It’s just we just heard the bad words.”