Quotes – Parrot pranks from the 1800s

girlreadsSometimes an anecdote from history stands up in a new light after we’ve learned a bit more about the world.

Admiral Lord Cochrane was a 19th century British naval officer famous primarily for his service to South American revolutionaries. In his autobiography, he tells a story from his days as a midshipman about a ship’s parrot, a story that comes alive in the 21st century’s understanding of animal intelligence.

Some background might be needed. In the navy of the old days, to make sure that orders were heard over the noise of the ship’s deck, the ship’s boatswain would blow a whistle, different calls being code for different orders. Sailors became accustomed to simply following these whistles automatically when they heard them.


On board most ships there is a pet animal of some kind. Ours was a parrot, which was [the lieutenant’s] aversion, from the exactness with which the bird had learned to imitate the calls of the boatswain’s whistle. Sometimes the parrot would pipe an order so correctly as to throw the ship into momentary confusion, and the first lieutenant into a volley of imprecations, consigning Poll to a warmer latitude than his native tropical forest. Indeed, it was only by [the captain’s] countenance that the bird was tolerated.

One day a party of ladies paid us a visit aboard, and several had been hoisted on deck by the usual means of a “whip” on the mainyard. The chair had descended for another “whip,” but scarcely had its fair freight been lifted out of the boat alongside, then the unlucky parrot piped “Let go!” The order being instantly obeyed, the unfortunate lady, instead of being comfortably seated on deck, as had been those who preceded her, was soused overboard in the sea!

The Autobiography of a Seaman by Admiral Lord Cochrane

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