My sister Alice purchased Harold in a New York City pet shop decades ago. As you can see in the portrait to the left (recently taken by Alice), he's a handsome blue and gold macaw. He's quite a large bird, about 79 cm long (2 feet 7 inches) from the top of his head to the tip of his tailfeathers.
When she got him home, Alice asked him, "What's your name?". His reply sounded to her like "Harold". He has since said other names, such as "Robert", and with repetition, he learns the names of other people. For example, he learned to say my mother's name, "Rose". But "Harold" became his name that day, and has been ever since.
Alice found that Harold had arrived with an extensive vocabulary, although many of his vocalizations were parrot "clichés", such as "Pretty Polly", and "Polly want a cracker" (which he does a beautifully clear rendition of). I must also report that his repertoire included at least one obscenity. I won't bowdlerize my report, so if you don't want to read any "dirty" words, Note 1 abandon this entry right now (you can click here to go back to the Blog index).
The events described below occurred around the time that the younger of my two sisters, Phyllis, was getting married. The wedding took place in Kings Point, New York (USA),Note 2 at our childhood family home, outdoors on the lawn. Harold was visiting at the time, staying in a cage in one of the bedrooms. Harold does not like being in a cage, especially if he can hear people in other rooms having fun and not including him. He can make his displeasure known by shrieking at an extremely high volume, so loud that I imagine that long-term exposure might cause hearing damage.
My mother was not happy about this. At some point, as she walked down the hallway, she passed the open door to Harold's bedroom. Seeing her go by, Harold let out a piercing shriek. Fed up, my mother stood in the doorway, and yelled loudly, "Shut up, Harold!"
As great a story as this is (and I've recounted it many times), Harold is not generally known to string two of his utterances together, particularly in a meaningful way. So it's possible that my mother exaggerated in telling this story - we'll never know for sure.
As the wedding neared, Harold caused even more excitement, by escaping. Exactly how this happened is a subject of some controversy. When Harold was taken out of his cage from time to time, he made no attempt to fly, but rather just walked along the floor. Perhaps someone got careless, and left one of the big sliding glass doors open in the living room. In any event, Harold must have taken a look at the big blue sky, and he took off for parts unknown.
He never went very far away, though. You could hear him in the nearby trees, but he seemed unable to figure out how to get back down. Apparently, birds that have spent all their lives in captivity can get disoriented when released into the wild. As the days went by, he became increasingly upset, probably because he was getting nothing to eat and drink, and there was also a rather nasty thunderstorm one day. When my father was leaving the house for work one morning, he saw Harold up in a tree right outside the house. Harold saw my father, and said, simply, "Fuck".
On the day of the wedding, when the guests on the lawn became quiet to listen to the nuptial toasts, Harold could be heard faintly in the distance, cursing in the treetops: Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
Shortly afterward, my mother got a call reporting that Harold had landed at the local swim and tennis club, just across Middle Neck Road from our house. The Kings Point police, as well as all the neighbors, were keeping an eye out for him, and were probably desirous of having this foul-mouthed bird removed from their otherwise tranquil suburb.Note 4 Arriving at the club, she found him perched atop a chain-link fence that surrounded one of the tennis courts. When she attempted to approach him, she was actually rebuked by the players, who hadn't finished their point (although they later apologized, saying they hadn't realized why she had walked out onto the court).
When the game ended, Rose placed Harold's water bottle on the court near the fence. Possibly too weak to fly, Harold climbed down the chain link fence, beak by claw, and then walked over to the water. My mother popped a large towel over him, and Harold was home.
Although he had lost some weight and was a bit dehydrated, he looked in some ways even neater and more colorful than before. Parrots depend upon tropical downpours to clean and straighten their feathers, so the thunderstorm he had experienced had provided him with a great shower. But I'll guess he was happy to get back to his free meals.
Note 1: I recall getting together with a group of Americans, and one French couple. The Americans were chatting in English, and someone referred to a "dirty joke". The French woman, who was apparently following along reasonably well, was quite startled to discover that Americans use the word "dirty" to mean "obscene". She found this very amusing, saying to her French companion something like, "On dit vraiment 'sale'?" ("They really say 'dirty'?"), checking to be sure that the meaning of "dirty" really was what she thought it was. The implication of the use of this word seems to be that Americans think there's something dirty about sex. [return to text]
Note 2: The Village of Kings Point is one of the nine incorporated villages that comprise the peninsula of Great Neck, on the north shore of Long Island, to the east of New York City. Confusingly, one of these nine villages is "The Village of Great Neck". [return to text]
Note 3: "Fuck" and "Fuck you" are Harold's two obscene "words". The "fuckyou" vocalization could be perceived by Harold, as it is by most people, as a single utterance. He does appear to associate these words with being upset or agitated.
At MIT, I took an excellent course in linguistics from Professor Victor Yngve. We had a brief discussion in a class on the definition of "word". Professor Yngve reported that early one July, his young son had said to him, "Dad, I know why they call it the 'FourthOfJuly' - it's because it comes on the fourth - of - July!" [return to text]
Note 4: In his wonderful book, How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes, Will Cuppy says of gibbons, whom he calls "our loudest Apes", "Their peculiar cry is often described as hoo hoo hoo hoo or whopp whopp whopp whopp. Gibbons assemble in crowds and hoo or whopp until exhausted or shot." We're lucky nobody took a shot at Harold. [return to text]