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Foul-mouthed parrots are unlikely stars at a British zoo

Foul-mouthed parrots at an animal park in England have become an attraction in their own right — but staff still do their best to shield young visitors from the birds' profanities.
Lincolnshire Wildlife Park
Foul-mouthed parrots at an animal park in England have become an attraction in their own right — but staff still do their best to shield young visitors from the birds' profanities.

The parrots are a fount of foul language. Their habit of spouting curse words at a torrid rate has, by turns, mortified and amused the people who work with them at the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park in Friskney, England.

Now the family friendly animal park is trying a new plan it hopes will tame the parrots' salty language. It's integrating them into a larger flock, where they will "hopefully learn all the nicer sounds and words," Steve Nichols, the park's CEO, told NPR.

But for now, the profane parrots know no bounds. Consider how Nichols describes the video link he set up this week. He was preparing to speak with a BBC program, after interest in the park's African grey parrots spiked a few days ago.

"The parrot behind me was making quite obscene noises" during the TV segment, Nichols said in a video update on Facebook. He thought about moving farther away from the bird, but that would have disrupted the camera shot that had been carefully trained on Nichols.

"I did apologize straightaway, saying it's not my fault if they actually [say] a little bit of effing and jeffing," Nichols said.

He needn't have worried. As it turns out, patrons of the zoo, as well as throngs of people online, seem to be perfectly willing to accept the parrots as they are, profanity and all. The park has posted a sign near the parrots' habitat, warning that visitors should expect to hear "every common swear word" and should shepherd children away from the area.

Still, Nichols says, the park's human workers enjoy the lighter side of the birds' unique speech — and the international media attention they're getting.

"The staff find it hilarious that they are seeing the birds in their care appearing on broadcasts worldwide," Nichols said, adding that his colleagues are getting messages from relatives living abroad, saying they're seeing the Lincolnshire park on their local news.

It's not the first time the parrots have caused a stir. When five foul-mouthed African greys — Billy, Elsie, Eric, Jade and Tyson — were donated to the park early in the COVID-19 pandemic, staff resorted to sequestering them from public spaces, to keep them out of earshot. As of now, the park has around eight birds that would require explicit-language advisories.

Grey parrots' "imitative abilities have been lauded at least since Aristotle," according to an academic paper from 2010 that surveyed their aptitude for vocal learning and reproduction.

All of this raises a key question: Are the parrots teaching all of these foul words to each other? Or is the profanity coming from humans?

"It's certainly down to humans," Nichols said. "And what makes it funnier is that this particular species actually replicates the person's voice exactly."

Illustrating his point, he tells the story of the lady who spoke to him about donating her parrot. Her husband had taught the bird all the profane words it knew, she said.

There was just one snag, Nichols said.

"It was quite easy to hear she wasn't telling the full truth as it swore in her voice."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.