An acquaintance of mine has just returned from a trip to the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. While he was there, I asked him to look in on the campsite at the foot of the cable car by Fuente De where, if all was well he could say hello to the melancholic African Grey parrot that lives there.

I was last there five years ago and was captivated by this sad little creature who sat on his perch in the sun and muttered a very depressed “hola” as people passed. Not so much a greeting as a disconsolate sigh.

He was truly depressed and no amount of coaxing with grapes or bananas could pull him from his blue stupor.

It was so strange. To hear that weak sigh of a “hola” was quite an experience. The weight of his troubles seemed to be breathed out in that one sad little word and I started to empathise with him. To feel a little of his sadness.

In the bright sunshine, surrounded by some of the most startling mountain scenery in Europe, all I wanted to do was hug and console this slouching depressed bird.

All animals can provoke a sense of sympathy in a person I suppose, but there was something about this parrot, something about the way he spoke, the sheer weight of that sad “hola” that made him somehow – well, human.

A speaking animal – even one that may not fully understand what it is saying, is nevertheless a very disconcerting thing. It is impossible, hearing those words, not to react to them, not to feel something of the emotions that are being felt by “the speaker”.

They are truly fascinating little creatures.

I remember reading an article by Paul Bowles entitled “Parrots I Have Known” in which he described a very cheerful and strong willed little parrot that came to live with him in Latin America. The bird would start the day surveying the house – visiting each and every room to check that all was well, before he settled in for the day in the kitchen, where he cheerfully watched the comings and goings of the household events.

At night he would take another tour around his abode by way of saying goodnight, before retiring to his cage at precisely the same time every evening. Apparently if he wasn’t covered up on time chaos ensued.

Hell knows no fury like a parrot scorned it seems.

Still, this little creature of habit was quite revered among the household staff – who considered the talking bird to be a spiritual creature that commanded respect and affection.

This parrot was clearly more than just an amusing bird.

Bowles himself was truly enamoured by them and explained his affection for them in “All Parrots Speak”, thus:

“The spoken word, even if devoid of reason, means a great deal to a lonely human being. I think that my susceptibility to parrots may have been partly determined by a story I heard when I was a child. One of the collection of parrots from the New World presented to King Ferdinand by Columbus escaped from the palace into the forest. A peasant saw it, and never having encountered such a bird before, picked up a stone to hit it, so he could have its brilliant feathers as a trophy. As he was taking aim, the parrot cocked its head and cried “Ay, Dios!” Horrified, the man dropped the stone, prostrated himself, and said, “A thousand pardons, senora! I thought you were a green bird.”

That first sentence is really interesting – that we respond to the spoken word inately, whether those words are uttered with understanding or not. The words themselves provoke the response in us and the fact that the parrot simply repeats them unwittingly makes them no less evocative.

Of course there is some research which suggests that parrots, far from being simple beasts repeating back a set of learned words, are actually capable of completing meaningful and complex communication.

Alex the parrot for instance, has long been astounding researchers with his cognitive abilities. Not only can he perform complex tasks such as selecting an object from a set which is “different” he is also capable of quite flirtatious and cheeky behaviour.

One visitor to the research centre where Alex lives was the subject of this flirtatious attention, which revolved around the seductive chat up line “Hey you wanna grape?”

Apparently, this was quite an honour as Alex is not prone to sharing his grapes with, or bestowing attention upon, visitors to his home. So perhaps we can assume that his attempts at seduction on this occassion were somewhat calculated?

Anyway, I’m delighted to hear that Alex is now passing on his knowledge to the other parrots in the research centre. So we can all eagerly await the flock of wise cracking avians that will no doubt result. Hurrah!

Over in Los Angeles meanwhile, Belle and Sebastian, are also being charmed by a lovely little avian pal that resides in the recording studios where they are laying down tracks for their new album.

Apparently, when questioned by Stuart Murdoch and the band on such weighty matters as:

” Will this record be a hit?”

The parrot turns and replies optimistically:

“You never, never know!”

A reason to go on living if ever there was one, I’m sure you’ll agree?

And what of little mister “hola”?

Well it seems he has finally gone to meet his maker, and his inconsolable days are now behind him.

When I heard of his demise I instantly recalled his sorrowful voice and I will admit there was a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye as the sound of that “hola” filled my head for one last time.

Wherever he is now, I hope at least that he is happy.

Hasta luego, amigo …..

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