One former politician who came to my attention recently is Harold Ford Jr., who once represented Tennessee in Congress. Originally from Memphis, Ford declared a few weeks ago he might run against Hillary Clinton’s successor, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Sources close to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg immediately announced the Mayor was considering supporting someone “of Ford’s stature.” Bloomberg instructed his staff to find any candidate who also stood 5’11.”
Ultimately, Ford withdrew from the race he hadn’t entered, but not before launching at Senator Gillibrand the most offensive invective I’ve ever heard in politics: Ford called her a “hypocrite,” a “liar,” “an unelected senator,” and most repugnant, “a parakeet.”
I am the incensed owner of a parakeet, also known as a budgie, short for budgerigar, an unpronounceable Aborigine word that translates “good to eat.” For the purpose of this essay, I shall vary my use of the two words, for in truth they are the identical bird and number approximately 5,000,000 at the 2009 census, not counting the ones who did not respond to the census because of invasion of privacy issues and the fear that previously unreported budgies would be deported.
Ford’s slander of both Senator Gillibrand and parakeets is no surprise. Because the budgie/parakeet is small and fits easily in one’s hand, pocket, cardboard toilet paper roll or Mason jar, the bird, like many short people, has been the victim of prejudice and increasing misothery, a word meaning “hatred of animals,” or “hatred of miso.” Budgies have been bred in captivity since 1859, coincidentally the year after the invention of the Mason jar.
Contrary to Ford’s assumption, budgies are highly intelligent. They can be taught to play games with humans, such as Hide and Seek, soccer with little bell balls, and Monopoly, since the budgie makes an exceptional playing piece who can be moved around the board more easily than the metal top hat, horse, or thimble.
Budgies are well-known for their ability to talk, and this talent for mimicry is clearly what the unenlightened Ford had in mind when he denigrated Senator Gillibrand. One budgie named Puck holds the world record for largest vocabulary of any bird—1728 words. He died in 1994 while trying to pronounce his 1729th word—“seashells”—after three hundred attempts to add that to his previously-mastered phrase, “she sells.”
Budgies are also represented in the apex of culture. A British opera is based on Sparkie the budgie, who died in 1962 at age eight, after acquiring a repertoire of more than 500 words. His stuffed body was flown to Berlin for a performance of the opera, “Sparkle: Cage and Beyond.” He was accompanied by both the archivist at the Natural History Society of Northumbria and the featured coloratura who sings the vocally demanding aria, “Ein Bissele Yenta Feigeleh.”
It’s a certainty that Ford’s calling Senator Gillibrand a “parakeet” was intended to be misogynistic. By implication, Ford was attacking as frivolous Senator Gillibrand’s preoccupation with colorful dress and good grooming. But his analogy about the Australian-native budgies boomerangs on him again. In fact, budgies use their ultraviolet-pigmented plumage to attract interest, the goal of all legislators including Senator Gillibrand.
Australian ornithologists at the University of Queensland actually discovered the effect that ultraviolet (UV) pigment plays on budgies’ feathers in attracting members of the opposite sex. The scientists smeared petroleum jelly and sunscreen on the heads of male budgies, then smeared a control group of male budgies with petroleum jelly without sunscreen. Required to choose between the two smeared male groups, female budgies showed a clear preference for male canaries.
Another Harold Ford misperception: that parakeets are flighty and featherbrained. In Barcelona Spain one of the most popular soccer teams that consistently demonstrates its prowess is Los Periquitos [“The Parakeets”].The team’s first uniforms were bright yellow jerseys, although they now play in attractive blue and white stripes with pinfeathers.
When I was young and pet-less, I was thrilled my parents finally agreed to a pet parakeet. I knew the corner pet store carried parakeets, priced at $1.20 or 99 cents, depending on whether you wanted one with wings. Once there, I looked in awe through the wire cage at the kinetic birds swirling around, a congress of color in blues, greens and yellows.
I narrowed the field to three different budgies and even chose their names, which I don’t recall, but can approximate with modern monikers. “Stupakky” had a tendency to fly backwards. “Nancy” was diminutive, but scared hell out of the other birds. My third choice, named for a popular baseball player, was “Bunting” or “Bunning.” Unfortunately, when we brought him home, we found Bunning was plagued with constipation. Nothing would pass.
I doubt Harold Ford ever had a pet parakeet. Or perhaps his prejudice is broader, extending to all birds, the result of his formative years in Memphis where his father, former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., used to be the chief duck wrangler for the Peabody Hotel’s famous parading ducks. Tennessee also has an unfortunate history of Parakeet-American abuse. In 2006 the hideaway of two escaped convicts searched by police reportedly turned up numerous sex-related paraphernalia, including “sex toys, whips, kinky lingerie, a pornographic DVD …. and a blue parakeet.”
In this era of deplorable incivility by politicians, Ford needs to go back to Memphis to trace the source of his bigotry against budgies. While he’s there, he can reacquaint himself with the Tennessee voters he abandoned, and even make rounds at places like the Memphis Zoo, 13 miles from Parakeet Drive. This spring the zoo is featuring a special “Birds and Bees” exhibit. Inside the walk-through outdoor aviary Ford can open his arms to those most anticipating his visit—— 500 frenzied parakeets.