I had the cage open, and the budgie on my finger.
So I went to the roof, while Jim followed with the cage.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, August 25, 1945.

“Listen,” said Jimmie Frise over the telephone.

I listened.

“Hear that?” asked Jim excitedly.

“Hear what?” I demanded irritably.

“Aw, listen,” pleaded Jim.

I could hear Jim muttering. Then I heard some small squawks, like static on a radio with a loose tube.

“Did you get it?” cried Jim delightedly.

“It sounds as if you were twiddling with the mouthpiece,” I said.

“It said, ‘What’s cookin’?” declared Jim indignantly, “as clear as if it were a human being!”

“What did?” I inquired.

“The budgie,” replied Jim. “The neighbors left their budgie in my care and I am having more fun with it! Come on over.”

“What’s a budgie?” I snorted.

“A tiny little sort of parrot,” said Jim. “A love bird. It’s the prettiest little thing, and it talks. Talks like a streak.”

“Go ahead and talk with it,” I suggested. “I’m redding up my attic.”

“Aw, come on over,” protested Jim. “This is sensation. The thing actually talks.”

“So does a squeaky chair,” I retorted. “So does a new pair of cheap shoes.”

“Well, listen to this then,” commanded Jim. And I could hear him mawking and maudling the way aunties do with infants. There was a silence on the telephone and then came another sputter of static.


“Hear that?” yelled Jimmie.

“What did it say?” I asked politely.

“It said, ‘Come up and see me some time”,” shouted Jimmie enthusiastically. “Why, it was as clear as anything. The dear little thing!”

And I could hear him mawking again.

“Okay, I’ll come over,” I said, “if only to see you cuddling a bird.”

So I walked around to Jim’s. And found him in the living-room sitting in front of cage, cooing.

In the cage was the budgie, a small, solemn bird of a chalky green color, the color of billiard cue chalk. It sat vertically on its perch, bolt upright. It had a flat head and a small beak buried in its chin so that it appeared to be chinless. It was keeping up a small muttering sound and Jim was listening raptly. I walked up close and saw that the feathers of the bird were beautifully vermiculated or waved with color, and I thought what a perfect Blue Quill trout fly these feathers would make. A Blue Quill dry, size 16.

“Meet the nice gentleman,” cooed Jimmie.

“Scatch,” said the budgie. “Sktch-psst-ack-sktch!”

“Hear that?” cried Jimmie exultantly.

“It sounds as if it had a fish bone in its throat,” I suggested.

“Aw, what’s the matter with you?” snorted Jim. “It said ‘Pleased to meet you’ as clear as crystal.”

“Get it to say it again,” I proposed.

“Come on, Budgie,” cooed Jim. “Meet the nice gentleman, eh?”

“Scatch,” said the budgie

“There!” exclaimed Jim triumphantly. “What more do you want than that?”

“It said ‘Scatch’,” I protested.

“It said ‘Good-evening’,” declared Jim loudly, “as plain as I am saying it! Good- evening! Good-evening!”

“Scatch,” said the budgie. “Scatch.”

“There!” breathed Jim, looking at me with finality.

“Are You Serious?”

I looked at Jim. He was flushed. But otherwise he seemed his old self. I looked at the little bird. It was sitting bolt upright, looking excessively stupid for its size. Usually it takes a much larger bird to look so dumb.

“Jim,” I said quietly. “Tell me honestly. Can you hear that bird talking? I mean: can you make out words? Because all I can hear are sounds like a slate pencil on a slate. Or maybe like fitting a new tube in the radio.”

“Are you serious?” demanded Jimmie. “Do you mean to say you can’t make out what this bird is saying?”

“I certainly can’t,” I informed him firmly. “And what’s more, I don’t think you can.”

“This is the limit!’ said Jimmie, standing up abruptly. “I’ve heard of tone deaf people. And I’ve heard of all kinds of funny defects in people. But I can’t believe anybody in the world could fail to hear this budgie talking. Why, it is as clear and intelligible as a human being talking.”

“I’m not very good at parrots, Jim,” I apologized. “I’ve tried to hear parrots talking all my life. Everybody else can hear them. But to me, it just sounds like bird calls. If they say the parrot is saying ‘Pretty Polly’, it just sounds like ‘icky olly’ to me, and that’s a sound a parrot would make naturally.”

“Awff,” scoffed Jim, sitting down again and leaning to the cage.

“When they say the parrot is saying ‘hello’,” I continued, “it merely sounds like ‘awo’ to me. And from my knowledge of bird notes and bird songs, I’d say that cry is natural to a parrot. And no doubt the jungles resound all day with parrot calls that silly men, lonely in the jungle, imagine are human words the birds are trying to utter.”

“I suppose,” said Jim bitterly, “that you are going to try and argue that it is our own imagination that persuades us the birds are talking.”

“That’s precisely what I was working up to,” I admitted. “This whole parrot myth probably began ages and ages ago when some poor lonely cave man, lost in the jungle, let out a wild yell, a wild and unintelligible yell such as cave men would use in those days. And immediately, the jungle would be filled with the replies of parrots. Wild cries, equally unintelligible. And when the cave man got back home to his cave, he would tell his tribe, in whatever sign language the cave men used to help out the parrot-like sounds they used for speech, that he had been in a wild country full of birds that talked.”

“Pffff,” uttered Jim disgustedly.

“So began the myth of the talking bird,” I pursued. “And over the ages, supported by other experiences of lonely shipwrecked mariners and others who were only too eager to talk to birds or to anything, for that matter: the myth has grown. Until we find people today so carried away by their own imaginations that they think they can make out words when these birds emit normal squawks and yelps and whistles which are natural to them.”

“Hello, Budgie,” murmured Jim into the cage. “Hello, Budgie.”

“Prrrt,” said the budgie. “Uckle, uckle, uckle.”

Jim turned instantly and stared at me intently. “Didn’t you hear that?” he demanded tensely.

“Sure,” I said easily, “It said ‘Prrrt, uckle, uckle, uckle’.”

Jim shrugged his shoulders wearily and turned away.

“It said,” said Jim grimly, “‘What time do we eat?'”

It was my turn to grow anxious.

“Jim,” I declared. “You worry me. That darn bird merely made a few noises characteristic of it. It said ‘Prrrt, uckle, uckle, uckle’.”

“It said,” whirled Jim on me, “What time do we eat?’ as clearly as if you had said it!”

We glared at each other for a long moment.

“Jim,” I began cautiously, “this whole business illustrates, a human characteristic, a human weakness, which is one of the greatest problems on earth today. The problem of belief. I am almost prepared to believe, after this exhibition, that you can persuade human beings to believe anything.”

Jim just glared.

“There are hundreds of millions of people in this world,” I pursued, “all making parrot sounds. They learn parrot sounds in infancy to signify food, drink, warmth and such things as open the door, shut the door, and please pass the butter. Ninety-nine per cent. of all human sound being made all over the world at this minute – and what an awful din it must be! – is pure parrot talk. People making the noises they have learned and which they call speech.”

“You admit we understand each other,” muttered Jim. “You admit we hear each other’s words.”

The Human Jungle

“It is like the jungle,” I followed my fancy, “a vast human jungle filled with squawks, yelps, and all the other sounds of human speech, in English, German, Russian, Chinese, and the several hundred other series of parrot sounds which are organized into what we call languages. All over the world, the human jungle, hundreds of millions of people yelping at each other, in pairs, in groups, in congregations. And everybody looks intelligently at everybody else. They nod their heads in understanding. And they carry out the actions the sounds suggest. But, as I say, 99 per cent. of it is just yelping. It is not thinking. It is not really intelligent. It is like this bird saying ‘uckle, uckle, uckle,’ and you going straight to the kitchen to fetch it some seeds.”

“You’re balmy,” said Jim, turning back to the cage and starting to coo.

“It’s wholly a matter of imagination,” I said, “and a matter of us pretending we understand one another. But we don’t understand one another. Not really. We just sit in front of each other making sounds and pretending we find a meaning in what the other is saying.”

“Proving what?” demanded Jim, looking at the, budgie dearly.

“Proving that life is almost entirely a matter of our own separate imaginations,” I said.

Jim leaned forward murmuring to the vertical little bird which shuffled one way on the perch and then shuffled back, twittering and chuckling.

“What’s it telling you now?” I inquired sweetly.

“You wouldn’t understand,” said Jim. “Some people just haven’t got the gift of understanding.”

“Icker, icker, prrt,” said the budgie.

Jim turned slowly and smiled an inscrutable smile at me.

“Icker,” said the budgie, “uckle, uckle, icker.”

“Don’t you get that?” hissed Jim tensely. I went over and leaned at the cage too. ‘Icker dooker wecker eeeker?” lisped the budgie, eying me slyly with a small round eye.

It winked.

It was pale and beautiful and vertical.

“Whecker, dooker eat?” the budgie lisped.

I looked at Jim with astonishment.

He nodded hopefully and delightedly at me.

I leaned closer and stared intently at the gaudy little bird.

“When do we eat?” said the little budgie clearly and distinctly. I leaped back.

“Why, Jim!” I gasped, “It said, ‘When do we eat?'”

“Exactly,” said Jim grandly. “So you got it at last?”

“Hey!” I said, leaning close again. “Let’s hear some more.”

Jimmie cooed and asked the little budgie if it was tired and wanted to go to beddy-bye.

We listened intently.

“What’s cookin’?” said the budgie. “When do we eat?”

“Aw, the poor little thing is hungry!” I cried, excitedly. “Where’s its feed?”

“I fed it an hour ago, the seed glass is still half full,” pointed out Jimmie.

“Huh, dry old seed!” I snorted, “It wants something special. It wants a beef steak or a banana or a tomato or something…”

“Now, now, just because it can talk,” laughed Jim, “you don’t want to imagine it is a human being.”

But in the kitchen, I got a quarter of tomato and brought it in as an offering to the new wonder. New wonder to me, anyway.

“I felt the same astonishment,” gloated Jim, “when I first heard it talking. The neighbors left it with me last night. They’re coming home tonight. They never told me it could talk. I suppose they just thought I’d know. Well, I was sitting reading here this afternoon. The budgie was twittering away and I was paying no attention. When, all of a sudden, I heard it say: ‘How’s about letting me out? How’s about something to eat, eh?”

“As clear as that?” I breathed.

“I nearly fell off the chair,” said Jim. “And I’ve been talking to him ever since.”

I poked the tomato in. The budgie pecked at it.

“Thanks a million,” he said.

“Hear that?” we both roared at each other.

“Uckle, uckle,” laughed the budgie. “Don’t get excited.”

“Look, Jim,” I said warmly. “Let’s let him out. He doesn’t belong in a cage. Let’s let him out with us in the room.”

“Wait till I see all windows are closed,” said Jim, hurrying out to the other rooms.

By the time he got back, I had the cage door open and the budgie on my finger. He waddled along it, inspecting me and saying “Thanks a million.”

Then he flew.

He flew into the hall.

He flew right up the stairs.

“Holy smoke!” yelled Jim. “All the upstairs windows are open!”

And as we ran from room to room upstairs, we knew that the budgie had got outside.

We ran outside. And there was budgie up on the roof, shuffling one way and then the other, muttering and chuckling ecstatically and turning his head from side to side as he surveyed the wide world which was still his cage, as it is for all of us.

“You shouldn’t have let him out,” grated Jim angrily.

“We’ll get him, we’ll get him,” I said breathlessly. “Where’s your ladder?”

“He’ll only fly to the next house,” groaned Jim miserably. “And by dark, he’ll be blocks away. Oh, why did I ever telephone you!”

“A talking bird like this,” I said hopelessly, “is probably worth a great deal of money.”

“They’ll never forgive me,” moaned Jim. “Oh, why do I undertake to do things for people!…”

So we rushed down cellar and got the ladder. And when we got up, the pretty budgie was still on the roof, shuffling along, to right and left, and turning his head to survey the world.

“My responsibility,” I said briskly, as we leaned the ladder up. “I let him out.”

So I went to the roof, while Jim followed with the cage.

Bird’s Owner Returns

Many neighbors by this time had come out of their houses and were watching from windows. They called all sorts of advice, and one lady said the bird was as good as gone, and we might as well not risk our lives crawling around roofs. She had lost eight or 10 budgies, and not one had ever been recovered.

I crept along the ridge. The budgie flew up to the chimney top. I straddled the ridge and edged to within almost grasping distance.

“Come now,” I said quietly. “Don’t be a fool. Listen to reason. I admit a cage is a pretty grim thing. But all life is a cage. We’re all in cages. Laws, rules, customs, every one is a bar to a cage. The cats will get you. You need special seed…”

“Beat it,” said the budgie. “Leave me be.”

And when I reached, he flew up and off to the next house top.

“See?” shrilled the lady who had lost eight or 10.

We were just setting the ladder up on the house next door when the neighbors who own the budgie drove up.

Jim ran to them in extreme distress.

“Your budgie!” he said brokenly, pointing up. “It got out.”

“Okay, that’s nothing,” said the neighbor. “Don’t get excited. He gets out all the time.”

“But how will we…?” puffed Jim.

“Take it easy,” said the neighbor. “Just set the cage in my back yard. On a chair. Here, let the take the cage.”

And he put the cage on a garden chair and gave a couple of sharp whistles.

“Okay, now let’s all go inside and act as if nothing was amiss,” he said. “Come in behind the screen door.”

He gave another couple of shrill whistles.

And to our astonishment, the budgie fluttered awkwardly down from the neighbor’s roof, landed on the cage, and using beak and claw, lowered itself into the cage.

The neighbor walked casually out and shut the cage door and brought it in the house.

“Aaaaah!” breathed Jim and I together.

“When we discovered how it could talk,” said Jim, “and we realized how valuable it must be, we were nearly crazy when it got loose.”

“Talk?” said the neighbor.

“Yes, when we heard it talking,” went on Jim, “we had no idea these birds had such an extraordinary gift….”

“It can’t talk,” said the neighbor, looking at Jim, amused.

“Can’t talk!” cried Jim. “You should hear it!”

“All that twittering and stuff?” said the owner. “Nonsense. If you’re sort of imaginative, you can kid yourself into thinking it talks.”

“How long have you had that bird?”, demanded Jim.

“Ever since it came out of the egg last year,” said the owner.

“And you don’t know it can talk?” cried Jimmie, astonished.

“I sure don’t,” said the owner, sticking his finger in the cage. The budgie jumped on it. and pretended to attack it fiercely, making affectionate little twitters at the same time.

“Let me show you whether it can talk or not,” asserted Jim hotly.

“Aw, no, not tonight,” said the neighbor. “Anyway, I’ve got a leaky tap that talks already. It keeps saying, ‘Muddle, muddle, toil and trouble. Say, how about you boys helping me mend that tap, right now?”

Editor’s Note: “Redding up” means cleaning up.