Parrots & Birds as Symbols of Surveillance
Parrots & Birds as Symbols of Surveillance
This dossier examines both “birds” (generally) and “parrots” (specifically) as cultural tropes. Here I will explore the existence of such a cultural symbol as evidence of a cultural yearning for a not yet realized media of surveillance that stems from the human instinct to spy and eavesdrop.
an image from Banksy's "The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill"(http://thevillagepetstoreandcharcoalgrill.com/)
“A little birdy told me so”, as well as, “to watch [someone] like a hawk” are both widely used idioms in the English language. The bird as a symbol of surveillance can be traced as far back as the Bible. “Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.” (Ecclesiastes 10:20)
Parrots have been widely used as storytelling tropes in popular culture. They are often used to reveal an important secret about a character. This role of the parrot can be traced back to folktales from the Far East. In these tales, the talking parrot warns the deceived. In China, for example, the representation of a parrot was used as a symbolic warning to women to be faithful to their husbands. It pointed back to the legend of a pearl merchant in the province of Kiangsi who was at the point of ruin by the intrigues of his faithless wife, when, suddenly, the state of affairs was made known to him by a talking parrot. (Rowland)
A variety of modern day examples of the telltale parrot can be found in films, TV shows and commercials. Timing is a key factor in these narratives.
-In a Bud Light Commercial, a guy and a girl are on their first date and they enter her apartment. She leaves the room for a minute and while she is gone the guy’s phone rings. He answers his phone, and confides in the caller, “she’s a little annoying, but I’m desperate.” The girl comes back into the room and asks the man if he’s met Coop. The man looks up to discover Coop the parrot, who suddenly repeats the phrase, “she’s a little annoying, but I’m desperate”. Thanks to Coop, the girl is made aware of the guy’s true intentions, and kicks him out of her apartment. 5
-In an episode of the TV show Frasier, Niles' pet cockatoo ruins his chances with the neighbors when it repeats things he and Frasier have said about his dinner guests. 4
-In an early episode of the TV show Small Wonder, the Lawson’s have the Brindles as uninvited houseguests after the latter family's house burns down. Naturally, the Brindles' parrot reveals the real cause of the fire. 4
-In an episode of Dexter’s Laboratory, Dexter creates a robot-parrot to keep around the lab. It backfires in short order as the parrot begins to mimic Deedee, then escapes the lab and threatens to blab about it to the rest of the family. 4
-On The Nanny, a parrot exposes that Fran told Val about Cher secretly staying at the Sheffields'.4
-In the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, a parrot repeating what the villain said provides the vital clue to allow Bond to track down the villain's whereabouts.4
-Cap'n Fear, one of Batman’s foes, had a robot parrot that was designed to randomly record and repeat phrases said around it. Capturing the parrot and accessing its memory provided Robin with information to allow him to track down the pirate's hideout.4
-The Far Side mocks this cultural trope in a cartoon where a group of mobsters are discussing the location of their new hideout in a pet shop full of parrots. "Alright, let's repeat the address a hundred times or so to make sure we all get it."4
In the News
Although most of the cultural role of parrots as a media of surveillance is imagined, there are several examples of real-life incidents where a parrot functioned in this role. The following is an excerpt from a story published in The New York Times on January 18th, 2006, about a parrot in London who exposed a cheating wife. (Lyall)
"Hiya, Gary!" the parrot trilled flirtatiously whenever Chris Taylor's girlfriend answered her cell phone. But Mr. Taylor, the owner of the parrot, did not know anyone named Gary. And his girlfriend, Suzy Collins, who had moved into his apartment a year earlier, swore that she didn't, either. She stuck to her story even after the parrot, Ziggy, began making lovey-dovey, smooching noises when it heard the name Gary on television. And so it went until the fateful day just before Christmas when, as Mr. Taylor and Ms. Collins snuggled together on the sofa, Ziggy blurted out, "I love you, Gary," his voice a dead ringer for Ms. Collins's. "It sent a chill down my spine," Mr. Taylor, a 30-year-old computer programmer from Leeds, told British reporters on Monday. "I started laughing, but when I looked at Suzy I could tell something was up. Her face was like beet root and she started to cry." Gary, it turned out, was Ms. Collins's former colleague and current secret lover.
A similar story also appeared in Harper’s Magazine on November 24th, 2005. Stating that a German woman named Petra Ficker threw her husband, Frank Ficker, out of the house after her parrot cried out the name of Mr. Ficker's mistress, Uta. “It's just me and my parrot now,” said Petra. (Ford)
The partnership of humans and animals for companionship and protection has ancient roots, and may have existed for over 100,000 years in one form or another. In the book “Understanding Surveillance Technologies”, there is an entire chapter dedicated to Animals. Birds have a large role in this chapter. They have been used as surveillance partners because they can fly, they are cooperative, they can live a long time, and some of them have strong homing instincts. Some birds, such as cockatoos, have been used for their alarm calls, which can be heard from long distances, and is useful when it encounters intruders. (Petersen) The Carrier pigeon is another example. They were used for sending messages, but were ruthlessly hunted to extinction around 1914. (Petersen) Although the carrier pigeon is best known for its delivery of messages, they also had a more sinister role as spies. Below is an excerpt from the dossier on Homing Pigeons.
One extremely literal example of this homing pigeon function occurred during the two world wars, when they were utilized as spies: “A camera set to automatic shutter, which was hung around their necks, helped in the reconnoitering of enemy positions…of the hundreds of thousands of spy carrier pigeons deployed, ‘95% completed their missions’” (Dee 1). These pigeon spies continued their service through the 1950s, “earning more medals of honor than any other animal” (Dee 1). Here, we see a homing pigeon not only acting as a medium for humans by carrying messages, but also performing the seemingly exclusive human task of photography, and for a specific purpose - to aid the eyes of the government.
The impulse to listen in on other people’s conversations is powerful and widespread and has been around since long before the early days of the telegraph and telephone. This primal impulse is the reason for the popularity of the parrot as a house pet, beginning in the 18th century. (Petersen)
Parrots as Pets
Evidence from many sources suggests that the number of parrots in France, as well as some other European countries, increased dramatically during the eighteenth century. This increase was in part due to the increase in colonial trade, as well as the growing popularity of exotic pets in general. (Robbins p.29) Until the 19th century, parrots were not bred in Europe, but were imported mainly from Africa and South America. Following canaries, parrots were the second most popular exotic pets of the time. For-sale notices always advertised the Parrot’s speech above all else. “Young Amazon parrot just arrived from Le Havre and starting to talk”, and “pretty parakeet that speaks well.” (Robbins, p.143) In an explanation of the appeals of the parrot, Buffon writes, “…sometimes surprising us by their justice….” (Robbins, p.146) Parrot anecdotes and poems utilized the parrots “mimicry” as a humorous way “to cut through facades to reveal normally hidden social or political truths.” (Robbins, p.165)
Audio Recording Technology & Wiretapping
One of the closest descendants of human spying and eavesdropping is audio recording technology. This field has mainly developed to enhance or replace the human ear. The development of this field in the early 1900’s coincides with a fall in popularity of the parrot as a pet. The first technology-based equivalent of eavesdropping is the tapping of telephone lines, also known as “wiretapping”. (Petersen, p. 14-15) The police departments in major cities had installed telephone systems by the early 1900’s. Bell had a monopoly on the system, which resulted in a uniformity of hardware and services. This uniformity impacted phone surveillance by making it very easy to eavesdrop on telephone communications. There were no statutes in the US to regulate wiretapping at this time. (Petersen, p. 14-15)One of the first instances of wiretapping on record was in 1916, when a New York mayor authorized it in order to aid an investigation of charity-fraud involving Catholic priests. During an examination of this case, it was discovered that police could tap any line in the New York Telephone Company. They had been listening to many confidential conversations. (Petersen, p. 2-26)
Although surveillance technology seems to have answered this cultural need symbolized by the parrot and the bird, the envisioned media has not yet been fully realized. Surveillance today still lacks the sense of timing and the ability of selection that are key aspects of the parrot’s role as surveillor. Audio and visual recorders do not have the capability of selecting the event of importance out of their recorded content. A human is still needed to watch or listen to the many hours of recording in order to weed out or locate the right moment. Surveillance is increasingly becoming more closely associated with personal and everyday use. This is similar to the symbolism of the parrot, which appears in more personal situations, such as between husband and wife. By examining the cultural role of the parrot, we can see what direction our surveillance technology will take. This can allow us to inspect our culture more closely, and question the reasons for our need for such technologies. Perhaps our paranoia is evidence of a culture of selfishness, where each individual is secretly unconcerned with what is best for the community.
3. Dossier on Homing Pigeons
Dee, Jim. "Museum of Spies." Foreign Policy in Focus. Albuquerque: Jan 25, 2007.
4. Image from:
-Rowland, Beryl. Birds with human souls. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1978. (p. 123)
-Petersen, Julie K. Understanding Surveillance Technologies. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2001.
-Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. Parrot Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
-Lyall, Sarah. “Kiss and Tell: She Kisses and the Parrot Tells”. The New York Times, January 18th 2006.
-Ford, Paul. “Weekly Review”. Harper’s Magazine. November 24th, 2005.
-Robbins, Louise E. Elephant slaves and pampered parrots: exotic animals in eighteenth-century Paris. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.