The Dead Parrot Society

On May 2, 2023, a 96-year-old woman named Pauline Stensgar passed away in the state of Washington — and with her, died the language she spoke. Known as the Columbia-Moses language in English or n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓ (that’s not a typo) in its native tongue, the language had fully fluent speakers likely for centuries, but over the years, that number dwindled in favor of English. Stensgar is believed to be the last native, fluent speaker of n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓.

Her story isn’t unique. Languages go extinct more often than one would normally expect; according to this list on Wikipedia, the world has lost dozens already in the 21st century thus far, and of course, many, many more in previous millennia. We know of at least 500 languages lost to antiquity, and most likely, there are thousands more. Sometimes, those languages are revived, but that’s tricky unless there’s some record of them — an ancient manuscript, a modern recording, or the like.

Or in the case of the language spoken by the Atures tribe of Venezuela, a kidnapped parrot.

In 1799, a German naturalist named Alexander von Humboldt set out to explore the Orinoco River valley in modern-day Venezuela. (Here’s a map.) Humboldt kept meticulous records of what he found, with a focus on the waterways — he was, particularly, looking to see if the Orinoco connected up with the much larger Amazon River. (It does, and he found a connection, but as it turns out, it had already been documented.) But his notes didn’t stop where the water ended. Humboldt’s notes include recollections of his encounters with native tribes in the region.

One of Humboldt’s stories centers on his meeting with the Caribs, a people still around today, numbering more than 40,000 with about three-quarters in Venezuela. Mental Floss relays the tale:

The tribe, so the story goes, had a number of tame parrots kept in cages around the village, many of which had been taught to speak—although one, Humboldt noted, sounded noticeably different from the rest. When he asked the locals why this parrot sounded so unusual, he was told that it had belonged to a neighboring tribe, who had been the Caribs’ enemies. Ultimately, they had violently ejected them from their land, and hounded the few tribesmen who remained onto a tiny islet in the middle of the nearby rapids. There, the last of the tribe had died in total isolation several years earlier—taking with them their entire culture. This talking parrot was, consequently, the last creature alive who spoke their language.

The language belonged to a tribe known as the Maypuré or Atures — different sources give them a different name — but at that point, their language was only spoken by bird. Some accounts have Humboldt transcription their sounds while still with the Caribs; others, like that of the Independent, state that he brought a bird back to Europe to “to phonetically record the parrot’s vocabulary.” Either way, Humboldt recorded the bird’s speech patterns in his notebook, building a 40-word vocublarity as the last connection to the Maypuré language.

Two centuries later, the language came back — kind of. In 1997 conceptual artist named Rachel Berwick, according to the New York Times, “created a cylindrical aviary about the size of a tool shed” and outfitted it as a habitat for two parrots. Berwick, per the Times, “taught her parrots to speak those words” that Humboldt documented nearly two hundred years prior. The exhibition was a success and Berwick, per her own account, decided to replicate it a few times. As of 2008, “there are now a total of eight Maypuré speaking parrots worldwide,” per her website.

Bonus fact: Parrots, like all other animals, have to eat. And sometimes, they’ll find a farmer’s crop and nibble on whatever is growing — no big deal, right? Well, it is if the farmers are growing poppy flowers. While poppy pods can be used for poppy seeds, they’re also full of opium — and it turns out, people aren’t the only creatures that can be addicted to the drug. As Vice reported in 2019, farmers in Madhya Pradesh, India, were overwhelmed with parrots seeking a high — the birds were “pillaging their crops and gorging themselves on the precious narcotic. And their daily raids are starting to have a significant impact on the locals’ livelihood, prompting many people to call on the authorities for assistance in staving off the drug-addled birds.” It’s unclear how the farmers solved the parrot-poppy problem, if at all.

From the Archives: Ziggy Should have Zagged: A talking parrot gets his owner’s girlfriend in a little bit of trouble.