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Friday, September 30, 2011

This is an Ex-Parrot

Okay, I'll admit it. Two of my favorite pieces in the new Creature Comforts exhibition are not the beautifully illustrated Buffon natural history encyclopedia or Jefferson's seminal Notes on the State of Virginia, but a pair of letters about the Rosenbachs' pet parrots.

The Rosenbachs had many parrots (and other birds) over their careers; if you've taken the house tour you've probably heard about how they kept birds in the bay window of the dining room. Their most famous feathered friend was undoubtedly Josephine the gray parrot, who lived in the reception room of the New York store. In Book Hunter's Holiday Dr. Rosenbach describes Josephine as a weather oracle, claiming that when she beat her feathers against her cage and rasped "Get out you," that was a sign of rain, while her whistling chromatic scales meant sunshine. Josephine was also remarked upon in many published accounts of visitors to the store; one noted that her repertoire of sounds included an excellent Bronx cheer.

The two letters in the exhibition don't deal with Josephine, but with her compatriots. Dated nearly 40 years apart, the letters testify to the Rosenbachs long-standing love of birds

In the first, a pet shop informs the Rosenbachs that "the parrot left for treatment the other day died last evening notwithstanding we used all effort available to restore it to good condition, but it failed to respond to treatment." The store then asks for instructions as to what to do with the "carcass" and the cage, as well as 60 cents for its efforts.

Rosenbach Company Archives. RoCo I:046:40

The second letter deals with some problems Philip had getting companion for his birds. He wants a "mate for Rosella," but he also wants "a female companion for the dwarf Mexican parrot." Apparently sexing dwarf Mexican parrots is a bit tricky, since Philip writes "if you say it is impossible to tell them apart, I don't see what could be done in the matter, as we thought the other bird was a female and it turned out to be a male and the dwarf Mexican killed it. So maybe we'd better leave him alone."

Rosenbach Company Archives. RoCo I:122:01

Dead parrots, confused sexual identity...sounds like a Monty Python sketch to me!

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