TO ANYONE WHO grew up in the 1970s, the sad tale of the American household that woke on Christmas morning to find a dead parrot under the tree might conjure a certain Monty Python skit. But on 25 December 1929 it was not funny … not funny at all.
This prostate Polly marked the start of an outbreak of parrot fever of an entirely different nature to that which had gripped the Japanese. This was a fever that had at least a one in six chance of killing people who contracted it from caged birds.
It put the panic in pandemic and generated improbable headlines like ‘Coroner’s Warning Against Fondling Parrots, Grave Risk in Kissing Birds’. People literally ran past pet shops holding handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. As Harvard history professor Jill Lepore put it in The New Yorker 80 years later, ‘Before it was over, an admiral in the U.S. Navy ordered sailors at sea to cast their pet parrots into the Ocean.