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Why Does Polly Want a Cracker?

Dear Bird Folks,

Why are parrots often given the name, “Polly,” and why is Polly always asking for a cracker?

– Melanie, Boston, MA


IDK, Melanie,

I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, but the Polly/cracker thing really annoys me. Here at work we sell bird hand puppets. Anytime a child stumbles upon a parrot puppet, he or she will invariably spend the next ten minutes chasing a parent around yelling, “Polly wants a cracker, Polly wants a cracker.” The parent, of course, just keeps shopping and ignores the whole thing. Meanwhile, I can’t help thinking: “Really, kid? Is that the cleverest thing you can think of to say? Don’t you have any new material? No wonder your parent keeps ignoring you.” After I received your note, I decided to try and find out the origin of that hackneyed phrase. It turns out the fault lies with Shakespeare, or more specifically, one of his friends. Keep in mind: My answer is basically paraphrased from information I found online, so if you don’t agree with my answer, blame the internet…or Shakespeare’s friend.

In the early 1600s, Shakespeare’s friend, Ben Jonson, wrote a play entitled, Volpone. One of the characters in the play went by the name of “Sir Pol Would-Be” (yes, that was his name). Sir Pol and his wife traveled to Venice, even though neither of them could speak Italian. In order to fit in, the two Brits simply repeated, parrot-style, whatever Italian words they heard the locals say. The play was a hit and the character, Sir Pol, became so popular that many folks started naming their parrots after him. Pol ultimately morphed into Polly and eventually became the generic name for all parrots. In fact, President Andrew Jackson had an African Grey Parrot, which he called “Poll” (the feisty president wasn’t about to go with the cutesy Polly name). When the president died, Poll, for some reason, was allowed to attend the funeral. Just as the service was getting underway, the parrot decided it had a few words to say and launched into a steady stream of profanity. When attempts to silence the bird failed, it had to be taken out of the room. Since parrots are mimics and only repeat what they’ve heard, it’s safe to assume Poll’s colorful language originated from Old Hickory himself. (This is the reason why I never speak near parrots.)

Where Polly’s demand for crackers originated is a little less clear. Some people blame Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Nope. While there was a talking parrot in the story, its name was “Captain Flint,” not Polly. Also, Captain Flint didn’t want crackers, but instead kept asking for “pieces of eight.” Why pieces of eight? I guess if the bird had its own money, it would be able to buy whatever food it wanted, and could finally move on from an all-cracker diet. Here’s another theory. In the mid-1800s, there was a dark cartoon, which depicted a boy who was about to strike a parrot with a stick. The cartoon gives the impression that the kid is upset with the bird and is asking, “Polly, want a cracker?” A cracker in this case isn’t a snack, but a whack upside the head. (This was before the days of PETA.)

In the late 1800s, the American Biscuit Company, in an effort to boost sales of its gross soda crackers, started an ad campaign for the company’s Parrot Brand. The ad featured a parrot (macaw) standing on a perch with one foot holding a cracker. The bird doesn’t say its famous catchphrase, but it is totally implied. I don’t know if the ad worked, but a few years later American Biscuit became the National Biscuit Company (NABISCO), where they invented the Oreo, and no one ever mentioned soda crackers again.

The whole Polly/cracker mania might have died out, but then Looney Tunes cartoons came along. And if Looney Tunes did anything well, it excelled at promoting stereotypes. Parrots in these cartoons were always asking for crackers, including one bird that wouldn’t stop bugging Bugs Bunny. Finally, Bugs had had enough and gave the parrot a cracker…only in this case, the “cracker” was a lit firecracker. Ah, the good ol’ days of violent humor.

Here’s a question: Do parrots even like crackers? Based on what I’ve read, pet parrots do indeed enjoy crackers in one form or another; in the wild, however, parrots eat nuts, flowers, fruit, buds and seeds. Their love for those things puts them in conflict with humans, especially farmers. (I think farmers wish parrots really did crave crackers, instead of their crops.) Here is something else parrots like to eat…clay. Each day hundreds of parrots descend on clay cliffs in Peru and chow down. Researchers are still debating why the birds are attracted to the cliffs. Some say it has to do with obtaining minerals, while others feel the clay helps protect the birds from toxins found in the fruit they eat. Whatever it is the birds gain from the clay, it still sounds better than eating a soda cracker.

Shakespeare had nothing to do with that annoying parrot phrase, Melanie. But his friend, Ben Jonson, needs to take some of the blame, as well as the biscuit company and the mean kid with the stick. Finally, if you ask me, the best way to enjoy a parrot is to watch it from a distance, with a pair of binoculars, in its natural habitat. Parrots belong in the wild, not in cages. Instead of offering a parrot a cracker, it would be better to offer the bird its freedom. Cages aren’t fit for any living thing…except for maybe that mean kid with the stick.