Birding with Presidents
Feb 12, 2021
In honor of President’s Day, we rounded up some history of U.S. presidents who kept birds while in office. Nineteen presidents kept birds, including Teddy Roosevelt, who also maintained a bird checklist of species he saw on the White House grounds.
Thomas Jefferson owned several mockingbirds, who he would write about in his meteorological diary, “Weather Memorandum”:
1808 Jan. 31: “The old mock. bird sings.”
1808 March 2. "The middle aged bird sings."
1808 March 3. “Dick sings.”
“Dick the Mockingbird” (who has his own Wikipedia page) was Jefferson’s favorite, according to friend/biographer Margaret Bayard Smith, who wrote “[he had] a peculiar fondness, not only for its melodious powers, but for its uncommon intelligence and affectionate disposition…It was the constant companion of his solitary and studious hours. Whenever he was alone he opened the cage and let the bird fly about the room. After flitting for a while from one object to another, it would alight on his table and regale him with its sweetest notes, or perch on his shoulder and take its food from his lips. Often when he retired to his chamber it would hop up the stairs after him and while he took his siesta, would sit on his couch and pour forth its melodious strains." In the spring of 1809, Jefferson moved south for retirement, where he wrote from Monticello: "[M]y birds arrived here in safety & are the delight of every hour."
A turkey sent to Abraham Lincoln in 1863 for a holiday feast became the family pet when ten-year-old Tad Lincoln befriended the bird and named him “Jack.” When Tad realized Christmas was near and it would be time to prepare the turkey for Christmas dinner, “he burst into the cabinet meeting in tears and pleaded with his father to pardon the bird from the ‘executioner.’”This story is the basis for the modern-day presidential turkey pardoning at Thanksgiving.
Jimmy Carter, an avid birder, said he and wife Rosalynn Carter had “certified a little over 1,200 different species” of birds from all around the world. Yet his “life bird” was discovered not far from his home in Americus, Georgia, in 2002, where he and his wife were excited to see their first – and only – Painted Bunting.
Here is a sampling of other “presidential birds”:
James Buchanan: Bald Eagles
Calvin Coolidge: Nip and Tuck (canaries); Snowflake (Canary); Peter Piper (Canary); Goldy (a yellow bird); Old Bill (Thrush); Enoch (Goose); Do-Funny (Troupial); and a Mockingbird
Dwight D. Eisenhower: Gabby (Parakeet)
Andrew Jackson: Polly (Parrot)
John F. Kennedy: Robin (Canary); Bluebell and Marybelle (Parakeets
James Madison: Uncle Willy (Parrot, pictured above left with Dolly Madison)
William McKinley: Washington Post (Parrot that could whistle “Yankee Doodle Dandee”)
Teddy Roosevelt: Eli Yale (Hyacinth Macaw, pictured above right with Teddy, Jr.); one-legged Rooster (pictured above center)
John Tyler: Johnny Ty (Canary)
Birds appear to be one of the most popular presidential pets, but the title of “birder president” has to go to Teddy Roosevelt, who took time out of his busy days to list 91 bird species he saw – or heard – at the White House, and helped establish 51 preserves for birds, five national parks, 18 national monuments and 150 national forests.
Though presidents eventually depart the executive mansion, a couple of birds remain there: Gabby and Caroline Kennedy’s canary, “Robin.” Gabby died in 1957 and was buried by the gardener at the southwest corner of the executive mansion. Her grave was marked with an asbestos shingle stenciled with her name. “Robin” died in 1962, the day before the Queen Farah of Iran visited Washington. When the queen arrived, Caroline insisted on taking her to the burial site near her play area: “That was the one thing Caroline wanted the empress to see,” said Jackie Kennedy. According to The New York Times, the canary got its name because Caroline “likes robins.”
Don’t we all?
(Sources: Audubon.org; Monticello.org; BirdNote.org; WhiteHouseHistory.org; PresidentialPetMuseum.com; BirdWatchingDaily.com)