A Brief History of President-Bird Companionship
Even the leader of the free world needs a feathered friend sometimes.
By Xander Zellner
February 12, 2016 Popular Stories
First rooster: Teddy Roosevelt owned a one-legged Rooster and many family pets.
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Last June, tourists and D.C. power players alike were charmed when a Red-tailed Hawk made a home for itself on the East Wing of the White House. But in fact birds and presidents have a long history together, and unlike Lincoln (as the hawk was later named), dozens of lucky birds in history have actually made it inside the White House as presidential pets. In total, 19 U.S. presidents have kept birds while in office, perhaps most notably nature-lover (and Audubon supporter) Teddy Roosevelt, who not only owned several birds—including a Hyacinth Macaw and a one-legged rooster—but also kept a bird checklist of species he saw on the White House grounds. In honor of President’s Day, we’ve rounded up a few other notable bird-president relationships.
Several of the Founding Fathers shared their presidential homes with birds, including George Washington, whose wife, Martha, kept a parrot at their house in Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, owned several mockingbirds before and during his presidency, whom he would often write about in his meteorological diary, “Weather Memorandum.” Jefferson’s pets apparently charmed the wife of his Secretary of State-turned-successor—when James Madison took over the presidency, his wife, Dolley, bought a green parrot of her own for the White House.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of our 26th president, poses with Eli Yale, the family’s Hyacinth Macaw, on June 17, 1902. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection/Library of Congress
Andrew Jackson owned a parrot named Polly, whom, lore has it, he taught how to swear. According to researchers from his Tennessee home, the Hermitage, Polly allegedly caused quite a disruption during Jackson’s funeral.
They say you can’t survive in politics without a healthy ego. Maybe that’s why John Tyler named his pet canary Johnny Ty.
Apparently Abraham Lincoln learned the hard way that when you’re planning on slaughtering an animal for Christmas dinner, you probably shouldn’t let your children pal around with it first. When a live turkey was sent to the White House in advance of the 1863 Christmas feast, Lincoln’s son, Tad, bonded with the bird, whom he named Jack, and begged his father to spare it. Thus began the time-honored the tradition of the presidential turkey pardon.
The only bachelor to ever occupy the White House, James Buchanan‘s single status apparently aroused the sympathy of some of his constituents, who would send him gifts to keep him from feeling lonely. Among the more inspired offerings: two Bald Eagles, which Buchanan kept at his home in Wheatland, Pennsylvania.
William McKinley takes the prize for most patriotic pet: His parrot, whom he named Washington Post, could whistle “Yankee Doodle.” But no president matches Calvin Coolidge for sheer numbers: In a 1929 article in The American Magazine, Coolidge’s wife, Grace, explained that the couple owned a pair of canaries named Nip and Tuck, a white canary named Snowflake, another canary named Peter Piper, a “yellow bird” named Goldy, a thrush named Old Bill, a goose named Enoch, a troupial named Do-Funny, and an anonymous mockingbird.
For most presidential pets, as for their owners, White House living is only temporary. Not so for Dwight D. Eisenhower‘s parakeet, Gabby, who died while he was in office and was buried in the southwest corner of the White House grounds. Five years later, a canary belonging to John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline brought the presidential pet cemetery count to two.
For a more comprehensive list of all the presidential birds (and dogs, cats, horses, and every other pet that’s ever called the White House home), check out PresidentialPetMuseum.com.