Birds were a feature of life at the Mount Vernon mansion for at least three decades. As early as April 8, 1773, for example, George Washington purchased a parrot from the captain of a West Indian trading ship that stopped at Mount Vernon. Fourteen years later, a hired carpenter at Mount Vernon mended the cage of a bird of an unknown type.
In the 1790s, during George Washington's presidency when the government was settled in Philadelphia, step-granddaughter Nelly Custis had a green parrot as a pet. She wrote to tell a friend in 1794 that she was teaching the bird to sing, with admittedly dubious results, explaining that she "had the honor & glory of teaching our pretty green pet to sing Pauvre Madelon. You may guess what kind it was. A master peice of thorough Base. . .he is vastly improved I assure you."1
A few months later, Martha Washington purchased another parrot and cage. At least one of these birds eventually arrived back to Mount Vernon. As the family was packing up to return to Mount Vernon after Washington's retirement in early March of 1797, the exasperated former president complained in a letter that, "On one side I am called upon to remember the Parrot [sic], on the other to remember the dog. For my own part I should not pine much if both were forgot."2
Evidence from visitors to Mount Vernon suggests that other parrots resided on the Mount Vernon estate as well. In 1799, a houseguest named Joshua Brookes recorded the presence of "a tame parrot."3 When another guest stopped by to visit Martha Washington in the spring of 1802, two years after her husband's death, he found that she was too ill to have visitors (she passed away within a few days of his visit). Touring the house, the disappointed man noted that there "were several species of parrot" on the piazza, among which was a cockatoo, who was a special pet of Mrs. Washington. When the visitor's female friend sat down for a few minutes, the cockatoo hurriedly left his cage and "endeavoured to gain her favour by a familiarity which thwarted his design. Alarmed at the hurried motions & chattering of the poor fellow, she fled & left him as destitute as before."4
Besides parrots, several types of North American birds were captured and kept as pets by the Washingtons. During George Washington's presidency, affairs at his Virginia estate were managed by one of his favorite nephews, George Augustine Washington. In the summer of 1790, George Augustine wrote his uncle to say that "I fear the season is too far advanced to procure young Mocking Birds but shall endeavour to do it." Whether George Washington wanted these young birds for himself or someone else is unknown, but they were clearly intended as pets, possibly because they could be taught to sing.5
A long-enduring friendship between George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette often featured exchanges of favors, as well as gifts. In the spring of 1787, for example, Washington wrote that he had learned that "red birds" (presumably cardinals) were unknown in France, while wood or summer ducks, while common in Virginia were also rare. This information led Washington to send "two pair of the latter and several of the former" to Lafayette.6 Five months later, Lafayette responded with thanks and a request for additional birds: "I thank you, my dear General, for the fine Birds. . .you Have sent to me—the poor ducks died at the Havre on their Arrival—I Beg you will send me some Again—and Beg leave to add a petition for an envoice of Mocking Birds."7
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. "Eleanor Parke Custis to Elizabeth Bordley, 8 September 1794," quoted in George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly: The Letters of Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 1794-1851, ed. Patricia Brady (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 18.
2. "George Washington to Tobias Lear, 9 March 1797," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 1, eds. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 25.
5. "George Augustine Washington to George Washington, 16 July 1790," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 6, eds. W. W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987), 90.
6. "George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, 25 March 1787," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 29, 186.