Review: Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots by Arne Svenson

My friend Meg gives amazing presents which is not why she’s my friend but it helps. Meg is the one who, when stuck on Christmas Eve wrapping Christmas presents for the next day and birthday presents for that night for her daughter, ran out of Christmas wrapping and substituted birthday paper by writing “Jesus” under all the Happy Birthday designs. So I opened up her box with fear and longing. Inside was the Ultimate Santana CD and Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots by Arne Svenson. Meg scores again.


Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots is a collection of photographs of Alba Ballard’s parrots, dressed in costumes she made for them, a passion that led to her appearing in Broadway Danny Rose and on Letterman and Saturday Night Live. The pictures are funny (two sailors buying a doll a drink), disturbing (General Patton trapped under his jeep, and worse, General Patton putting the moves on an Army nurse) and evocative of the era in which they were taken (Tiny Tim and Miss Vicky, Freddy the Freeloader, Dean Martin surrounded by Barbies), but they’re also amazing. The parrots aren’t stuffed, they were her pets (at one point she had forty) and she and her family made all the props and backdrops by hand and filmed them in a spare bedroom. The whole idea is mind-boggling–as one Amazon reviewer wrote, “We have owned Zeppo, a Mexican Red Head, for almost thirty years, and I can’t even get him to wear a hat”–but after awhile you forget they’re parrots.

But what I liked best was Svenson’s short piece at the beginning of the book, talking about how he came to have the photos (they were originally sent to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), how he tracked down Alba Ballard (there were no names on the photos), and what he found out about her life. A lesser man would have snarked; I mean, come on, this is a woman who dressed up parrots and tried to make a show biz career out of it. You’d think the temptation would be overwhelming. Yet he treats her with the respect she deserves, a respect he clearly has for her, and tells her story simply and swiftly, making you want more. And then he gives you more; he turns you over to the photographs and never adds a caption, just lets the work speak for itself.

The pairing of Svenson’s introduction with Ballard’s bizarre and wonderful photos makes a book that gives you a moment in time. It won’t take an hour to read Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots, but for that hour, you’ll be happily in Alba’s world, where a red parrot is the best Quasimodo you ever saw. It’s the perfect book for a guest room which is where mine is going, but you’ll be tempted to read it again, just to see if it’s as bizarre as you remembered.

The Santana CD was excellent, too.

19 thoughts on “Review: Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots by Arne Svenson

  1. If you’ve never owned a parrot or spent much time around them, you can’t know about their personalities. Panama (my parrot) is absolutely hysterical. He makes fun of me, mocks my laugh (does a perfect imitation), laughs at his own jokes, etc. He adores my husband (Panama was with my hubby before me and we’ve been together 25 years! I’m still the interloper in the relationship)

    I haven’t seen this book, but I see a purchase in my future.

    Thanks for posting the picture.

  2. I can see where Alba Ballard would want to dress up her parrots. They’re not birds to her, but a kind of pseudo-people. I make these comments because I have parrots: a breeding pair of Senegals (Richard and Chloe) and 7 lovebirds, two of whom are a breeding pair. I acquired the Senegals from a friend who was unable to take care of them, and will have them a long time yet as they have a 45-year life span.

    Richard can whistle separate notes including the “wolf whistle”, and he says “hello” whenever he wants a peanut or some other kind of nut. If he does not receive something fairly quickly, he goes into a wind-up toy routine: “hello hello hello hello” which becomes frantic. Chloe will trash her cage and screech if she’s not fed at the same time in the morning. (She lives in her own cage because Richard is an abusive mate.)

    The lovebirds make an assortment of chirps and noises, including the sound of the hydraulic lift of the garbage trucks (I realized it came from one of them on a day the garbage truck was not there), sloppy dog drinking carried over from when I had dogs, dog toe nails on hardwood floor, barking, whining, sighing and a big dog throwing its weight onto the floor.

    As to dressing up parrots, I don’t do this with mine; but I have a friend who trains birds for Universal Studios in California. When I last visited, she had photos of dressing up Amazon parrots in soldier outfits for a commercial shoot. She had to get them to walk down a plank, so invisible wire fences were made to prevent the birds from falling off. It took a long time to film as the birds kept ripping other bird’s clothes off or going the wrong way.

    As to the book above, I think I’ll go out and get one. It sounds like it might be interesting. Thanks, Jenny.

  3. Jenny please do. And then put them in your books. And have them talk to us. and omg your friend is awesome, wish i would’ve thought of ‘happy birthday jesus’.

  4. Sometime 40 years ago I stayed home sick from grammar school and watched a movie called “Bill and Coo”. I don’t recall the story line but it starred birds in costumes on a tiny bird size set. It was a gas. As a movie buff, Jenny, you should take a look. You can download it at

    I think it costs $10.00. After 40 years I still remember the name so it must have made an impression.

    Two years ago we lost the best parakeet who ever graced our family. His name was Picasso and he chatted away all day long…to the dog. He would even call him over to the cage, and what a good boy and a pretty dog he was, of course throwing in a few kudos for himself ( Smart Birdie, Pretty Picasso…) I figured out one day what was going on when I noticed an ever growing pile of toys on the floor below his cage. He would tell the dog “Bring a toy” and the dog would. Unfortunately the bird didn’t have any way to throw the toy so the relationship was just a tease. They have awesome personalities. Some day I will get one and teach it to talk to telemarketers…

  5. My friends family own an inherited ancient cockatoo called Bone – he’s 80 now (they can live for a hundred years) and he regularly called the dogs, different whistles for each one and when she was younger had a different call for each of her siblings.
    Spent a very memorable night between a late/early shift up a tree trying to coax the bloody thing down after it tried to reach infinity and beyond one time.
    I’m sure it’s gonna outlive me.

  6. I hopped over to Amazon because I just had to see it. What made me laugh the most wasn’t the book description, it was the fact that fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi gave this blurb:
    “Not only was I enthralled with Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots, I was slightly jealous that these creatures had a better sense of style than me.”


  7. Panama (my parrot) calls the dogs. But he also barks like a dog. I cannot tell the difference between the dogs and the bird.

    I walked into my house be burglarized a few years ago. I heard all the noise while I was changing clothes and just thought it was Panama making “welcome home”noises! They can be QUITE noisy.

    Once a workman came to our house to do work. Here is how the conversation went.

    Workman: I was here a couple of hours ago. You wouldn’t answer the door.

    Husband: We weren’t home.

    Workman: Yes you were. I could hear the dogs barking and your wife yelling “Shut up. Shut up” Dogs would bark and she would yell “Shut up Shut up”

    Husband – Panama

    They do live a LOOOOONG time. I’ve had to make arrangements for Panama in case he outlives me and husband…and I don’t make PARROT PIE on night! LOL

  8. Bob bless Mrs. Ballard. Really, the world always needs more absurdities. They add the charm that makes life interesting.

  9. That is so cute. I think it would make a great guest bathroom book.
    A neighbor’s fifty year old son came to visit and he had an African Gray Parrot. It took me about a week to stop fussing about why the strange guy would stand in the kitchen and wolf whistle every time me and the dog walked by their house. I used to think what is wrong with that man, doesn’t he know I’m old? Yeah, quite dissapointed when I found out it was a darn parrot.

  10. I saw Bill and Coo when it first came out. There isn’t much of a story line: just the birds living an ordinary village life, performing in a circus, having a parade, etc. There is a crow called The Black Menace as the villain–scared me so much I hid under my seat. (Hey, I was only about four.) Bill, the hero, is a fireman. At one point he rescues someone (Coo, I think) by bringing a ladder to the window. Fantastic movie.

  11. I’ve always wanted a parrot but my husband and I travel too much and I know they can become quite upset at being left. As it is I have to suck up to two cats after being gone for the weekend. Sucking up to two cats and a bird would be too much. It sounds like a fantastic book, it’s going on my list. What a great present.

  12. “Bill and Coo”
    Starring – George Burton’s Love Birds, Curley Twiford’s Jimmy the Crow
    Directed by – Dean Riesner

    (1947) – 60 min

    “Welcome to Chirpendale. There’s plenty of parking space, plus it has everything: a bar where bird citizens can drink junebug sundaes and listen to jazzy music. But the bird citizens are terrorized by an evil raven called “The Black Menace”, but a pluck young bird named Bill Singer, who’s a taxi driver by day, comes to the aid of a damsel in distress, Coo, who’s trapped in a fire. And soon the circus comes to town, Bill and Coo get box perches and witness ferocious feats and even laugh along with Cannonball Twitcher on an out of control motorcycle! But soon The Black Menace returns, and Bill and the rest of the citizens put together a plan to put him away for good.” –Dylan Self

    “This unique live action film features trained birds in a story situation. An entire town is scaled to bird size – complete with popsicle stick picket fences and cardboard signs. Be prepared for lots of bad puns and silliness. The whole movie has a bizarre feel to it that is both charming and disturbing. Nominated for an Oscar – I do not think any birds died while making this film.”


Comments are closed.