Once upon a time, the chattering barbet, a colorful bird, lived in people’s homes. Barbets were so intelligent that they easily learned how to speak like the people they lived with. They were thoughtful, too, and so humans and birds often spoke to one another.
Alas, one day a hungry young farmer named Sunan spied a buffalo that was wandering in the fields near his home. He was so hungry that he killed it, cut it up and carried it back to his home, where he cooked some of the meat and hid the rest in his rice house.
You see, Sunan knew this buffalo belonged to his neighbor.
“Wife, children,” Sunan called to his family, “we will no longer be hungry,” and then he told them the story of the neighbor’s buffalo.
The next day Sunan’s neighbor, Klahan, knocked on the door and said, “I am looking for my buffalo, Sunan. I wonder if you have seen him.”
Sunan looked down. “No,” he said coolly, “I haven’t seen your buffalo.”
But just then the barbet piped up. “Sunan ate buffalo last night and hid the rest in the rice house.”
Both men looked in alarm at the bird, but before Sunan could speak, Klahan ran to the rice house. Sunan was close behind, and the barbet flew after them.
When Klahan saw the meat, he was incredulous. “What’s this?” he asked Sunan.
“Oh,” Sunan said casually, “I keep my buffalo meat here, but this is not your animal. This is the meat of a creature I killed long ago.”
Now the barbet was amazed. “No,” he said, “this is the buffalo you killed yesterday. That’s what you told your wife last night.”
Once again both men stared at the bird. Sunan was furious, and Klahan did not know whom to believe.
“Let’s take this to the judge,” Sunan said. “Surely no intelligent judge will take the word of a foolish bird over that of a man.”
“Tomorrow, then,” said Klahan. “I shall meet you and your bird in court.”
Sunan walked toward the house, worried and angry, when suddenly he had an idea. He grabbed the barbet and placed him in a pot, and over this pot he tied a black cloth.
That night the sky was bright with stars and the light from a full moon, but inside that pot there was only darkness. And then Sunan began to beat upon the pot, first softly, then louder and louder.
Inside the pot the barbet shivered. “Oh, the thunder is loud,” he whispered, and cowered, for he did not like storms.
Then Sunan began to drip water on the cloth so that droplets of what felt like rain fell upon the poor barbet’s colorful back. “Oh, what a dark and stormy night,” the barbet quavered, and he hoped morning would come soon.
So it did, and at dawn Sunan lifted the barbet out of the pot and put him in his cage. “We’re off to court,” he told the bird.
In court the judge listened thoughtfully as Klahan told his story, and then he called upon the barbet to speak.
The bird stood tall. “My master killed the neighbor’s buffalo and hid the part he did not eat in the rice house. He told his wife just that.”
Sunan began to laugh softly.
“What are you laughing at?” the judge demanded.
“Sorry,” Sunan said, “it’s just I cannot imagine why you would listen to the word of a foolish bird.”
The judge glared. “Everyone knows the barbet is a highly intelligent creature.”
Sunan snickered. “Well, this barbet so often speaks nonsense, I sometimes forget. Go ahead, ask him anything. Ask him what last night was like.”
So the judge did. The barbet again stood tall. “Last night was dark and stormy. The thunder never stopped all night long.”
Everyone in the courtroom stared in disbelief, for they remembered the night had been beautiful and clear.
“Judge,” said Sunan, “surely you would not condemn me for a crime based on such a creature’s word.”
The judge shook his head. “No. I see you’re innocent. And because this creature’s word caused you danger, I order this: No longer will any people keep these birds in our homes and care for them. We will send all the barbets away to live in the forest.”
And so this happened.
A few months later, Sunan’s barbet was sitting in the forest when he spotted a bird much larger and brighter than he. “Who are you?” the barbet asked.
“I’m a parrot,” said the stranger, “I came here from the south with my flock. We speak the language of human beings.”
“Welcome,” said the barbet, “but let me warn you. When the human beings find out that you speak their language, they will capture you and bring you into their homes.”
“That would be fine,” the parrot said.
“But be careful,” said the barbet. “You must take care of what you say. Human beings are not always truthful and want to hear only their own thoughts. They are not interested in our wisdom. If you offer it, you may be punished.”
The parrot thanked the barbet, and not much later his predictions came true. Human beings learned of the talking parrots, and they captured them and brought them into their homes. There they cared for them and fed them, just as they once had cared for the barbets, and they taught their parrots words they hoped the parrots would say.
But the parrot had passed along the barbet’s wisdom to his companions, and so it is that parrots never speak their minds; they only echo the words humans say.