James Madison and his wife Dolley served as the nation’s 4th President and First Lady. Their time was an exciting one, as it was during this time period that both the Bill of Rights and the Constitution were drafted, with Madison famously playing key roles in both. On the home front Dolley earned a bit of fame herself, but not just for politics – for her macaw parrot.
Dolley’s parrot, Polly, would often perch on her shoulder as she went about her daily life. She would often greet people in the Reception Room at the White House with her parrot, which she used as a conversation-starter for visitors who were too timid to spark up conversation first. Polly was popular with adults and youngsters alike – children would often gather outside the Madisons’ home to watch Dolley and Polly through the windows, and to the delight of the children Dolley would often get Polly to speak for them.
During the War of 1812, Dolley was forced to leave the White House in haste due to an imminent British attack. She had limited space with which to transport items and had to choose what to take and what to leave behind. She took very little, but she did save the iconic portrait of George Washington and of course, Polly. Once safe, Dolley sent Polly to the French consulate for a short time to ensure her safety.
However much she may have delighted children from afar, Polly could be naughty. She would occasionally dive-bomb and attack guests. She even bit the President – one day when Polly attacked a female guest, Madison attempted to go to her rescue only to have the irked parrot bite his finger down to the bone. Madison bore this stoically and even laughed with the guest afterwards. It’s rumored that Polly’s vocabulary included some naughty words and that Dolley could be heard telling the parrot to “hush” after some vulgarity was uttered.
Macaw parrots can live up to 50 years, and Polly was no exception to this rule. When James Madison died on June 28th, 1836, Polly was still alive and well. It has been rumored that the parrot outlived Dolley as well, but this is unsubstantiated. What is known is that Polly – who had feared hawks all her life – unfortunately attracted the attention of a one, who, disregarding all fame, made her his prey. Dolley Madison died on July 12th, 1849 and no mention of Polly can be found afterwards.