The novel follows Geoffrey Braithwaite, a widowed, retired English doctor, visiting France and Flaubert locations. While visiting sites related to Flaubert, Geoffrey encounters two incidences of museums claiming to display the stuffed parrot which sat atop Flaubert's writing desk for a brief period while he wrote Un Coeur Simple . While trying to identify which is authentic Braithwaite ultimately learns that Flaubert's parrot could be any one of fifty ( "Une cinquantaine de perroquets!" , p. 187) that had been held in the collection of the municipal museum.
Although the main focus of the narrative is tracking down the parrot, many chapters exist independently of this plotline, consisting of Braithwaite's reflections, such as on Flaubert's love life and how it was affected by trains, and animal imagery in Flaubert's works and the animals with which he himself was identified (usually a bear, but also a dog, sheep, camel and parrot).