A Brief History of Parrots

I read about a parrot that testified in court against the wife of his owner. The wife shot her husband and the parrot heard “don’t shoot, don’t shoot” which it repeated in court. The jury convicted her. Could be a good reason to have or not have a parrot at home.

Parrots were domesticated by the ancient Romans and kept as pets as far back as 5000 years ago in Brazil. Parrots first appeared in Europe in 327 B.C. when Alexander the Great conquered India and took Ring-neck (Rose-ringed) Parrots and their cousin the Alexandrine Parrot, back to Greece.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, parrots were rare in Europe but interest in them rose again after Christopher Columbus brought some back after his voyages to the Americas. The first record of a parrot being kept as a pet in the British Isles was in 1504 when Henry VIII owned an African Grey Parrot.

The Age of Exploration spanned the early 15th century to the early 17th century, during which European ships traveled around the world in search of new trading routes. A number of animals were brought back for menageries, for study, for museums, as pets, and as curiosities for collections called “cabinets” (a private room in a house to which the lord of the manor would retreat to relax and entertain himself with the study of curiosities – the first man cave?) Parrots were high on the list.

Parrots from India, Africa, and South America were common imports. Not only colorful and easily domesticated, they transported relatively easily on the long, uncomfortable sea voyages back to Europe. Few people knew anything about the needs of parrots and undoubtedly many birds died in transit. But they certainly did much better than more delicate bird species. The records of birds kept in menageries (the precursor to zoos), private collections, and bird artwork of the 16th to 18th centuries list, in addition to parrots, pheasants, ostriches, rheas, tinamous, and other long-lived and easy to keep birds.

Blue and Yellow Macaw

Pets became a trend in the 18th century in the court of Versailles and Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis the XV, the King of France, had a great passion for parrots. She even had a naval officer knighted by the king for presenting her a gift of a green parrot. She and the king ignited a demand for exotic pets, especially parrots and monkeys, easily trained and transported.

Budgerigars (parakeets) started the hobby of parrot keeping in the U.S in the mid 1800’s. Today roughly 8 million parrots are kept as pets. Approximately 50,000 parrots are legally imported each year but perhaps twice that number are smuggled in illegally. Worse is the fact that 60% of parrots trapped for the bird trade die before reaching their final destination. Around 30 % of the world’s parrot species are under threat of extinction and 56% in decline – the largest number of threatened species of all bird families. Should we be keeping birds in cages? Read more.

Most pet parrots are only a few generations removed from the wild, and few owners allow the birds to fulfill even their most basic instincts: flying, flocking, and finding mates. These highly social creatures are usually caged and alone with little stimulation. For an animal as emotionally complex as a chimpanzee or dolphin, it’s an unimaginably bleak existence. Parrot advocate Mira Tweti estimates that some 75 percent of household birds “live a life of abuse or neglect.”

The history of parrots is interesting but their future is bleak.

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