Parrots have appeared in written records since ancient history. One of the earliest mentions comes from Alexander the Great (356 to 323 B.C.) who found them during his extensive travels. Establishing the only military presence in India before the Renaissance, he encountered a particular parrot, Psittacula eupatria, now called the Alexandrine Parrot.
Alexander the Great’s tutor, the philosopher Aristotle, seemed fond of parrots and referred to them as “human-tongued.” In his work History Of Animals (written about 343 B.C.), his accounts often bordered on the anthropomorphic.
During the Middle Ages, parrots remained a popular subject in the visual arts but seemed to disappear from the written record. They reappeared in literary works and historical references of the Renaissance. As early as the 15th century, explorers encountered them. Christopher Columbus logged this after landing on Hispaniola in the Caribbean in 1492: “Other than parrots, I have seen no beast of any kind on this island.” Sir Richard Hawkins, a 17th-century English mariner and explorer, encountered African grey parrots.
Numerous works of literature make reference to parrots, including William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1596) and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1790). Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) most likely cemented the image of the parrot with a swashbuckling pirate in many children’s minds. The parrot was a female named “Capn’ Flint” that would shout “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”
Parrot enthusiasts often use this famous Mark Twain quote from The Pudd’nhead Maxims: “She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.” These maxims first appeared in a calendar sold door-to-door to promote one of Twain’s books. This quote later appeared in his book Following the Equator (1897) as the opening line in his chapter about visiting India.
In time, parrots became quite popular among the privileged classes. Wealthy households often had a parrot in residence, which partly explains their appearance in written works of that era; the wealthy were the literate people of the times. Considered exotic, rare and fashionable, parrots lived in the Vatican, among nobility, with the privileged classes – even in the White House.
Parrots occasionally appear as symbols and metaphors for death and reincarnation. Often they become an embodiment of the deceased whose voice now lives on through the parrot. They represent links to past lives, cultures and ideas – both good and bad. Their long life, intelligence and vocal ability suit them perfectly for this literary device.
Erle Stanley Gardner’s “Perry Mason” book series includes The Case of the Perjured Parrot (1939) where a parrot figures prominently in the plot. His vocalizations implicate one of the characters in a murder.
When Joseph Conrad wrote Nostromo (1904), he concocted a symbolic vehicle for a caged green parrot to represent household servants as well as the estate owners. As a bridge between these two classes, the parrot is trapped in the cage as the servants are trapped in their subservient roles, yet he speaks in the voice of the estate owner.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez employed parrots in One Hundred Years Of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), reversing the roles of the parrot in each story. In the first, the parrot was the victim; in the second, the human becomes a victim of the parrot.
Parrots have long been the subject of the arts as well as literature, yet there seems to be a common thread: the parrot as a symbol of mystery, beauty and intelligence. Their long life, verbal skills and exotic provenance have contributed to parrots’ enduring popularity.