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Myth-busting: Parrots & Pirates, Oh My!

Parrots and pirates, like salt and pepper, belong together. The two have a long and storied history, often exaggerated to the point of cliche in pop culture and media. As is often the case, fiction is a formulation of reality, and the parrot trope is certainly rooted in real facts. From the 1500s to 1800s, parrots served alongside sailors on ships as valuable companions.

See right: Captain Michael Healy of the US Revenue Cutter Service pictured in Alaskan waters, 1895 with his pet parrot.

📸: National Maritime Historical Society

In an effort to relieve the monotony of life at sea, captains would allow sailors to bring pets on board their ships. Parrots were among the most popular pets. Logs and journals from the time document the love sailors shared for their feathered companions. In the 1820s, Bumont D’Urville, commander of the vessel Astrolabe, remarked upon the poor quality of ship instruments made in Paris when his pet Cockatoo broke his barometer. An Australian gent, Captain Ellis took his cockatoo, Cocky Bennett, around the world seven times over the course of half a century. Other accounts describe how sailors would spend time at sea teaching the parrots how to talk in their language. In fact, parrots on board ships were beloved by almost all sailors on board, irrespective of their owner. They became ship mascots in a sense.

One clever parrot is recounted to have learned how to ‘order’ around sailors so convincingly that one time he yelled ‘Let go’ as the crew was hoisting a woman onboard. At his command the sailors dropped her into the water!

On land, many sailors could not keep their parrots and sold them at port. This was not due to a lack of compassion and love, but because sailors during this lived in boarding houses and rarely had a home to bring their feathered voyaging companions.

Source: Hagseth, M. C. (2018). Seadogs and Their Parrots: The reality of ‘Pretty Polly’. The Mariner's Mirror, 104(2), 135-152.

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