BOOKS: Parrot Culture

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2004:

Parrot Culture by Bruce Thomas Boehrer
University of Pennsylvania Press (4200 Pine Street, Philadelphia,
PA 19104), 2004. 224 pages, paperback. $27.50.

The parrots who were popular in Greco-Roman imperial times, and
thereafter in Europe during the Middle Ages, came from India. But
the overland traffic in parrots slowed after the rise of Islam,
partly because Mohammed taught against caging birds and partly
because warfare between Christians and Muslims significantly reduced
the chances of moving fragile species through Central Asia alive.
Bruce Boehrer’s research shows that the parrots who flooded
into Europe after the Renaissance came from the New World, as a
direct result of Christopher Colum-bus’ voyages of discovery.
Over two millennia, the reverence with which captive parrots
were originally treated disappeared and the birds later became
objects of ridicule and satire. Boehrer delves at some length into
depictions of parrots in art and literature over the ages. Included
is the famous Monty Python “Dead Parrot Sketch.”
Renaissance writers transformed parrots into comic figures,
and some painters of the period did the same thing. Parrots appear
in numerous paintings by great masters including Rubens, Van Dyk,
Manet, and even some of the French impressionists, notably Renoir.

The 19th century produced a cult of sentiment in which pet
parrots received unprecedented affection. Unfortunately the 19th
century also brought a marked preference for dead and artificial
birds over the noisy, demanding living kind.
As the U.S. was settled, the few native parrots became pests
to farmers, planters, and gardeners, and were therefore persecuted
to extinction. Even nature lovers like Audubon, strangely regarded
by some as a great wildlife conservationist, killed thousands of
birds in order to paint them. The Carolina Parakeet became extinct
within half a century of Audubon’s death, and no native parrots
remained in the U.S. by the mid-20th century. Some species have
relatively recently recolonized parts of the U.S. southwest, after
surviving in remote corners of Mexico.
Boerhrer describes as “corpse art” the vast collections of
parrots’ remains gathered by 19th century collectors and preserved by
taxidermists. This unfortunate trend has re-emerged with mummified
parrots being smuggled into the U.S., and the plumage industry is
again growing in Europe.
Chapter 6, entitled “Ext-inction and Beyond,” is much more
disturbing than the previous chapters, because humans have now had
plenty of opportunity to learn to treat parrots decently.
Boehrer points out that wild parrots are in decline
throughout the world. A third of the known parrot species are listed
as “threatened” in the International Union for Conservation’s Red
Data Book.
Parrot smuggling violates the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species, but some species are still vigorously culled for
raiding crops.
The pet trade thrives, yet the tropical rain forests where
most parrots live are being destroyed. Thus, there are fewer
parrots in the wild now than ever before, but more parrots in
The tragedy of the pet trade is that few people take proper
care of these intelligent and difficult birds. As Boehrer writes,
“At first parrots are exotic and astonishing, credited with
marvelous abilities and even associated with the gods themselves.
Then they become trivial and ordinary and even annoying. Now they
are becoming extinct.”
Increasing numbers of parrots are dumped at rescue centers
for being too noisy, too dirty, too emotional, or simply for
outliving their keepers. Since many parrot species, if kept
healthy, can easily live as long as a human, the most lovingly
attended parrots actually have the greatest likelihood of eventually
becoming aged cast-offs.
It is a sign of progress that there are now dozens of parrot
rescue centers that accept abandoned birds, and are striving to
develop the fundraising capacity to support them with the care they
need. Formerly the fate of a cast-off parrot was typically to be
dumped at a roadside zoo, or to be sold as used merchandise.
Although the humbled caretaker for twelve years of a
blue-fronted Amazon myself, this book has taught me much I did not
know about these amazing birds. I find it tragic that such
intelligence and beauty should be locked up alone in cages around the
world. One hopes that books like this one will make people more
mindful of their responsibilities when undertaking parrot custody and
–Beverley Pervan
(Co-director, Kalahari Raptor Center, P.O. Box 1386, Kathu,
Northern Cape ZA 8446, S. Africa; telephone 27-53-712-3576;

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