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Why Do Pirates Have Parrots? Historical Facts & FAQ

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By Nicole Cosgrove

pirate with a parrot on the seashore

As long as we have known about pirates, we associate them with wooden legs, hooks for hands, and parrots perched on their shoulders. The parrot has been associated with pirates in pop culture and history, but have you wondered why these exotic birds were the chosen allies for the fearsome pirates of the high seas?

While a colorful accessory representing wealth and status may come to mind, the real reasons run deeper. Pirates were clever and used parrots for many reasons. This is a fascinating subject, and this article will give you plenty of helpful information as well as amusing facts to share with your fellow pirate enthusiasts.

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Why Do Pirates Have Parrots?

First, it is true that pirates did have parrots, and the image of a parrot perched on a pirate’s shoulder wasn’t just for the movies or Halloween. In fact, there are a few good reasons the treasure-hunting thieves chose parrots as their allies and companions during long sea voyages.

1. Animal Trading

Pirates embarked on lengthy, frequently tedious sea voyages in pursuit of the next lootable treasure and it would make sense that they would have kept a variety of exotic animals on board. People used to love exotic animals and would steal or trade them from one another.

Given that parrots are colorful, exotic animals, they would have been very valuable, but whether you agree with the idea of exchanging animals as commodities or not, it was an unfortunate reality.

Additionally, it is easy to understand why pirates were so enamored with these tropical birds given how distinct parrots are from other species. Due to their high worth and limited availability, owning a parrot was also regarded as a symbol of wealth and status.

2. Communication Skills

White yellow crested Cockatoo bird on an old pirate ship
Image Credit: TPROduction, Shutterstock

As you might assume from pirates, the motive is partially monetary, but there were also several more uses for parrots. Parrots were the perfect ally because they could hear cannons firing in the distance, so they would alert the pirates. They have impeccable navigational skills so having an ally that could fly high and navigate the landscape was invaluable.

Parrots, as we know, can learn words. Therefore, they would help the crew communicate by repeating orders from the captain. Parrots were also a form of entertainment on their long voyages, as they could mimic sounds and sing songs. Other reasons pirates may have kept parrots include:

  • They don’t eat as much as cats or dogs, which means they are more low-maintenance
  • They were not in danger of falling overboard and potentially drowning.
  • They had the ability to defend themselves by flying or climbing higher into the rigging during a battle

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How Did the Stereotype of Pirates and Parrots Originate?

The first prominent fictional pirate to carry a pet parrot was Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson’s book “Treasure Island.” While this fictional story was where the parrot stereotype began, it was likely based on actual truths. While pirate ships didn’t always have resident parrots that screeched “pieces of eight,” they frequently captured them to sell them.

Traveling pirates often brought exotic animals and plants back from the tropics, which were in high demand in the capitals of Europe. Because of their intellect and beauty, parrots, especially Macaws, were highly desirable. The factors that led to the parrot’s association with pirates offer us a window into what it was really like to be a pirate during the Golden Age of piracy.

Although pirates have always existed, the 17th and early 18th centuries were known as the Golden Age of piracy.  More than 5,000 pirates were reportedly at sea in this period, but William “Captain” Kidd, Henry Morgan, Bartholomew Roberts,  “Calico” Jack Rackham, and the infamous Blackbeard are some of the well-known pirates during this era. Piracy is still practiced in various regions of the world today, particularly the South China Seas, even though the Golden Age ended in the 18th century.

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FAQ’s About Pirates with Parrots

Are Parrots Suitable for Pirate Ships? 

Pets made ideal traveling companions during long voyages, but pirates had to carefully choose the right animals to stay on the ships with them. Other than a symbol of status and wealth, parrots could easily take care of themselves in battle, and they were less likely to fall overboard. Additionally, they were easier to feed than other pets as they only consume small amounts of food.

What Species of Parrots Did Pirates Own?

There are several species of parrots. However, not every pirate looked for a specific species of parrot because there are numerous varieties of them. The fictional character, Long John Silver, owned a blue and yellow Macaw. Even though it is a fictional story, there is no denying that a few pirates owned such a parrot since they were beautiful, intelligent, and highly valuable.

close up of a parrot's head
Image Credit: Wilbert_Rodriguez, Pixabay

Why Are Parrots Always Perched on a Pirate Shoulder?

It was symbolic for the parrot to sit on the pirate’s shoulder as they were a symbol of status, much like driving an expensive car or wearing a diamond ring is today. Again, the image came from “Treasure Island,” where Long John Silver had a talking parrot named Captain Flint that would sit on his shoulder.

Additionally, having a parrot perched on a pirate’s shoulder allowed them to keep watch for approaching ships.

Do People Still Trade Parrots Today? 

Unfortunately, millions of wild birds are still smuggled illegally and traded on the black market. Parrots make up the majority of these captive birds, which has had a significant impact on their population, with roughly one-third of parrot species now in danger of going extinct.

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Pirate Phrases You Can Teach Your Parrot

If you own a parrot with a good vocabulary, teaching them a few classic pirate phrases could be fun.

  • Yo ho ho! – A jolly expression for a pirate having a good time
  • Ahoy! – A pirate greeting
  • Aye Aye – Meaning yes, or I understand
  • Avast ye – Listen or pay attention
  • Hearties – A friend or comrade
  • Pieces of eight – A phrase spoken by Long John Silver’s parrot
  • Mums the word – A phrase said by Cotton’s parrot in Pirates of the Caribbean

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The fictional character Long John Silver owned a talking parrot, and it is where the pirate and parrot stereotype originated. However, there is some truth to it since pirates kept parrots for various reasons. They symbolized wealth and status and were often stolen or traded because they were so valuable.

Parrots made valuable allies to pirates because they could alert them of danger, help the crew communicate, entertain them, and protect themselves in battle. Even while it can be amusing to imagine a colorful parrot traveling with a tough and intimidating pirate, parrots meant more to them than most people realize.

Featured Image Credit: Mamuka Gotsiridze, Shutterstock

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