why did pirates keep parrots?

Why Are Parrots Associated with Pirates?

When you think of pirates, the first image that comes to mind is a parrot. In fiction, they’re always squawking commands or whistling on the pirate’s shoulder. In fact, parrots are so associated with pirates that they’ve become a staple in fiction. That surely means that parrots were common pets for swashbucklers throughout history.

Parrots are linked to pirates mostly due to fiction. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the titillating character of Long John Silver had a pet parrot. Because the book was so famous, stories that followed incorporated the stereotypes that it established. In reality, Long John Silver’s parrot was simply a nod to the thriving parrot trade of the 18th century. During this time, pirates would steal and sell parrots but rarely kept them as pets.

The wealthy upper class of Europe would pay a high price for parrots. Because of this, merchant ships transported parrots from South and Central America to the Old World. When pirates intercepted and raided the ships, they could make a large profit. Some pirates may have kept parrots to serve as companions and entertainment on their ships. However, most kept parrots as cargo to sell later on, like the rest of their stolen merchandise.

Did Pirates Really Keep Parrots?

The majority of pirates only sought out parrots as an exotic good to trade. They wouldn’t have kept a parrot for themselves. After all, they could instead sell the parrots en masse for a hefty price. 

During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a large demand in the western world for parrots, especially in Europe. These were colorful, talkative creatures from Central and South America. Many nobles and richer merchant families were willing to pay handsomely to get their hands on an exotic pet.

Throughout the golden age of pirates, transporting goods and animals from the New World back to the Old World was lucrative. Ship owners and captains could make a fortune in the trade of parrots, spices, and materials.

Why Did Pirates Keep Parrots?

According to The Mariner’s Mirror, pop culture has oversold parrots as exotic companions for pirates. Finding them on the shoulder of a captain was a rare event. The parrot trade played a huge role in how pirates fared in the 18th and 19th centuries. They used them as high-value goods that could expand their operations and fund their ventures.

The New World had a lot of unfamiliar goods and animals. Due to their colorful feathers and social qualities, Parrots were one of the most popular exotic animals found in the West Indies. Parrots were status symbols and impressively intelligent companions. In fact, they were even prized differently than parrots found in Asia.

According to Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, although the parrot trade thrived worldwide, New World parrots were different from Old World parrots. In looks, behavior, and even genes, parrots from South and Central America had many benefits. Pirate ships would acquire parrots during their raids of merchant vessels in the New World. With this new cargo in tow, they could improve their own wealth and connections.

reasons why pirates have parrots

Why Do Pirates Have Parrots On Their Shoulders?

Most pirates didn’t actually keep parrots on their shoulders, as the stereotype would have us believe. This trope comes from the antagonist in Treasure Island, Long John Silver. He famously kept his parrot Cap’n Flint on his shoulder. The pirate stereotype bloomed from fiction rather than being influenced by fact.

It is possible that real pirates walked around with parrots on their shoulders. Not many accounts of this can be found. If it did happen, though, they intended to sell the parrot later. This was often the case with monkeys.

Pirates might entertain themselves by playing with them or letting parrots sit on the shoulders during the voyage. Once the ship reached a port where it could sell goods, parrots would be treated like any other cargo. They would be sold for profit, and the pirate would return to work.

Reasons Why Pirates Have Parrots In Fiction

According to East Tennessee State University, it’s likely that the author of Treasure Island got his information about pirates from A General History of Pyrates. This is an 18th-century book about swashbucklers. The book mainly took its information from famous pirates like:

  • Blackbeard
  • Stede Bonnet
  • Mary Read
  • Anne Bonny

These people formed an egalitarian pirate republic in the Bahamas between 1717 and 1725. The gang of pirates heavily influenced the character, Long John Silver, in Treasure Island. In an act of creative license, Cap’n Flint was featured to reinforce the character’s place in the wealthy Atlantic trade.

Many books, movies, and other stories that followed used Treasure Island as inspiration and reference. This made the small detail of parrots all the more prominent until it became inseparable from pirates. We can also thank Treasure Island for popular clichés like:

  • Eye patches on pirates
  • Peg legs for pirates
  • Harsh West Country English accents belonging to pirates

Parrots are associated with sailors in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. In that novel, the titular character Crusoe was stranded on a tropical island after a shipwreck. His pet parrot, Poll, kept him company on the island. While he was stranded, he also taught two other parrots on that island how to talk.

How Much Did a Parrot Cost for a Pirate?

Many ships were full of parrots that could be purchased (and sold) for $5. That is equivalent to about $320 today. Ship captains and higher-ranking pirates could afford this.

After buying the parrot for $5, other expenses would be to maintain the parrot, such as food. The pirate would also need to care for the parrot while juggling other responsibilities on a ship. If a pirate wasn’t successful and wealthy, this would be a challenge.

However, more profitable seamen would have this money to spare. According to George Mason University, the pirate economy had a delicate balance. A buccaneer could earn up to 700 pieces-of-eight on a decent cruise. In comparison, 40 shillings (around 8 pieces-of-eight) a month was considered a good wage for a seaman in 1685.

Because of the low cost of living at the time, this amount of money held a lot of value. With all this excess income, a successful pirate could afford to buy and keep a parrot if they wanted to.

Why Do Pirates Have Parrots As Pets?

Keeping a pet on a ship would have been difficult for sailors and pirates alike. If a ship had a pet, it was likely used for pest control alone. That’s why the most common pets on ships were cats. They hunted and killed rats, keeping the vessel’s food supply safe.

A parrot wouldn’t serve this purpose nearly as well. There are no historical accounts of pirates owning parrots as pets specifically. Nonetheless, if a pirate did decide to keep a parrot, there were advantages.

Parrots Are Easy to Feed

Parrots don’t eat as much as other exotic pets, like monkeys. Because of this, they may have been good companions on long sea voyages. Easy to feed, they could rely on food like seeds, nuts, and fruit. Those ingredients are easily stored and preserved onboard ships, even over the course of several months.

Likewise, most parrots only need to eat twice a day. This would fit into a pirate’s busy schedule. The owner could tend to the parrot in the morning and then in the evening.

Of course, seeds and nuts alone are not enough to healthily sustain a parrot. However, a pirate owner could keep a stockpile of different foods that were easy to find in the New World. That would help the parrot to make do.

Parrots Were Status Symbols

A parrot’s colorful plumage is beautiful and eye-catching. In the Old World, this made parrots serve as a status symbol to show off the wealth and success of an owner.

The amount of money required to buy and maintain a parrot was not a small amount back then. Most people were living in poverty and couldn’t afford expenses that were not vital to their survival.

Keeping a fancy pet was a luxury. Some pirates may have wanted to flaunt that privilege the same as rich nobles. Pirates could show off their parrots to crewmates or people they met when they reached the port.

Parrots Are Social and Intelligent

Parrots are naturally social creatures and very intelligent. This would’ve been valuable to seamen, who needed company during their long voyages. A parrot would be able to talk and learn tricks. Although parrots only mimic human speech, this would help them seem more self-aware than a cat.

Because parrots easily bond with humans, training would have been less difficult than with monkeys. They’re also less likely to attack people when aggravated or curious. If they did strike out at crewmates, the damage would be far less severe than with a monkey’s teeth and claws.

Parrots Can Fly

Parrots’ ability to fly is a big advantage for keeping them on ships. Like cats or monkeys, other animals might fall overboard while running around on deck or while the boat rocks during storms. However, there is no chance of this happening to parrots. A pirate would be less likely to lose their beloved pet due to accidents or drowning.

There is, however, a disadvantage to this. A parrot might be able to fly away.

Types of Parrots Pirates Had

Pirates would’ve had access to any parrots they raided from merchant ships. The most expensive type of parrot back then was the macaw. Naturally, pirates would have favored it as well.

Pirates might have caught these macaws themselves in their native habitats in South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. Realistically, pirates would take what they found. This includes any species found in the New World, depending on where the merchant was sailing from.

In fiction, the breed of parrot that Long John Silver had is not mentioned in the novel. However, in the original 1934 movie adaptation of the novel, the parrot sitting on his shoulder is most likely:

  • A double yellow-headed amazon
  • A yellow-crowned amazon

A different breed of parrot can be seen in every adaptation of Treasure Island and every pirate film. They range from macaws to cockatoos. For example, in Pirates of the Caribbean, one character named Cotton has a blue and gold macaw.

What Did Pirate Parrots Say?

Pop culture has assigned many popular phrases to the parrots that pirates kept. In Treasure Island, Long John Silver’s parrot would often scream:

  • “Pieces-of-eight! Pieces-of-eight! Pieces-of-eight!”
  • “Stand by to go about!”

These are both phrases typical of pirates back then. In Pirates of the Caribbean, one character named Cotton has a parrot who talks on his behalf. Somehow, the mute Cotton managed to train his parrot to say:

  • “Mum’s the word”
  • “Aye, aye, sir”

In reality, the parrots would likely pick up whatever phrases they heard being said around the ship. These would include:

  • Orders
  • Slang
  • Curses or expletives

In fact, all the phrases Cap’n Flint said in Treasure Island were probably learned this way. Cotton’s parrot must have also absorbed phrases from being around other pirates. That ties directly into why parrots can talk in the first place.

As very social creatures, parrots gather in flocks and communicate important information to fellow parrots via chirps and bird songs. While being among humans, parrots also mimic sounds to communicate and fit in.

what type of parrots do pirates have?

Pirate Phrases To Teach Your Parrot

Do you want to teach your parrot some pirate phrases? Here are some more common ones that pirates used and their meanings:

  • Ahoy, matey (hello, friend)
  • Avast ye (pay attention/listen)
  • Blow me down (‘wow’, used when amazed or shocked)
  • Old salt (an experienced sailor or pirate)
  • Run a rig (to play a joke or prank on someone)
  • Thar she blows (a whale sighting)

Famous Pirate Parrots

We know the names of famous pirates, both fictional and non-fictional, such as Blackbeard. However, the names of their parrot companions are usually a mystery. 

Even if historic pirates did keep parrots, there are no documented names for these pets. One reason could be that pirates didn’t even name their parrots. After all, most of them would have been kept as cargo before getting traded in the Old World. There are a couple of parrots that can be found in fiction, however:

  • Cap’n Flint in Treasure Island, who was named after Long John Silver’s previous pirate captain.
  • Cotton’s parrot in Pirates of the Caribbean, who does not have an official name.
  • Potty the Parrot in Spongebob Squarepants, which is the fake green parrot sidekick of Patchy the Pirate. Its name is a play on “Polly,” a popular parrot name.

Pirate-Inspired Names for Your Parrot

Are you looking to name your parrot? Choosing a pirate-inspired name could be a fun way to pay homage to the history and trope of pirates and their parrots. Here are great ones to choose from:

Names Inspired by Fictional Pirates

Want to give your parrot a name with prestige? Then pick from fiction’s most beloved pirates.

  • Jack Sparrow, from Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Barbossa, also from Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Davy Jones, the sailors’ devil. Davy Jones’ Locker means the bottom of the sea, where drowned sailors end up. This is a myth that appears in fiction, but also comes from real-life sailors.
  • Captain Hook, from Peter Pan
  • Long John Silver, from Treasure Island

Names Inspired by Real Pirates

If you want historical accuracy, you can name your parrot after a real pirate.

  • Blackbeard, a famous real pirate, responsible for many of the pirate tropes today
  • Queen Anne’s Revenge, the name of Blackbeard’s ship
  • Calico Jack, a real pirate and contemporary of Blackbeard
  • Anne Bonny, a woman pirate who left her husband to be with Calico Jack
  • Mary Read, another woman pirate who sailed with Calico Jack
  • Madame Cheng, a woman pirate who took over her husband’s pirate confederation (which was the largest in history) in the 1800s
  • Barbarossa, a real pirate of the Mediterranean. His name means “redbeard” in Italian

Although pirates rarely kept parrots as companions, the two are still intrinsically tied with each other. Fiction has made them synonymous, and they’re a favorite trope even today. To play into that fun, you can even teach your parrot pirate lingo and give it a name to match the aesthetic.