When you think of pirates, the first image that often comes to mind is a parrot. In fiction, they’re always squawking commands or vocalizing while on a pirate’s shoulder.
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.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the titillating character of Long John Silver had a pet parrot. Because the book was so famous, the following stories incorporated the established stereotypes.
In reality, Long John Silver’s parrot was 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. For this reason, merchant ships transported them from South and Central America to the Old World.
When pirates intercepted and raided the ships, they could profit significantly. Some pirates may have kept parrots as companions and entertainment on ships.
Most kept parrots as cargo to sell later, like the rest of their stolen merchandise.
Did Pirates Really Keep Parrots?
Most pirates only sought parrots as exotic goods to trade and wouldn’t have kept a parrot for themselves. After all, they could sell parrots en masse for a significant price tag.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a huge demand in the Western world for parrots, especially in Europe. Parrots are colorful, talking birds from Central and South America. Many nobles and richer merchant families were willing to pay handsomely to get their hands on an exotic pet.
Carrying goods and animals from the New World back to the Old World was lucrative during the golden age of pirates. Ship owners and captains could make a fortune trading 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 affected 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 many unfamiliar goods and animals. Thanks to their colorful feathers and social nature, parrots were among the most popular exotic animals in the West Indies.
Parrots were status symbols and impressively intelligent companions.
They were prized differently than parrots found in Asia. According to Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, although the trade thrived worldwide, New World parrots differed from Old World parrots.
Parrots from South and Central America had many advantages in appearance, behavior, and genetics. Pirate ships would acquire parrots during raids of merchant vessels in the New World.
They could improve their wealth and connections with this new cargo in tow.
Why Do Pirates Have Parrots On Their Shoulders?
Most pirates didn’t 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’s possible that real pirates walked around with parrots on their shoulders, but few accounts of this can be found. If it did happen, they intended to sell the parrot later, which happened with monkeys.
Pirates might entertain themselves by playing with them or letting parrots sit on their shoulders during the voyage. Once the ship reached a port where it could sell goods, parrots would be treated like any other cargo. So, 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 (an 18th-century book about swashbucklers).
The book mainly took its information from famous pirates like:
- 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, and Cap’n Flint was featured to reinforce the character’s place in the wealthy Atlantic trade.
Many books, movies, and stories used Treasure Island as inspiration and reference. This made the small detail of parrots all the more prominent until they 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 is stranded on a tropical island after a shipwreck.
His pet parrot, Poll, kept him company on the island. While 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’s equivalent to about $320 today. Ship captains and higher-ranking pirates could easily afford this outlay.
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. This would be a challenge if a pirate wasn’t successful and wealthy.
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.
Due to the low cost of living at the time, this money held significant value. With so much excess income, a successful pirate could afford to buy and keep a parrot.
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, so the most common pets on ships were cats.
A parrot wouldn’t serve this purpose nearly as well. There are no historical accounts of pirates owning parrots as pets specifically.
Nonetheless, there were advantages if a pirate decided to keep a parrot:
Parrots Are Easy to Feed
Parrots don’t eat as much as other exotic pets, like monkeys. So, they may have been good companions on long sea voyages. Easy to feed, they could rely on food like seeds, nuts, and fruit, and those ingredients are easily stored and preserved onboard ships, even over 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 evening.
Of course, seeds and nuts alone are insufficient to sustain a parrot. However, a pirate owner could keep a stockpile of foods easy to find in the New World, and a parrot could make do.
Parrots Were Status Symbols
A parrot’s colorful plumage is beautiful and eye-catching. In the Old World, parrots served as a status symbol to show off the wealth and success of an owner.
Back then, the money required to buy and maintain a parrot wasn’t insignificant. Most people were living in poverty and couldn’t afford non-essential expenses.
Keeping a fancy pet was a luxury; some pirates may have wanted to flaunt that privilege like rich nobles. Pirates could show 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 bond with humans, training would have been less difficult than with monkeys. They’re also less likely to attack people when aggravated or curious.
Parrots Can Fly
Parrots’ ability to fly is an advantage for keeping them on ships. Like cats or monkeys, other animals might fall overboard while running on deck or while the boat rocks during storms.
However, there’s little chance of this happening to parrots, as pirates would be less likely to lose their beloved pets due to accidents or drowning. There’s a disadvantage, as a parrot can fly away.
Types of Parrots Pirates Had
Pirates would’ve had access to parrots taken from merchant ships. The most expensive type of parrot back then was the macaw, and pirates would have favored them.
Pirates might have caught these macaws in their native habitats in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Realistically, pirates would take what they found.
In fiction, the breed of parrot 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 parrot species 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:
- Stand by to go about.
These are phrases typical of pirates. 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 pick up whatever phrases they heard around the ship, including:
- Curses or expletives.
All the phrases Cap’n Flint said in Treasure Island were probably learned this way. Cotton’s parrot must have also learned phrases from being around other pirates, which explains why parrots can talk.
As social creatures, parrots gather in flocks and communicate with other parrots. While being around humans, parrots also mimic sounds to communicate and fit in.
Pirate Phrases To Teach Your Parrot
Do you want to teach a parrot some pirate phrases? Here are some more common words and phrases 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 avian companions are usually a mystery.
Even if historic pirates kept parrots, there are no documented names.
One reason could be that pirates didn’t name their parrots. After all, most of them would have been kept as cargo before getting traded in the Old World.
Some parrots can be found in fiction, including:
- Cap’n Flint in Treasure Island was named after Long John Silver’s previous pirate captain.
- Cotton’s parrot in Pirates of the Caribbean has no official name.
- Potty, the Parrot in Spongebob Squarepants, is the fake green parrot sidekick of Patchy the Pirate. Its name is a play on “Polly,” a popular parrot’s name.
Pirate-Inspired Names for Your Parrot
Are you looking to name a 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 some good pirate names for parrots:
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 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 myth 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
You can name a parrot after a real pirate if you want historical accuracy:
- Blackbeard: A famous real pirate responsible for many 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 (the largest in history) in the 1800s.
- Barbarossa: A real pirate of the Mediterranean. His name means “red beard” in Italian.
Although pirates rarely kept parrots as companions, the two are tied together.
Fiction has made them synonymous, and they’re a favorite trope even today. To play into that fun, teach the parrot pirate lingo and name it to match the aesthetic.