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Buccaneer Birds and the Parrots of the Caribbean
©1999 by Craig Conley
Find the Mimic.

Ask anyone on the street what a pirate looks like. You’ll no doubt get a stock picture: eye patch, peg leg, earring, tri-cornered hat, and a parrot on the shoulder. The parrot is the quintessential pirate’s companion. But this unusual relationship is generally overlooked, if not completely ignored.

The infamous pirates who sacked the Spanish main for over 300 years are now the stuff of legend. Today, interestingly, the parrot has come to represent these buccaneers. A startling example is at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, where one can see a robot parrot who has a wooden leg, an anchor tattooed on his breast, a black patch over one eye, and a red bandana on his head. Topping it off is a hat decorated with a skull and crossbones. Clearly, the bird is the pirate. Is this a strange case of displacement? Or is it a perfectly natural phenomenon?

All things considered, these strange bedfellows seem to have had a marriage made in heaven. There are far more similarities than differences between parrot and pirate. And as we will see, the parrot served as a vitally important voice in the wilderness that is the Caribbean region.

Like its master, the parrot is a wild creature with a human voice. Both parrot and pirate are associated with tropical climates and desert islands. Both creatures are undeniably exotic.

The typical pirate was a picturesque fellow. National Geographic magazine tells us that he clothed himself in splendid finery when his purse was full. He weighted down his ears with rings, his arms with bracelets, and his neck with chains. Even in lean times, when he had to sell his jewelry, the pirate never relinquished his gorgeous sash -- it was a sort of red badge of courage. Parrots, too, are picturesque. Even the relatively drab African Grey has bright red tail feathers.

Both parrots and pirates had ample opportunity to come in contact with one another. Imagine that you are a pirate setting foot on a remote island, previously untouched by humans. It’s possible and even probable that a parrot would fly over your head, its black eyes scanning your face with curiosity. You hold out a finger, and the parrot perches on it. The natural tameness of the birds on such an island should not be surprising.

Or consider this scenario: you find a hidden cove near a major shipping route. Here you can hide your loot. (You also gain a strategic advantage, since you’re in a position to surprise an unsuspecting merchant ship.) In this cove you discover a Macaw’s nest -- the nest it returns to year after year. You’ve found a baby pet to raise. The obvious intelligence of the parrot would make it an attractive companion, but the bird’s ability to speak would make it irresistible.

Our speaking ability separates us from all the other animals. But talking parrots break down the barrier between animals and men. Though this fact applies to everybody -- not just pirates -- it helps contemporary people to blur the distinction between bird and buccaneer. In other words, it’s easier to personify the talking bird.

We can safely assume that a parrot’s speaking ability did more than merely entertain a pirate. No doubt he identified with the bird -- after all, the bird spoke in the pirate’s own voice! The pirate would likely have ascribed more consciousness onto the bird than it actually possessed. That’s because parrots don’t merely echo: they echo selectively. Therefore, they make us notice how we sound. When a bird repeats a phrase out of context, we are forced to hear our own words objectively. One could go so far as to say that the parrot reduces us to a word or phrase. We commonly accuse a bird of “mocking” us, but it is we who project the mocking tone onto his speech. For a pirate -- who by definition lives away from civilized society, legal prohibitions, and organized religion -- the voice of the parrot represented the outside world. It was a little voice of approbation, serving as a constant check to all the pirate did. For example, if a bird asked “Whatcha doin’” all day long, one would be forced to consider what one was doing. Whether interpreted as approving or condemning, the parrot’s voice imposed a sort of social conscience where one was lacking.

Admittedly, we know precious little about pirate life. In fact, we owe nearly all of our scant knowledge to a single book: A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, first published in 1724. This is where we get the stock picture of a pistol-waving, one-eyed, one-legged buccaneer. The problem is that most pirates were illiterate, so they weren’t likely to write about their pets (or anything else) in letters, journals, or personal diaries. Their legacy is mostly myth and legend. Be that as it may, we can hardly overestimate the importance of the parrot’s role in buccaneer life. Indeed, of all the treasures the Caribbean pirates plundered, parrots may have been the most valuable of all.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anonymous. Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. (Anaheim: Walt Disney Imagineering, 1987.)

Kenneth Clark. Animals and Men. (New York: William Morrow, 1977.)

Nell Ray Clarke. “The Haunts of the Caribbean Corsairs.” National Geographic. (Feb. 1922, 147-187.)

Walter de la Mare. Desert Islands. (London: Faber and Faber, 1988.)

John Julius Norwich. A Taste for Travel. (New York: Knopf, 1985.)