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(1) Parrot - Introduction. The Parrot in History.

PARROT, according to Prof. Skeat (Etymol. Dictionary, p. 422), from the French Perrot or Pierrot, a proper name and the diminutive of Pierre, (Footnote 321-1) the name given generally to a large and very natural group of Birds, which for more than a score of centuries have attracted attention, not only from their gaudy plumage, but, at first and chiefly, it would seem, from the readiness with which many of them learn to imitate the sounds they hear, repeating the words and even phrases of human speech with a fidelity that is often astonishing.

The Parrot in History

It is said that no representation of any Parrot appears in Egyptian art, nor does any references to a bird of the kind occur in the Bible, whence it has been concluded that neither painters nor writers had any knowledge of it.

Aristotle is commonly supposed to be the first author who mentions a Parrot; but this is an error, for nearly a century earlier Ctesias in his Indica (cap. 3), (Footnote 321-2) under the name of Bittacus, so neatly described a bird which could speak an "Indian" language -- naturally, as he seems to have thought -- or Greek -- if it had been taught so to do -- about a big as a Sparrow-Hawk (Hierax), with a purple face and a black beard, otherwise blue-green (cyaneus) and vermilion in colour, so that there cannot be much risk in declaring that he must have had before him a male example of what is now commonly known as the Blossom-headed Parakeet, and to ornithologists as Palaeornis cyanocephalus, as inhabitant of many parts of India.

Much ingenuity has been exercised in the endeavour to find the word whence this, an the later form of the Greek name, was derived, but to little or no purpose. After Ctesias comes Aristotle’s Psittace, which Sundevall supposed him to have described only from hearsay, a view that the present writer is inclined to think insufficiently supported. But this matters little, for there can be no doubt that the Indian conquests of Alexander were the means of making the Parrot better known in Europe, and it is in reference to this fact that another Eastern species of Palaeornis now bears the name of P. alexandri, though from the localities it inhabits it could hardly have had anything to do with the Macedonian hero.

That Africa had Parrots does not seem to have been discovered by the ancients till long after, as Pliny tells us (vi. 29) that they were first met with beyond the limits of Upper Egypt by explorers employed by Nero. These birds, highly prized from the first, reprobated by the moralist, and celebrated by more than one classical poet, in the course of time were brought in great numbers to Rome, and ministered in various ways to the luxury of the age. Not only were they lodges in cages of tortoise-shell and ivory, with silver wires, but they were professedly esteemed as delicacies for the table, and one emperor is said to have fed his lions upon them!

But there would be little use in dwelling longer on these topics. With the decline of the Roman empire the demand for Parrots in Europe lessened, and so the supply dwindled, yet all knowledge of them was not wholly lost, and they are occasionally mentioned by one writer or another until in the 15th century began that career of geographical discovery which has since proceeded uninterruptedly. This immediately brought with it the knowledge of many more forms of these birds than had ever before been seen, for whatever races of men, were visited by European navigators -- whatever in the East Indies or the West, whether in Africa or in the islands of the Pacific -- it was almost invariably found that even the most savage tribes had tamed some kind of Parrot; and, moreover, experience soon showed that no bird was more easily kept alive on board ship and brought home, while, if it had not the merit of "speech," it was almost certain to be beautiful plumage. Yet so numerous is the group that even now new species of Parriots are not uncommonly recognized, though, looking to the way in which the most secluded parts of the world are being ransacked, we must soon come to an end of this.


(321-1) "Parakeet" (in Shakespeare , I Hen. IV, ii. 3,88, "Paraquito") is said by the same authority to be from the Spanish Periquito or Perroqueto, a small Parrot, diminutive of Perico, a Parrot, which again may be a diminutive form Pedro, the proper name. Parakeet (spelt in various ways in English) is usually applied to the smaller kinds of Parrot, especially those which have long tails, not as Perroquet in French, which is used as a general term for all Parrots, Perruche, or sometimes Perriche, being the ordinary name for what we call Parakeet. The old English "Popinjay" and the old French Papegaut have almost passed out of use, but the German Papagei and Italian Papagaio still continue in vogue. These names can be traced in the Arabic Babagha; but the source of that word is unknown. The Anglo-Saxon name of the Parret, a river in Somerset, is Pedreda or Pedrida, which at first sight looks as if it had to do with the proper name, Petrus; but Prof. Skeat believes there is no connexion between them – the latter portion of the word being rith, a stream.

(321-2) The passage seems to have escaped the notice of all naturalists except Broderip, who mentioned it in his article "Psittacidae," in the Penny Cyclopaedia (vol. xix. P. 83).

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