Land of Parrots

Compiled by R.J. McMillan, Dyfed, Wales, U.K.

Parrots have been kept in captivity since the dawn of time, and references to talking birds can be found dating back centuries.

The earliest known reference to a parrot in European literature is dated 397 BC, and is found in Ctesia's work Indica, in which the author gives a fairly accurate description of a Plum-headed parakeet.

A century later Aristotle (385-322 BC) described a similar bird which he called Psittace. Many years later, at about 50 BC, Diodorus Siculus, a Roman, wrote of parrots which he had seen in Syria, and in the year AD 50, Pliny described a similar bird.

In the Middle Ages parrots were highly prized by rulers such as Frederick II(1194-1250), whose favourite was an Umbrella Cockatoo which was presented to him by the Sultan of Babylon.

There are a few intriguing references to parrots dating from the fourteenth century, e.g. a Grotesque parrot is drawn on the Mappa Mundi, a world map of about 1300, which is kept at Hereford Cathedral, and Chaucer makes mention of the imitative powers of parrots in his Canterbury Tales.

In 1492, Columbus, following his epic voyage to the New World, brought back a pair of Cuban Amazons for his patron, Queen Isabella of Spain, (1451-1504).

Little Corellas - Cacatua sanguinea. Photograph supplied by & courtesy of Adrian Freeman, Queensland Police Service, Brisbane.

A world map by Gerard Mercator issued in 1569, has upon it an area clearly designated as Psitacarum Regio (region of parrots), the existence of which was known to Portuguese mariners well over two centuries before the Endeavour put into Botany Bay. It is presumed that this area was the land mass of Terra Australis, or what we now call Australia.

The Land of Parrots (Australia) is truly a land of parrots. Although parrot-type birds occur in Central and South America, tropical Africa, Southern Asia, and throughout the Australasian region, over fifty-four species are to be found in Australia itself. The first recorded sighting of an Australian parrot by a European was of a Cockatoo. On the 22nd August 1699, William Dampier landed on a small island off the North-West coast of Australia, which is known as the Dampier Archipelago, where he saw a flock of Little Corellas.

One of the first known illustrations of an Australian parrot was a sketch of a female Banksian Cockatoo, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, drawn in 1770.This was a pencil sketch by Sydney Parkinson who was the botanical draughtsman on board Captain Cook's ship, the Endeavour. This historic pencil sketch passed into the keeping of the British Museum in 1827, together with most of the invaluable manuscripts, specimens, drawings and the library of Sir Joseph Banks, who sailed with Captain Cook on his first voyage. (See footnote)

The second illustration of an Australian parrot was painted by the artist William Ellisin 1777, during Cook's third - and last voyage, and it illustrates the Tasmanian Rosella. This painting is also in the British Museum.

The earliest known published illustration of an Australian parrot was of a Rainbow Lorikeet, and it appeared in Peter Brown's "New Illustration of Zoology" (1774). Although a veritable rainbow of colour, this bird was first called a 'Blue-Bellied Parrot'. The Rainbow Lorikeet was also the first Australian parrot to reach Britain in 1789, and this particular parrot was the special pet of a Polynesian interpreter called Tupia, who travelled back to Britain with Cook. Having survived the journey, this parrot was then given to Marmaduke Turnstall, in whose possession it was when Peter Brown painted it.

White-tailed Black Cockatoo - Calyptorhynchus funereus baudinii. Photograph supplied by & courtesy of Mr Adrian Freeman, Queensland Police Service, Brisbane, Qld

The second proper painting recorded of an Australian parrot was made in 1777, during Cook's last voyage, and this was of a Green Rosella, killed by William Anderson, the ship's surgeon-naturalist, and was executed in water colours by William Ellis, his assistant.

Some of the first French explorers interested themselves in Australian parrots. The 'White-Eared' or 'White-Tailed' was named Baudinii, after Captain Nicolas Baudin, an early French navigator.

One of the earliest descriptions of the Ground Parrot, once plentiful but now rare, was written by La Billariere, naturalist and historian of d'Entre Casteaux's expedition, during the second visit to Tasmania on 11th February, 1793.

Most people would agree that the most delicately coloured pink cockatoo is known as Major Mitchell's; this lovely bird was named Leadbeater Cockatoo by Vigors in 1831, from a specimen in the hands of Benjamin Leadbeater, a London taxidermist.

A very lifelike coloured plate of this cockatoo appears in Mitchell's "Three Expeditions into the interior of Eastern Australia" (1838).

Regent Parrot - Polytelis anthopeplus. Photograph by & courtesy of Len Robinson, Melbourne Vic, Australia.

Another explorer into unknown parts of Australia who found his journeys enlivened by parrots was Captain Charles Sturt -- his favourite was what he called the 'Black-tailed Paroquest', known as the Regent or Rock Pebbler, which figured in and was described by Edward Lear in his "Illustration of the Family of Psittacide, or Parrots" (1832).

In the nineteenth century, two British artists did more to capture the colour and character in all their glory of Australian parrots -- Edward Lear, later to become famous for his Nonsense Books for children, and the famous illustrator, John Gould.

The Rosellas are among the best-known and most strikingly-coloured of Australia's parrots, these being confused with the 'Tropical Lories' by early explorers. Specimens of the Crimson Rosella were first secured by Dr. John Latham in 1781, as "the beautiful lory".

John Gould, who visited Australia in 1838, was charmed by the Rosellas. The name Rosella was first used in his great work The Birds of Australia (1840-1848). He named three Rosellas:-

  • Yellow
  • Adelaide
  • Golden-Mantled

Golden-mantled Rosella - Platycercus eximius cecilae. Photograph by & courtesy of Glenys Johnson, Brisbane Qld.

The origin of the word Rosella is obscure and uncertain. It has long been accepted that the name was derived from the old name of the Eastern Rosella, which was Rose Hill Parakeet. It is suggested, however, that the name became shortened to 'Rose-Hiller', and finally Rosella, but this is just a supposition.

In old shooting lists of 1830 these parrots were called Rosetta Parrots. The word Rosella first appeared in the diaries of John Gilbert, who was one of Gould's collectors; this may have been a slip of the pen -- from Rosetta to Rosella, the latter being retained to this day.

In the parrots and cockatoos of Australia we have the highest development of this species. It is therefore not surprising that Australia is called Land of Parrots when it is realised that this great country has no less than fifty-four species, with possibly more yet to be discovered.

Footnote: I came across your web page regarding the history of parrots in Australia, and I thought you should be aware that the first painting of an Australian parrot was done in 1772 by Moses Griffiths (I do not regard the Parkinson sketch as a "painting"). I discovered this painting, of a Rainbow Lorikeet, in London some years ago. A colour illustration of the painting appeared in Australian Natural History, vol. 23 no. 6, p. 680 in 1991. A full account appeared in Archives of Natural History in 1988. I hope this information is useful to you. Information supplied by courtesy of Rick Willis via the Internet (March 1999).

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