On Pirates and Parrots

by , under Books, Culture

Had a question come in via Twitter the other day, asking why pirates have traditionally been depicted as having parrots on their shoulders, so thought I’d post some quick thoughts…

Truth be told, there is little evidence that lots of pirates did have parrots perched on them – the image appears to have begun with the film Treasure Island. However, there is plenty of evidence that pirates, as with all sea-farers, liked to bring back exotic things from their travels. So the first thing to say it this: parrots fit well into this ‘exotic’ theme, and could fetch a good price back in England. They were very out of the ordinary.

But this raises the question of why the image emerged in the consciousness of those who made Treasure Island, and why it then resonated. What function did it serve? For a pirate to be seen with a parrot signifies something about their context: pirates are not ‘of this world’, but come from and inhabit a place with different, or unfamiliar, species. The inclusion of the parrot helps the film communicate this, and helps distinguish the pirate from the common thief.

However, we might go a little deeper. Parrots could be taught to speak, and a parrot can be seen to be a sort of truth-teller. In film it often reveals uncomfortable truths: it says what should not be said, in company that should not hear. It may be reading too much into it, but a pirate having a parrot signifies at one level their power of revelation: they speak truth to power.

Yet they do so not with some huge gravitas, but with the subversive manner of humour. Parrots are funny. But, in their repetitiveness, they are also insistent. They say what needs saying – repeating over and over the truths that need airing. Parrots are thus the perfect foil for the pirate, and a sort of anthropomorphic version of them: exotic, other-worldly, and bringing uncomfortable revelation…yet with a cheek and lightness of touch too.


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  1. Alex

    I like those ideas.

    Maybe also there’s a more basic, parrots are more easily fed and controlled than larger pets, they are very intelligent and can be taught tricks as well and perhaps it shows the pirate’s basic humanity, desire to care for another creature? Perhaps it was a way to make them more approachable? A pirate from a ship, previously seen as outcast / not to be spoken too, perhaps the pet entices people to come closer and explore relationship, softens the potential scare factor?

    Maybe the parrot can be taught to thieve also, so it serves another purpose.

  2. Simon

    There’s another sense in which the parrot represents the pirate (somewhat like Pullman’s daemons) the gaudily coloured parrot mimics the finely dressed pirates who, liberated from the strict societal rules over what classes of people could wear what grades and colours of fabric, thus visibly further placing themselves outside of feudal / early capitalist society’s norms.

    Also the talking bird represents a strange overlap of worlds. Birds do not talk and are outside of the law. A talking bird transgresses this boundary, and is in some way not one thing or the other.