Why Do Pirates Have Parrots?

Peg legs, eyepatches, large hats, and hooks are strongly associated with pirates, but there’s one animal that stands out as a pirate’s favorite accessory: Parrots. Why are pirates so commonly described as parrot-loving privateers? Did they actually have them onboard?

Pirates have parrots in modern depictions due to the portrayal of Long John Silver in “Treasure Island.” The book fueled stereotypes about pirates, such as peg legs. Pirates may have come across parrots on trips to Central America and sold them in the pet trade, though there are no records of this.

This article analyzes media characterizations of parrots as well-known pirate pets. It also discusses why pirates might keep parrots on a ship, briefly covers the exotic animal trade during the Golden Age of Piracy, and finally examines the likelihood of pirates actually having kept parrots onboard. Read on to learn more.

Media Portrayals of Pirates with Parrots

Most of the stereotypes surrounding pirates can be attributed to classical fiction. Disney eventually turned the novels into films, propelling the stereotypes into the mainstream.

“Treasure Island” and Captain Flint

In the 1883 novel “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s character, Long John Silver, is a fearsome, peg-legged pirate with a parrot — Captain Flint — perched atop his shoulder.

But what was it that made Stevenson choose an animal companion out of all other animals?

Well, it turns out that Stevenson was particularly fond of David Defoe’s book, “Robinson Crusoe.” Stevenson went on to credit the novel for his inspiration for Captain Flint in “Treasure Island.”[1] In the book, Crusoe has a parrot companion and later tames two others, teaching them to speak.[2]

Interestingly, this means that the inspiration behind parrots and pirates wasn’t based on piracy at all.

“Fox’s Peter Pan & The Pirates” and Short Tom

In 1902, James M. Barrie released the famed “Peter Pan” novel. Nearly nine decades later, Fox created a cartoon rendition based on the book. Fox’s “Peter Pan & The Pirates” featured regular characters from the original story but also a few creations of their own. In the adaptation, Captain Hook has a parrot, a one-eyed Macaw named Short Tom.[3]

These media portrayals are the most famous depictions of pirates with parrots. There are no historical records of pirates having kept these exotic birds as pets.

Despite this, Colin Woodward, author of “The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down,” states that the parrot myths are “almost certainly” based on truth.[4]

Why Would Pirates Keep Parrots?

Colin Woodward might have believed the myth of pirates and parrots because it’s no secret that pirates did occasionally keep animals aboard — cats, in particular.

Rodents were common stowaways on pirate vessels, and, considering these pests chewed through valuable materials, ate from the food supply, and carried diseases, they weren’t exactly welcome guests.

To eliminate the nuisance, pirates often employed the help of feline friends.[5] Not only did pirates carry superstitious beliefs about cats, believing they brought with them good fortune and favorable weather, but cats also preyed on the varmints making the voyage far more comfortable for the sailors.

So, what does this have to do with parrots?

Well, cats are particularly independent animals requiring little human intervention — their food source was already widely available aboard the ship. Therefore, they made ideal ship companions. And, when you consider that birds, too, are independent and require very little food, it makes sense that pirates might just consider bringing these birds along to keep them company and provide some much-needed entertainment on the long, monotonous voyages.

Exotic Animal Trade

A more likely reason why pirates might have had parrots onboard is the exotic pet trade during the Golden Age of Piracy, especially from 1701 to 1730.[6]

Thousands of pirates traversed the coastal waters of North America and the Caribbean Sea, often attacking ships and ports in Central America. During these raids, they likely came into contact with the colorful, exotic birds on more than one occasion.

The avians were vibrant and friendly, and they could talk — it’s no doubt that pirates immediately recognized the lucrative potential of selling these birds, especially considering the widespread animal trade at the time.

Pirates knew a valuable commodity when they saw one, so it’s not difficult to imagine some privateers taking the birds back to Europe to sell for a high price.

With that said, there are a few reasons why pirates might have opted not to sell parrots at all.

Did Pirates Really Keep Parrots as Pets?

No one can say with certainty whether pirates kept parrots as pets, though there is quite a bit of speculation. If the buccaneers had parrots onboard, it makes most sense that they weren’t pets — instead, they were transported across seas primarily for selling.

That’s not to say that pirates didn’t enjoy the company of these intelligent creatures — if they did indeed bring them along on their voyages, it’s safe to assume that they found themselves entertained by the clever birds.

However, the reality is that parrots and pirates as dear friends probably aren’t as common as movies and novels might have people believe.

A pirate’s ability to continue his lifestyle depended quite heavily on his ability to fit in with society; otherwise, he’d risk being caught. Blending in was especially important while ashore trying to sell their loot.

It could be particularly challenging to sell a parrot, considering there were no birds like them in Europe. The exotic birds are loud and colorful, and they spoke, so they were sure to garner attention and raise a few eyebrows. Many privateers likely avoided selling parrots altogether for this reason alone.

On the other hand, there may have been pirates willing to risk their freedom to sell the avians or maybe even keep them as pets — but it was probably a very rare occurrence. After all, it’s hard to imagine real-life swashbucklers operating the capstan or climbing the rig to stow the sails with a bird sitting on their shoulder.

[1] Source Birds on the Brink: Ahoy, Matey!
[2] Source Wonders and Marvels: Robinson Crusoe’s Parrot
[3] Source IMBD: Peter Pan and the Pirates
[4] Source Atlas Obscura: The Surprising Truth About Pirates and Parrots
[5] Source Explore The Archive: The Long and Curious History of Ship Cats
[6] Source Taylor and Francis Online: Seadogs and Their Parrots

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