Sunday, October 10, 2010

Historic Bird Facts From Many Countries

Hello all,

I have loved and raised birds for decades and sometimes wonder where it all began. Do you? I thought a Series about the domestication of birds throughout the world would be interesting. There is so much information that one country at a time will fill a post. To get this started, however, let’s do several snippets of Bird History from several of those countries.

PART I - In the Beginning

Red Jungle Fowl, Thailand
ASIA: Some researchers believe that the first domesticated birds were an Asian fowl, most likely from Thailand, and kept for egg production. People learned it was easier to keep them penned up then hunt all over for their eggs. It is surmised that this occurred more than four thousand years ago. No doubt fowl that nested on the ground were easier to catch and keep than birds that nested in treetops and were strong fliers. Also, unlike many other birds, their chicks could eat on their own as soon as they hatched.

Gradually, over time, people came to recognize personality differences in their fowl. They would have had favorites and eventually selected some as pets. Then they began to wonder about those high flyers and what they might be like.

Throwing a Bola with a net.

A Bola around the legs for large birds.

Water birds could have been caught with “bola's” (ropes with stones at each end) thrown around their legs. Grass nets could have been thrown over smaller birds as they scratched for seed on the ground. Or, young birds were snatched from their nests. Perhaps many died until people learned how and what to feed them. A more successful method may have been to wait and watch until the youngsters were newly fledged and then grab them. Whatever the method, birds have been domesticated for millennia.

EGYPT: The ancient Egyptians kept birds as pets 4-5,000 or more years ago. Parrots and doves frequently appear in their hieroglyphics, and there were probably others. As you may know, the Egyptians thought highly of their pet cats, often mummifying them. Did the cats bother their birds? Parrots can easily intimidate cats, but gentle doves or pigeons are another story.
These aren't our kitties, but cute.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve had seven cats (not all at once) and each of them learned to leave our birds alone…even the adult strays we adopted. I’m confident that Egyptian households at that time also kept cats and birds that were able to live in close proximity without a serious problem.

A Common Mynah Bird. There are many kinds.
INDIA: In India the Mynah has been considered sacred for at least 2,000 years.

In the 1950’s Mynah birds were frequent pets in the United States, and probably elsewhere. Their ability to mimic made them popular. However, their popularity quickly waned, possibly because they are messier than many other birds.

I remember visiting California’s San Diego Zoo in the 1960’s and seeing several round aviaries with wire dividing segments the way you’d cut a pie. In each separate segment was one Mynah bird. A metal plaque was attached to the front of each bird’s cage. It gave their name, the words they could repeat, and noted that they were relinquished by their owners (i.e., no longer wanted). It was obvious that, unlike other animals at the zoo, every effort was made to prevent the Mynah’s from repopulating. 

Wild Ring-necked Parakeet.
ROME: If you read the earlier post on “Ancient Aviculture,” you know that pigeons were kept and bred by the millions in the time of Ancient Rome. Romans also kept many varieties of pet birds. Parrots were most popular, but they also kept crows, magpies and starlings because they, too, could learn to repeat words. Even the lower classes often kept birds as pets. They could include pet chickens, quail, geese and a variety of colorful finches. Ring-necked parakeets were imported from India and also became popular.

Where did their other birds come from? A large portion of Europe was under Roman control, but the northern latitude doesn’t have all the colorful birds we now have as pets. Australia was unknown as was South America. Pet birds in Rome would have had to come from China, the Indian subcontinent, or Africa. More than likely, the parrots most often kept by them were African greys.

Pet birds were so highly prized, that in wealthy Roman households sometimes a slave’s only assignment was to care for the birds and teach them to talk. Not a bad responsibility really. If I had to be a slave, I can’t imagine a better assignment.

Song Thrush. There are many varieties of Thrush.
CHINA: Through several Chinese dynasties, and over many thousands of years, the Chinese domesticated numerous varieties of birds. From discovered artworks, it seems the more colorful the bird, the more popular it was as a caged pet. Their writings also praise the less colorful Nightingales and Thrushes, valued for their beautiful songs.

Chinese fisherman with Cormorant. Notice ring around neck.
Additionally, Chinese artwork shows Cormorants retrieving fish for men and women on rafts or sampans. This form of fishing is still being done in China today. A ring is put around the bird’s long neck to prevent it from swallowing larger fish. Hence, when the bird returns to the surface, the fisherman retrieves the bird and any fish it can’t swallow are pushed out of its throat. One assumes either the smaller fish are enough to sustain it, or the fisherman later shares the catch. The larger fish feed the fisherman's family, and hopefully there are plenty left over to sell.

Why doesn't the Cormorant fly away, you ask? Either their wings are clipped, or there is a rope around their leg, or both. The birds are also handled and trained from a very young age. They expect to return to the fisherman and don't stray far from his craft.

A Falcon reward?
Falcons, too, helped feed the Chinese. You’ve all seen how a Falcon can snatch a bird in mid-air. They can be trained to return to their owner and share their catch … maybe a duck, dove or other wildfowl. Poor Chinese were, perhaps, using Falcons to help acquire food long before Europeans adapted Falconry as a sport. In fact, records indicate the Chinese were using Falcon's as long ago as 700BC.

Today, the Chinese still maintain a friendship with birds and many seniors are seen in parks “airing” a wide variety of pet birds by carrying them around in cages which are sometimes hung in trees while both owners and birds visit with one another.

Sarus Cranes of Pakistan.
PAKISTAN: Pet Cranes are portrayed in ancient artwork from the Harappan Civilization along the Indus River of current day Pakistan and western India. Ancient pottery from this region also depicts ducks and other waterfowl. Most common, especially on their cemetery stones, are Peacocks.

Wild Alexandrine Parakeet.
MACEDONIA AND GREECE: Alexander the Great is said to have received a parakeet as a pet. It is believed to be what we now call the Alexandrine parakeet. Possibly in a later post we will cover more about this parakeet, how Alexander acquired it, and the area it inhabits.

Until next time, Peace & Blessings.

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