Tuesday, November 9, 2010

PET BIRDS IN THE FIRST CENTURY: African Greys, Alexandrine Parrots & Lovebirds

I admit that I didn't write this post. Because it's about birds, I borrowed it from my husband's first century historical site:  http://seedsofchristianity.com/wordpress/

An African Grey Parrot in the wild.
Birds have been popular pets from earliest times. Hieroglyphic records indicate the Egyptians kept them 4,000 or more years ago. The Romans also kept many varieties of birds as pets. Parrots were most popular because of their color, but they also kept crows, magpies and starlings because they, too, could learn to repeat words. 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. The common man, without the connections and affluence required to obtain the more exotic specimens, would have made do with native species such as finches, doves, etc.

The ancient Jews clearly kept pet birds. Duet 22:6 warns, “If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road…and the mother is sitting on the young…do not take the mother with the young.” Robbing a nest would have been a common way to acquire birds for pets or resale. Job 41:15 asks, “Can you make a pet of him like a bird?” And Jeremiah 5:27 says, “Like cages full of birds…”

A large portion of Europe was under Roman control, but the northern latitudes don’t have the colorful birds most favored as pets. And two modern sources of exotic birds, Australia and South America were both unknown. However, Rome’s influence extended into Africa which is home to a variety of colorful parrot species.

Currently, one of the most popular parrots is the African Grey. They are generally acknowledged to be among the smartest of all birds and are known to have vocabularies of up to 500 words. They surely would have been popular in Roman times as well.

An Abysinnian Parrot
Africa is also home to nine species of Poicephalus, or short tailed, parrots. Widely dispersed, several of these species exist in slightly different forms so that they represent a total of 24 varieties when the subspecies are included. One example in this group is the Abyssinian Parrot. It lives wild in northwest Somalia, across northern Ethiopia and into the Sudan. They generally live in areas that are lightly forested and, though this species generally travels in small groups, they sometimes gather in flocks of over a thousand birds. Abyssinian parrots belong to the ring- necked subspecies and are commonly kept as pets.

A wild Lovebird looking out from
hole in tree with nest.
Lovebirds, Psittaccidae Agapornis, are also native to Africa. There are nine subspecies of lovebirds, meaning that these beautiful and popular birds can be found in a wide variety of colors and colorations. They are intelligent, affectionate, and playful little birds who form strong bonds with their owners. 

The eastern boundary of the Roman Empire butted up against the realm of the Parthians. This area was once part of Alexander the Great’s Empire. Following the death of Alexander, Parthia became a Seleucid governorate under Nicanor. Their sphere of influence extended from the boundaries of Roman Syria to the Indus River.

The Alexandrine Parakeet or Alexandrian Parrot is named after Alexander the Great, who is credited with exporting the birds from Punjab into various European & Mediterranean countries. Given their relationship with Alexander, they became prized possessions of nobles and royalty. The species name eupatria translates to noble ancestry.

The Ultimate Gift an Alexandrine Parrot

The Alexandrine Parrot is a larger version of both the Indian and African Ringneck. They look so much like their smaller cousins that they are sometimes accidentally classified as one of their more popular cousins. All Alexandrine Parrots exhibit the classic ringneck look: dark green bodies, long tails, red beaks, and yellow eyes. The only difference between them and their smaller relatives are their maroon patched wings and larger bills.

One of the Alexandrine’s smaller cousins, the Indian Ringneck Parakeet, can speak so clearly that once monks considered them sacred after hearing one repeat their daily prayers. This big talking, medium-sized bird is capable of reciting long and complicated excerpts from books, poetry, and scripture.

Indian Ringnecks Can Recite
Long Passages of Scripture
By the First Century, Rome had several hundred merchants ships traveling across the Red Sea to India to import pepper. It’s not hard to imagine a bird trader wandering the docks with a cage of birds that he’d trapped and tamed. Who better to sell them to than foreign merchants docked at the harbor?

The merchants would transport the birds back to the Egyptian port of Bernike and resell them to someone heading for Rome or any of the other capitols of the Empire. After all, if Herod the Great were in Rome and happened to see the talking bird Caesar had, wouldn’t he want one too? And if it were the current fashion, wouldn’t Pontius Pilate’s wife, Claudia Procula, want some lovebirds dangling from her ceiling in a gilded cage? Just because they were living out in the sticks didn’t mean she had to live like a peasant. Besides, who did she have to talk to all day? Pontius was always tied up with paperwork, centurions and that high priest, Caiphas…

So were the early Christians familiar with exotic pet birds? The answer is clearly, Yes they were. Did they own them? Maybe, maybe not. Some Christians came from elite families and could have easily afforded to purchase such a pet. Others were poor and would have had to make do with sparrows, wrens, finches, and doves.

Traditional tells us Saint John kept homing pigeons as a hobby. What about the boy Jesus? Did Joseph perhaps construct a cage out of willow branches and wood scraps to house the little desert finch Jesus brought home? It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.

No comments: