Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason that we today have the very specific image of a grizzled buccaneer and his trusty parrot, but we might wonder if it has any truth to it. You see, there was no room for superfluous creatures on board a pirate vessel; dogs might guard very valuable treasures, but this was rare. It was more likely that a vessel might have a cat to keep the mice and rats at bay (which would also feed the cat). But what use might a parrot have?
Well, it’s true that parrots were more often cargo than pets due to their high value and the demand for exotic flora and fauna in European capitals. All species of parrots were all highly sought after, although it was the Macaw that fetched the highest price. Which makes it no surprise that these were the parrots that pirates favored.
Macaws were kept by pirates for a variety of reasons, but they were able to keep them for a few reasons. Firstly they’re not big eaters which means that when supplies run low they, like cats, are not an unnecessary drain on scarce resources. Secondly, they’re fairly able to take care of themselves. During fights they can fly away from danger, whether this be above the ship or simply into the rigging- this also means there’s little chance of them falling into the swell and drowning.
The real appeal of keeping them, however, had a few sides. They are intelligent animals; they
can learn tricks and imitate speech. They’re also very sociable which means that they could
help a pirate pass time on a long, boring voyage as well as providing some company. They were also, however, status symbols because of their value and rarity. After all not every pirate would have a talking parrot perched on their shoulder, and being one of the few pirates who did would mark you out as a man of importance.