Pet parrots were imported to Europe from South, North and Central America from early in the 16th century. African and Asian parrots were already popular by this time. For example, Prince Henry Tudor, later Henry VIII, had an African Grey as early as 1504.
Parrots were being kept as pets in America way back in ancient history, in their native countries. The first pet parrots in Brazil date from 5,000 years ago, and they were popular household companions in the Pacific islands too. In India they were being kept as pets 3,000 years ago; in Egypt 2,000 years ago; and in China 1800 years ago.
Alexander the Great was a parrot fan. He is credited with bringing the first Ring-necked Parakeets to Greece in 327BC, and the Alexandrine Parakeet takes its name from him. The Romans were parrot keepers too, and the hobby spread through the Empire (although the birds never reached the British Isles, as far as we can tell). They are mentioned by proto-naturalist Pliny the Elder - in 77BC he wrote instructions for teaching the birds to talk. This involved hitting them on the head – definitely a piece of advice to ignore!
The Alexandrine Parakeet was named after parrot-lover Alexander the Great
Parrot sales slumped in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. The renaissance came when Christopher Columbus brought Amazon parrots back to Spain in the late 15th century, gifts to the Spanish king and queen from some of the native Americans that Columbus met.
These American Parrots opened the floodgates to parrot-keeping, most of them confined to settlers in the unfolding lands of South, Central and North America and the West Indies. The key to their popularity was threefold - they were highly intelligent, beautiful to look at, and could - sometimes - be taught to talk. The famous 10th century AD book the Kama Sutra, (more famous for advice of a different kind), says that one of the 63 things a man must master in life is teaching a parrot to talk.
Blue-fronted Amazon Parrots - one of the many species kept as pets in the Americas since the early 16th century
Parrots enjoyed yet another vogue in 18th century Europe, inspired by the aviaries of French “Sun King” Louis XIV at Versailles. Many aristocrats bought parrots as 'must have' drawing room accessories.
Modern parrot-keeping, as a hobby that transcends social classes and countries, began in the 1800s when Australian birds appeared on the European scene and the Budgerigar trade boomed.
Parrot-keeping had its own version of the Black Death in the 1920s when the disease Psittacosis, aka Parrot fever, appeared in aviary birds. The parrot trade only began to recover in the 1950s. Since the 1970s, according to a largely unprovable factoid, the average town-dweller in the USA has never been much more than 100 yards away from a pet parrot, a testament to the popularity of the psittacines. Of these millions of birds, it is the Budgie and Cockatiel that make up the bulk of the numbers.
In the '50s the pet trade was often cruel and ruthless, with birds packed in crates on the brutal economic principle that a 50% survival rate was acceptable. Mercifully, in the 1960s pet trade legislation was tightened up across the world (although illegal imports of parrots are still reported in the news occasionally). However, most of the birds you see in captivity these days are captive-bred. For the many endangered species, this captive breeding is a vital lifeline. The World Parrot Trust was founded in 1989 with the sole objective or protecting parrots - with almost 400 extant species - across the world.
President Andrew Jackson’s Parrot
President Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson famously had a pet parrot that squawked obscenities during his owner's funeral and had to be removed from the building! Jackson was the country's 7th president from 1829 to 1837, and a trendsetter in the keeping of larger parrots. His pet was an African Grey called Poll.
African Grey Parrot - just like the one that cursed at Old Hickory's funeral!
Presidents With Parrots
George Washington's wife had a parrot in residence too, as did James Madison’s wife. Ulysses S. Grant was another keen parrot keeper.
William McKinley's Mexican parrot was called Washington Post - a publication that was soon reporting the assassination of this unfortunate 25th president. Teddy Roosevelt was a multiple parrot keeper, with two birds of his own and a pet macaw for his son.
Dwight Eisenhower's pet parakeet Gabby was buried in 1957 in the executive mansion at The White House. JFK kept two parakeets, Bluebell and Marybelle, along with a canary called Robin. Lyndon Johnson showed his soft side too, keeping a pair of lovebirds.