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Brett Westwood explores parrots and their effect on art, literature and society. Friends to the wealthy and mischievous mates of pirates, few birds have been so close to us.

Colourful birds of the rainforest and companions of pirates, parrots evoke contradictory images. They encompass a huge range of forms from the flightless lumbering kakapo of New Zealand to the diminutive and talkative budgerigar of Australia, the chatty African grey parrot to the garishly colourful macaws of South America. Their striking appearance and apparent sense of mischief have made parrots popular as pets from ancient Egypt to the present day. During the 19th century their exoticism made them status symbols of wealth and luxury. Noted by a young Edward Lear who, believing the upper classes fascination with the family might be lucrative, set about the task of illustrating as many species of parrot as he could for their admirers to collect. Picture the teenage Lear crouching inside the parrot enclosure at London Zoo drawing the birds -the occasional face of his human observers appearing in his sketchbooks as he became an exhibit in himself. Lear's unique method of sketching his subjects from living rather than stuffed specimens captured the character of the birds in a way that had not been achieved before - even rivalling the celebrated Audubon for best bird illustrator of the time. Unfortunately after a series of set-back's Lear ceased natural history illustration in favour of writing nonsense poetry - including one about a parrot (There was an old man from Montrose...). The uncanny ability of some species of parrot to mimic the human voice only add to their appeal. The Popes had a keeper of parrots and Henry VIII was supposedly captivated by his. We cast parrots as the clowns of the natural world; painted in many colours they appear mischievous but innocent, playful but intelligent. But has our anthropomorphism of parrots limited our true understanding of the family? In the words of Mark Cocker "parrots are held in cages, but they are trapped in our imaginations".

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28 minutes

Last on

Mon 28 Sep 2015 21:00

Paul Cooper

Paul Cooper
Paul Cooper is Special Collections Librarian at the Natural History Museum, London for nearly 30 years. Paul's work has focused on the acquisition and curation of Life Sciences literature.

He has contributed an essay on Edward Lear’s “Illustrations of the Family of Parrots” to the forthcoming book “Rare Treasures from the Library of the Natural History Museum” and he is the author of the forthcoming book “The Bauer Brothers” on the Austrian born botanical artists Franz and Ferdinand Bauer.

Jonathan Elphick

Jonathan Elphick
Jonathan Elphick is a naturalist, specialising in ornithology, who has worked since 1969 as a writer, editor and consultant for many publishers, including the Natural History Museum and the BBC.

His many books include The Birdwatcher’s Handbook, an award-winning BBC field guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland, Birds: The Art of Ornithology, Great Birds of Europe, the bestselling multimedia title Birdsong and a major new encyclopaedic book for the NHM, The World of Birds. Jonathan was researcher on two vital celebrations of the cultural importance of birds by Mark Cocker, Birds Britannica and Birds and People.

He is also on the Steering Group of New Networks for Nature, a broad alliance of individuals who in their personal and professional lives draw creative inspiration from the birds, wildlife and landscapes of this country.

Vicky Hammond and Max the parrot

Vicky Hammond and Max the parrot
Vicky Hammond is the owner of seven parrots including Max, a macaw who appeared in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

In the film, Bond receives a call from the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and Max the parrot asks her to 'give us a kiss, give us a kiss'.

Tony Juniper

Tony Juniper
Tony Juniper is a campaigner, writer, sustainability adviser and a well-known British environmentalist. He wrote the book What Nature Does for Britain and currently works as a Special Adviser to the Prince of Wales Charities’ International Sustainability Unit.

He is a Senior Associate with the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL), working as a member of the teaching faculty and contributing to several programmes. In November 2012, he was named as the first President of the Society for the Environment.

Twitter: @TonyJuniper

Professor Ralph Pite

Ralph Pite is a professor of English Literature at the University of Bristol. His research is focused on the Romantic periodThomas Hardyecocriticism, and 20th-century poetry.

He is currently writing a book about the poets, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. They were close friends in the three years before Thomas’s death in 1917, at the Battle of Arras. Both men shared a love of nature and an interest in ‘the simple life’ – in ways of living, which we would call sustainable.

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