When Did Cockatoos Arrive In Europe?

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How did an Australian cockatoo find its way to Sicily, in Italy?

Recently, four depictions of a cockatoo, most likely a triton or yellow-breasted species, were found in an ancient manuscript dating back to the 13th century.

This manuscript, which was Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Sicily’s, is the oldest known drawing of a cockatoo. The cockatoo, a small bird native to Papua New Guinea and northern Australia (commonly referred to as Australasia) was a gift from the Ayyubid Dynasty that ruled over large parts of the Middle East.

Medieval Trade Routes

During this time in Australasia, a prosperous trade network stretching to the exotic Middle East and beyond was taking shape. Southeast Asian trading networks, such as the one previously discussed, were a sophisticated society based on trade.

Goods, such as meats, fabrics, and white parrots, were being bought and sold. Instead of a colossal merchant ship hauling its way across the sea, small-scale boats were ferrying goods between the multiple islands to Australia’s north. When their trading was coming to an end, they would make port in Java, where they would sell the last of their goods to the Chinese, Arab, and Persian merchants. Once in a blue moon, goods would be used as gifts to emperors, kings, and people of other high authority.

Cockatoo As Gifts

It was quite common for authority figures (kings, bishops, popes, etc.) to receive animals as gifts. Frederick II’s tastes were quite similar to other leaders of his time, but instead of wanting any exotic animal, he wanted an animal he could study the features of. 

Cockatoos made respectable gifts because they traveled well, had long life spans, and were easy to transport. The possibility for them to survive the trek from Papua New Guinea or Australia to Sicily and other parts of the world was more probable than any other creature. What is surprising, is that there are no other records, currently, that show a cockatoo as a common gift to authority figures.

It was believed that the first time Europeans came in contact with a cockatoo was in 1496 with the altarpiece “Madonna della Vittoria” by Andrea Mantegna. When the four drawings of Frederick II’s cockatoo were found, it completely re-wrote trade as we know it. It showed that trading was going on in the East long before it formed in the West.

One fact that is puzzling researchers is that Europeans were not documented in Australia until 1606, hundreds of years after this cockatoo was recorded in Sicily. What do you think this discovery means? 

Sources: BBC, Guardian, ABC.net.au, unimelb.au.edu, France24