How the Cockatoo Came to Sicily in the 13th Century

On the bucket list of many who enjoy bird watching holidays, the Cockatoo is a curious being. It was originally believed that the bird reached Europe in the late fifteenth century, with an Australasian Cockatoo in a 1496 painting by Andrea Mantegna thought to represent its arrival on the continent.

Further research has now uncovered that the Cockatoo may well have reached Europe many years earlier. Work was undertaken at the University of Turku, in Finland, to learn more about the images included in a thirteenth century manuscript on falconry, which was written either by or for King Frederick II of Sicily.

An Ancient Manuscript Holds the Key to Avian History

Written between 1241 and 1248, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus or ‘The Art of Hunting With Birds’ includes nine hundred images relating to falconry and other animals, all of which were in Frederick II’s possession. Many of the species that can be identified by modern day nature lovers on bird watching holidays today are either referenced or pictorially represented in Frederick’s manuscript.

A number of the images included in the manuscript depicted a ‘crested white parrot’, referred to as having been a gift to the Emperor from the Sultan of Babylon. Monarchs were known to have presented each other with animals as gifts during the thirteenth century, with rare, large and dangerous animals considered to be the most prestigious. (The King of Norway once offered a polar bear to Henry III of England in 1251.)

The True Story of the Cockatoo in Europe

Intrigued by rare animals and the books that documented their existence, Frederick II enjoyed studying these more exotic and unusual creatures. Egypt’s fourth Ayyubid Sultan, who was well aware of Frederick’s interest in rare birds, identified an exotic ‘white parrot’ as the ideal gift for the Roman Emperor.

Outdating Mantegna’s depiction of the Cockatoo by over 250 years, the manuscript was regarded as the key to discovering the story behind how this rare bird first found its way to Europe. Back over at the University of Turku, further work was begun to achieve a formal identification of the Cockatoo in Frederick II’s manuscript, with close analysis of the crest and colouring of the drawing undertaken.

A number of further details were ascertained. Scholars deemed the Cockatoo to have been female, and to have been either a Triton or from one of the several sub-species of Yellow-crested Cockatoo. Taking this information, it was concluded that the bird gifted to Frederick II originated from either Indonesia, the northernmost tip of the Australian mainland, New Guinea or the islands off New Guinea.

The Longest Journey

The journey of this Cockatoo from these far off regions to Sicily offered an interesting point for further research. Thriving trade routes ran through the waters leading to northern Australia, with many merchants buying and selling live animals and rare birds such as the Cockatoo. A number of artefacts, articles and records have provided evidence that during the early thirteenth century, such trading may well have included those ‘white parrots’ referenced in Frederick’s manuscript.

The King’s Cockatoo, as we now know it, offers an insightful glimpse into the thriving trade and globally-connected world of the thirteenth century. And, of course, the heritage of a bird that still intrigues enthusiasts on bird watching holidays in Sicily and throughout the world.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in birds. With a passionate interest in rare avian species, Marissa chooses the expert-led bird watching holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of flora and fauna in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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