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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

How did a cockatoo from Australia end up in the Middle East, 400 years before the island was 'discovered'?

New research shows the exotic bird made a 12,000 mile journey down the Silk Road

Image of sulphur crested cockatoo from On the Art of Hunting with Birds
Image of sulphur crested cockatoo from On the Art of Hunting with Birds

It was a long journey for such a small bird – more than 12,000 miles from the islands of Australasia via the Arabian Peninsula to Cairo, and then on to Europe. Even more remarkable, the sulphur crested cockatoo came to the Middle East from a part of the world that would remain formally off the map to Western explorers for another 400 years.

The discovery, announced this week, of a 13th century illustration of an Australasian cockatoo confirms medieval trade links that stretched half way around the world.

It was not until the early 17th century that Dutch explorers finally reached Australia. Long before that, it now seems, goods from the region were part of a complex network of transcontinental mercantile routes.

On the Art of Hunting with Birds is already celebrated as one of the most famous, and earliest, works on falconry. An image of the cockatoo appears four times in the book, written by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, also King of Sicily from 1198.

A page from On the Art of Hunting with Birds, showing a sulphur crested cockatoo
A page from On the Art of Hunting with Birds, showing a sulphur crested cockatoo

A copy held by the Vatican library has numerous coloured illustrations of birds in its margins. And four of them show a cockatoo. Researchers believe that the bird was painted from life in Europe, meaning it would have travelled all the way from northern Australia or the islands around Papua New Guinea.

The bird's species was confirmed by Dr Heather Dalton, a historian at the University of Melbourne in Australia. It was most likely a present to the Emperor Frederick by Al-Kamil, the fourth Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, who knew that Frederic liked to collect exotic animals.

Previously Dr Dalton had identified a similar cockatoo tucked away in a 15th century painting, Madonna della Vittoria, by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna. At the time, it was the earliest known depiction of such an exotic bird in Europe.

She was contacted by a group of Finnish scientists studying the Emperor Frederick’s book, and who thought it might be the same species. The conclusion was published this month in the academic journal Parergon.

About the least surprising thing in the story, says Dr Dalton, is that the parrot survived the long journey from the Far East to an island in the Mediterranean.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo sitting in a tree. Ingo Oeland / Alamy Stock Photo
Sulphur-crested cockatoo sitting in a tree. Ingo Oeland / Alamy Stock Photo

“If anything was going to make it, it would be a sulphur crested cockatoo,” she says. “They live over 100 years in captivity. I saw one of 111 that had outlived two owners and spoke several languages.

“They love company, they are team players and they eat almost anything.”

The route the bird took to Cairo remains a matter of speculation, but Dr Dalton thinks it would have probably followed the old medieval Silk Road, mostly overland. After capture in Australasia, one possibility it that it would have gone by ship to Canton, the Chinese city near Hong Kong and now called Guangdong.

The medieval trade routes would have taken it north and then east, probably crossing India and reaching the coast near either present day Mumbai or Karachi. It could then have gone overland through Persia, and across present day Iraq, Syria and Jordan to Cairo, or a similar route but with a boat journey up the Arabian Gulf.

15th century Madonna della Vittoria by Andrea Mantenga, with a sulphur crested cockatoo painted above and to the left of the Madonna's head
15th century Madonna della Vittoria by Andrea Mantenga, with a sulphur crested cockatoo painted above and to the left of the Madonna's head

An alternative would have been a ship from India to what is now Aden, then sailing up the Red Sea or taking a land route though Saudi Arabia. A further possibility is that the bird sailed directly from Canton, through Indonesia and across the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, although this is the least likely for that time.

The Silk Road, says Dr Dalton, was in reality a complex web of routes. “By the 13th century it had grown to the point that there were a lot of towns providing a safe haven for merchants. It was getting safer and safer.”

The sultan may not have known where the bird came from, but he knew that the Emperor Frederick would have liked it.

An eyewitness report of the Emperor’s return to Jerusalem in 1231 noted he was accompanied by: “Elephants, dromedaries, camels, panthers, gyrfalcons, lions, leopards, white falcons and bearded owls.”

“To Al-Kamil, the cockatoo was a rare, sociable and gifted bird from afar — a fitting gift for the Holy Roman Emperor,” the paper in Parergon says.

At the time, the Kingdom of Sicily, which Frederick inherited at the age of three, would have had a large Muslim population, and the Emperor is known to have spoken Arabic. With his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 1220, the island became the political centre of Europe.

The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick with falcon from the 13th century On the Art of Hunting with Birds.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick with falcon from the 13th century On the Art of Hunting with Birds.

The translation from Latin in On the Art of Hunting with Birds describes the cockatoo as: “Sent to us by the Sultan of Babylon (meaning Al-Kamil): It had white feathers and quills, changing to yellow under the sides.”

Dr Dalton believes the bird could be one of two almost identical species, the sulphur crested cockatoo or the smaller yellow crested cockatoo.

Although the drawings are not to scale, the sex is easier to guess, she says. “The eyes of all four images are literally full of red paint,” she says. “And the female has a red or reddish brown eye.”

She was also probably quite happy in captivity, Dr Dalton says. The crest is drawn flat against the head. Cockatoos only raise it when they are frightened or surprised or as a part of courtship display.

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The cockatoos were once only found in the islands around Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and down the East Coast of Australia. They have since been spread by human intervention across other parts of Australia, including Melbourne, in the south, and where Dr Dalton lives.

They have become a pest, with Melbourne eventually restoring to falcons to hunt them down after the birds repeatedly stripped silicon sealant from windows.

The Emperor Frederick was also known to breed water birds to feed and train his falcons, says Dr Dalton. “Hopefully his cockatoo did not meet the same fate.”