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Aviculture-art - 4/27/15


"Aviculture in the Middle Ages and the Current Middle Ages" by Lady Biya Sama Fujin.


NOTE: See also the files: Featherd-Gold-art, Cats-n-the-MA-art, falconry-msg, p-falconry-bib, pets-msg, grains-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Known World Aviculturists Guild presents




Aviculture in the Middle Ages

and the Current Middle Ages

by Lady Biya Sama Fujin


What is Medieval Aviculture?


Medieval aviculture is the study of companion birds (those species raised for their social qualities, beauty, and song) in the Middle Ages and renaissance periods. For purposes of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the generally accepted years of study are from 600-1600 which correlate to roughly the fall of the Roman Empire to the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England in the West and the Tang through Ming dynasties in the Far East.


Queen Mary Psalter, 1310s showing popinjay (Psittacula parakeet) at Mary's right hand. Notice the ring neck of the males and distinct long, thin tail unique to the genus.


Companion birds in aviculture typically belong to one of three orders of birds:

Psittacines, Passeriformes, and Columbiformes.   Passeriformes includes finches, canaries, sparrows, and most song birds (but also includes crows and ravens). Columbiformes are pigeons and doves, the distinction between has more to do with the beak than shape of body or size!  Whereas Psittacines are better known as parrots—or popinjays as they were called in Europe until the early Renaissance when the word "parrot" came into use.


What species of parrots were kept in the Medieval Europe?


Europeans kept four species from the genus Psittacula (aka "Asian parakeets") prior to Renaissance explorations across the Atlantic expanded the families and genera of parrots available to them.  Prior to1400 these three species were collectively known as "popinjays":  Alexandrine parakeet, Indian ring neck parakeet, African ring neck (aka rose ringed) parakeet, and plum head parakeet. In addition, African grey parrots (Congo and/or Timnehs) were available, though to much fewer individuals than the popinjays. Henry VIII of England famously kept an African grey.



Plum head


Congo African Grey, courtesy Dionysia Birdclever


What species of parrots were kept in the Medieval Asia?


As the term "Asian parakeet" suggests for the genus Psittacula, the parakeets loved and adored by Europeans, with one exception, were natives to India and Southeast Asia and therefore became natural parts of aviculture throughout the continent. In China, the native parakeet was the Derbyan, a violet breasted bird of great beauty not kept in European aviculture.


Male and Female Alexandrine parakeets from India.  Note the male's black collar.


But the Chinese did not stop with just Asian parakeets. The Chinese were great sailors and explorers who went out into great ships to explore the south pacific and beyond. By the Tang dynasty (618-960), Chinese sailors had reached Indonesia which would become known as the "Spice Islands" by European traders.


Chinese Derbyan parakeet.  Male is on the left and female on the right.


Male Indian Ring neck parakeet


Several species of Indonesian parrot are named for their particular native Indonesian island(s). The sailors brought back great treasures in plants, animals, and other valuables—including the magnificent parrots of Indonesia—including "white parrots"—that is, COCKATOOS.  In Indonesia there are umbrella cockatoos, Moluccans (named for the Moluccan aka Seram islands), and several kinds of sulfur crested cockatoos, including the newly rediscovered and highly            endangered Abbott's Lesser Sulfur Crested cockatoo.


Umbrella cockatoo from Indonesia (Cuddles of Atenveldt,

courtesy Lady Beatrice Fayreweather of Known World Avicultuurists Guild)


Abbott's cockatoo, now only found on Masakambing Island in Indonesia, but abundant during the middle ages.


What role did companion birds play in medieval life?


In medieval societies, there were no such things as "pets" in the modern sense of the word—animals—all animals had a function. Dogs were kept for hunting, vermin control, herding, even assistance in mountain and arctic survival tasks. Cats, which were barely tolerated and far less favored, when they were valued at all, were recognized for their vermin control abilities. Farm animals provided transportation, labor, fiber for clothing, and their bodies for consumption. Raptors were kept as hunting animals. These were not social animals. Even if some sort of attachment was formed, it was understood in all these cases that the primary purpose of these animals was to do a job.  Our modern norm of the pampered pooch that relaxes and lives a life of leisure and comfort indoors with nothing to do except receive human attention was the

exception to the norm in period.


Left: A peregrine falcon with her falconer in the middle ages on a block perch.

Right: A peregrine falcon from a 1236 manuscript.


Ox from 1236 manuscript.


Cat, rat, and mouse from 1236 manuscript


Instead, the animals that humans turned to for companionship in period weretheir companion birds.  These parrots, finches, canaries, pigeons, doves, and other members of the three aforementioned orders of birds kept members of the household company while engaging in the often repetitious day to day work of the household or keep like spinning, weaving, sewing, or washing.  Pigeons, doves, and some parrots love to be held and cuddled while it was the color and song of the finches, canaries, and parrots that brought value to their companionship. Parrots of all sizes enjoy interactive games with their human flock members.   And of course, many species of all these became prestige animals with the rarer and harder to obtain birds becoming the quests of the upper classes as methods of attaining social stature among each other.  This was part of the point behind the royal menageries kept by many kings and emperors—the precursors to the modern zoos.

1236 manuscript rendering of a popinjay—a Psittacula parakeet.


Tang dynasty pot with (Derbyan) parakeet design.



In addition to pure companionship, parrots influenced Christianity and Pure Land Buddhism as feathered messengers of the Virgin Mary and Guanyin respectively. Mary is frequently depicted, as she is in a1310s psaltry, with a popinjay in a place of honor.


Queen Mary Psaltry, 1310s.  The popinjay is sitting at her right hand while the falcon is at her left.  Note that in nature, falcons are the primary predators of parrots.


Placement this close to Mary was a sign of reverence and respect.  With Mary came a close association between the popinjay and women.  Since women's work involved being indoors with the family bird and men's work more often took them away from home and to war, this initially religious association strengthened to a general association with women so that the qualities associated with human women were simply applied to parrots themselves.


Meanwhile, in China, starting around the 12th century CE, cockatoos could be found at the shoulder of Guanyin in Chinese temples. Though the cockatoo becomes part of Guanyin's story long before iconic depictions, the approximate 500 year gap between widespread importation of cockatoos and presence in Temple iconography and statuary most likely reflects the assimilation period required to enter Chinese aviculture.


17th century Guanyin with cockatoo on her left shoulder.


In Buddhist stories, parrots, both parakeets and cockatoos, represent intelligence and virtue.  They often carry prayer beads in their beaks.   In the Tang "Precious Scroll of the Parrot," the parrot flies out on an errand for her mother's favorite food only to be poached into captivity along the way and forced to become a pet for humans. After a long struggle, she eventually breaks free and completes her quest, but by the time she returns, her mother is already dead. She grieves greatly, and then gives her mother a properly funeral. When her mourning is complete, she dedicates herself to the service of Guanyin.  The sutra makes the parrot a role model for filial piety and Confucian virtue.  The parrot is a bird to aspire to.  In Pure Land Buddhism, parrots live in the Pure Land with Guan Yin.  White parrots (cockatoos) are said to be sacred.


It is important to understand that only the bright green parakeets are native to the Asian continent—all cockatoos come from the south pacific and Australia. When the planet earth was only two large land masses—one in the north and one in the south, it was on this south half, to which India belonged at the time, that all parrots evolved. Introducing new parrot species to Old World cultures made an important impact on how they lived.


What Kind of Housing Did Birds Live In?


Contrary to perhaps popular perception, keeping a bird in period was not difficult.  All that was required was reliable shelter from the elements and extremes of temperature, a steady supply of food and water, and healthy clean air.  Caging requirements depended on the species with the cage often being the most lethal component of a parrot's living environment due to metal toxicity and the strength of their beaks making an escape proof wood cage nearly impossible to construct.  Oftentimes no cage at all was provided to parrots by those who wished to provide the longest life for their birds—the family bird lived as part of the family. Whereas for finches and other songbirds, wood or bamboo cages usually either in a square or dome style were more than sufficient and ranged from small, portable cages such as those still popular as travel cages in China today, to large floor aviaries capable of holding dozens of birds. Pigeons and doves were kept in large finch cages and sometimes coops similar to chicken coops.


Qianlong era birdcage, 1735-1795


1349 "A young woman watches a parrot in cage"


Left: Chinese carved finch cage

Right: 1470 European hexagon cage with popinjays


What did birds eat in period?


Birds in Europe and Asia ate many of the same things, but also different things.  For example, strawberries were native to Italy and took some time before they were available in the Far East.  Likewise, citrus fruits come from Southeast Asia and the south pacific and were in hybridization by the Chinese long before Europeans noticed the Chinese eating them.  The orange we take for granted today is a human created species, the product of Chinese and later European experiments with cross breeding different citrus species.


On the left, foods available to European aviculture.

On the right, foods available to parrots in Chinese aviculture.


Largely, the fruits and vegetables available in Europe and Asia were the same by the middle ages.  That is, the flow of goods, including foods, had spread both directions so that foods that started out in only Asia or only Europe were now being cultivated in both places by the year 1200 or even 1400 in some cases. Some fruits like the strawberry took time to spread from their small localized areas to the rest of Europe, but foods had a way of spreading.


Left: red millet.

Right: white millet.


The seeds that most companion birds find in their food dishes today were available in most dishes in both places—with a few exceptions.  The foxtail and/or finger millet that is sold today as spray millet (American birds are getting a hybrid of the two now—this is done less in Old World countries) is largely the same food as period birds were getting in aviculture.  White millet which comprises so much of the bulk of seed mixes today would be available in Europe.  In Asia, the only millet would be the foxtail or finger millet.  European birds also had red millet, which is the least nutritious of the types discussed. Canary grass seed was available for aviculture (hence its name), but my analysis shows it has some of the worst nutrition of all the foods available—no real calories, protein, or any value to eating it.  It takes more effort to eat and digest that seed than the bird receives from it.  In other words, DON'T FEED CANARY GRASS SEED to your bird!  This aviculturist makes her own food mix specifically so she can avoid that junk in favor of a more healthy period diet—heavy on nutritious pellets.


In Asia, safflower seeds would be saved after using the flowers for their brilliant dyes and given to the birds where parakeets of the genus Psittacula live and are wild. Safflower is high in both protein and fat—just like an almond!

In Scotland, they had oats, which most southern Europeans would rarely touch.  But oats are a favorite food of small parrots—as anyone with a budgerigar has observed!


Going larger, almonds and walnuts were and are worldwide favorites for parrots.  Big birds crack the shells easily.  But for even smaller parrots, a shelled and chopped almond is a healthy (very high protein) and tasty addition to the diet. In Asia, access to Indonesian nuts meant feeding their cockatoos part of their native staple diet—a hard shelled almond called KENARI that is butter soft on the inside and an important part of the native Indonesian diet.  This aviculturist once briefly found some for her cockatoos and they were by far the favorite food!


Aviculture in the SCA


The Known World Aviculturists Guild is a group of gentles in the Society for Creative Anachronism, both human and feathered, who are interested in studying about companion birds in period and reproducing period conditions for our feathered members to the extent proper safety and nutritional needs allow.  Fortunately what is period correct for our feathered  members is often quite safe and nutritious for them!


Guild mistress Biya petitions Eastern Crown for a royal menagerie for the East.  

Scroll petition by Lady Beatrice Fayreweather of Atenveldt.


Where is the Guild?



The Known World Aviculturists Guild is in over 11 kingdoms, including East, An Tir, Atenveldt, Ansteorra, Atlantia, Middle, West, Trimaris, Calontir, and Lochac.


Do I need a feathered friend to join the Guild?


No. The Known World Aviculturists Guild welcomes members of the Society for Creative Anachronism who simply like and are interested in companion birds and companion birds in period. We are a teaching group whose goal is to not only research and safety reenact period aviculture sciences and arts, but to teach these to everyone who wants to learn.  We also strive to educate others about companion bird care and conservation issues for wild members of companion birds' species so that aviculture may continue to be part of all our lives.


"Popinjays Play in Brooklyn" in the Canton of Brokenbridge, Ostgardr, East, April 22nd, 2007 was the first event dedicated specifically to aviculture.


My feathered friend has problems—can the guild help me?


In addition to its research function, the Known World Aviculturists also functions as a Society wide bird club for SCAdians, providing help and support for human SCAdians in the everyday issues involved in caring for feathered SCAdians. Whether it relates to reenactment care or just something very every day, the Guild is there to help answer questions on how to care for your bird.  And of course, we will teach you how to keep a more period setup for your birds.


What are some simple ways I can convert my existing cage setup to a more period one?


Get rid of your modern perches and switch to period correct perches.  Java wood (coffee wood) is a great hardwood for Asian aviculture that wears down parrot nails better than cement perches and provides a superior gripping surface. Grapevine from European aviculture (available at big box pet stores) is not only great for the nails, but has the twisty and uneven surfaces that prevent foot diseases as your bird ages. Provide one (or two for large cages) soft rope perches to rest their feet. Manzanita, which comes from California, should always be avoided as it is too slippery for most birds to hang onto, particularly after bathing!  Always avoid straight perches as these hurt your birds' feet!



These bells constructed for falconry and intended to be put on a hawk or falcon's legs to help the falconer find her become the perfect parrot and finch toy for the period companion bird.  Falconry was so popular in medieval times that these bells were fairly easy to obtain. Many households that kept companion birds also kept at least one mews with at least one hunting bird, putting the master's bells and jesses into easy beak range for the curious family parrot.  These bells may have been the first intentional parrot toys to keep beaks busy on something else besides destroying expensive family furniture, books, and parchment!


Provide toys made of natural materials like paper, grapevine, rope, leather, and wood. Provide bird-proof bells to keep your bird's beak busy. Since medieval depictions of our birds typically showed either the bird, a cage, or the bird in its cage, the earliest images we have of toys date to 17th century paintings where a foot toy made of wood blocks on knotted pieces of rope are shown.





This lateness of portraiture is deceiving as any parrot person soon learns—the bored bird is the destructive bird, taking that strong beak to every piece of wood or paper in the home! Since parrots were obviously cherished and prized birds, we know medieval Europeans must have responded to their parrots' insatiable destructive natures with alternative objects to destroy (toys), rather than the alternative—violence!  Watching our own birds today and researching what materials were available to each period, it is easy to discern the general form of these toys—some the invention of the birds themselves--like bells from falconry which the birds would find and find irresistible upon discovery, and falconry jesses (the thin leather strips wrapped on the falcon's leg that allow the falconer to control the bird and tether her to a perch or into a specific area on a leash) which the birds would likewise find hard to ignore for their shape and texture.  So much so that today you can find entire bird toys made entirely of small pieces of leather and bells everywhere in every shape, size, and tone imaginable!


I like what I see…now what?


The Known World Aviculturists Guild is at groups.yahoo.com/group/scaparrots


We are SCA wide and open to members throughout the entire SCA.  Paid membership in the SCA is not required.


Sources used in the creation of this work: Artwork:


Queen Mary Psalter (1310s), The British Library.    http://bestiary.ca/manuscripts/manugallery973.htm#


Cornelius-Cypria Detail, The Hours of Catherine Cleves (1435-60), page 247. The Morgan Library, http://www.themorgan.org/collections/works/cleves/manuscript.asp?id=1


Abbott's cockatoo, "Rare Abbotts Cockatoo Seen in Indonesian Jungles and Jakarta Bird Market



Theological Miscellancy, (1236), The British Library. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=8798&;CollID=8&NStart=3244


Concordantiae caritatis  A woman watches a parrot in a cage (1349-1351)



A birdcage from the studiolo panels for the ducal palace of Federico da Montefeltro (1470-1480) Tang dynasty pot with parrot design (618-960 CE). Shaanxi history museum.

Bird Keeping Through the Ages --Cages http://www.birdinfo.co.uk/sites/cages%20through%20the%20ages/cages_through_the_ages.htm


"White-robed Guanyin: The Sinicization of Buddhism in China Seen in the Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteshvara in Gender, Iconography, and Role" at http://www.fsu.edu/~arh/images/athanor/athxix/AthanorXIX_kim.pdf




Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. Parrot Culture: Our 2500-Year-Long Fascination with the World's Most Talkative Bird. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.


Schafer, Edward H. Golden Peaches of Samerkand: A Study of Tang Exotics. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.


Kim, Jeong-Eun. "White-robed Guanyin: The Sinicization of Buddhism in China Seen in the Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteshvara in Gender, Iconography, and Role."  Athanor XIX  (2001):17-25.


Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. Art of Falconry. 1250


We Love Kwan She Im Phosa (facebook id). "Guanyin and the Filial Parrot."



"Medieval & Renaissance Material Culture –Bird Cages" http://www.larsdatter.com/birdcages.htm


Wikipedia listing on finger millet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finger_millet


Oat History at: http://innvista.com/health/foods/seeds/oats.htm


Nut history, origin, and nutritional content information at http://www.naturalhub.com/natural_food_guide_nuts_common.htm


Copyright 2010 by Laurel A Rockefeller. <aisinbiya at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org