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Drawings of a Cockatoo Reveal a Medieval Surprise

They were found in a 13th-century manuscript tied to Frederick II
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 26, 2018 8:49 AM CDT
This stock image show a lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo, also known as a yellow-crested.   (Getty Images)

(Newser) – The 1496 European altarpiece Madonna della Vittoria contains an image of a non-native cockatoo, but that's no longer such a remarkable fact. Researchers now say they've found images of the bird in a manuscript penned by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II over a seven-year period beginning in 1241, shifting the timeline forward on when the bird was first depicted in Europe. It's more than a bit of trivia: The Guardian reports the discovery has "sparked a reassessment" of centuries-old trading routes. The drawings in The Art of Hunting with Birds, which is in the Vatican library's possession, are of either a Triton or subspecies of yellow-crested cockatoo, which was likely a female and would have hailed from either the Northern Australian or Papua New Guinea area.

Australian historian and study co-author Dr. Heather Dalton gives context to the find: "We tend to think of our region ... as the very last things to be discovered; the European view is it's almost this dead continent and nothing was happening until Europeans discovered it." The cockatoo wasn't the result of European discovery but rather a gift to Frederick II from the then-sultan of Egypt, per a note in Latin next to one of the sketches, reports the BBC, indicating an Australasia-Egypt trading route. In an article, Dalton writes that it was customary for leaders to gift exotic animals at the time, citing the 1251 exchange of a polar bear from the king of Norway to Henry III. Frederick was known to be partial to birds, and the "white parrot" would have been able to withstand what would have been a years-long passage. (A museum was shocked to discover its giant egg was real.)

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