The Little Green Parrot

This busy parrot was drawn and described in 1751 by pioneering natural history writer and illustrator George Edwards (1694-1773).

This bird is about the Size of a small Pigeon…It was my Property; I kept it alive some Years; it was a brisk, lively nimble Bird, and talkative in a Language unknowne to me. I have observed that Parrots have more or less Briskness and Agility in Proportion to their Size… I don’t know that this is anywhere described.

Talking birds were very popular in 18th-century London; Edwards bought many of his parrots at Bartholomew Fair from a shop called the Parrot and Cage, and from a publican in the Strand who dealt in exotic birds. Stuffed birds were also widely used as decoration in coffee- and alehouses.

Edwards produced seven beautiful illustrated volumes – A natural history of uncommon birds (1743-51) and Gleanings of natural history (1758-64) – describing birds, animals and insects from around the world, most of which had not previously been recorded. Edwards deposited a complete set of etchings from his books in the RCP Library: ‘carefully and exactly coloured from the original drawings which may serve as a standard to refer to in case the plates should outlive me’.

Whilst pursuing his successful career as a naturalist, Edwards held down a day job as RCP bedell. The Bedell was (and still is) the custodian of RCP property and Edwards combined the duties of a College servant with visits to sketch the menageries of aristocrats. Edwards received the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1757 for outstanding achievement. He was in good company: John Harrison was similarly honoured for his chronometer the year before and Benjamin Franklin for his work on lightning conductors the year after. For more than twenty years the RCP employed a Bedell more distinguished than the presidents he served.

Edwards’ work was inevitably eclipsed by the surge of new knowledge in the years that followed, but never fell into the oblivion he imagined. The books are valued today as much for Edwards’ vivid descriptions and lively writing as for his ornithological accuracy.

Emma Shepley, RCP senior curator

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