Take a look at your pet bird. There it is, eating, pooing, being cute. Those beautiful feathers, that specialized beak, the loping gait as it walks along a perch. They didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Your avian buddy has lineage stretching back over 150 million years.Looking at illustrations showing the world as scientists have deduced it was in the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era, you could easily imagine your own bird perched up in the branch of a tree framed by a verdant watering hole hosting a lumbering diplodocus and a stegosaurus or two.
The Earliest Bird Ancestors
It was during this period that a group of dinosaurs known as theropods were scuttling around on their two legs, supported by hollow bones and three-toed limbs. The earliest commony-accepted fossil of an avian-like dinosaur is the Archaeopteryx, a magpie-sized creature which had both dinosaur features such as sharp teeth and a long bony tail, and bird features such as feathers.
It is now believed that many dinosaur species had feathers but their skeletons were not configured in a way that would allow flight, so feathers were around before flying. The purpose of the first feathers in the world was therefore not flight but insulation and display, for example during courtship or confrontation.
Birds which more closely resemble those we find on Earth today started evolving during the Cretaceous era (145-66 million years ago). The earliest bird species which are still alive today include ostriches, rheas, kiwis and emus.
Although these earliest surviving birds lost their ability to fly, it was during the Cretaceous era that further bird-like physiological developments occurred, such as the strengthened ribcage and shoulders required for effective flight, and the ‘alula’ winglet which is the small grouping of 3-5 feathers on the front edge of each wing that enables landing or flying at slow speeds.
When the so called ‘K-T Extinction Event’ wiped out 75% of all species on Earth about 66 million years ago, some flighted, toothless bird species survived to go on and become the birds we see today, including your own pet.
Birds Become Pets
For birds to be pets, you need two things. Birds and humans. The earliest human bones date from around 200,000 years ago, when pretty much all of today’s birds were already in existence. Probably the earliest evidence that man was at least aware of birds and possibly involved in hunting them was found in cave drawings in tropical northern Australia, which date back around 30-40,000 years. The Genyornis bird was believed to be three times larger than an emu and a part of the early human’s diet at the time.
A different role for birds was found depicted in the French Lascaux cave drawings dating back around 17,000 years. Here, birds are used as imagery suggesting mythical powers and a role in ritualistic ceremony.
The first historical records which directly catalog the role of birds as pets came around 4,000 years ago, with the Egyptian hieroglyphs which many scholars believe are the first example in history of writing. Doves and parrots often feature in these carvings and are believed to be among the earliest pet birds. Large parakeets were also kept by the ancient Greeks. Other species commonly found in hieroglyphs are hawks, vultures and the ibis, which were associated with various gods of the time.
At around the same time, keeping birds as pets grew all over the world. In China, India and across the middle east, birds were particularly kept by wealthier people as a sign of their prosperity. There would often be a servant employed exclusively to look after the family pet.
In Europe, explorers such as Columbus brought Amazon parrots back home to become popular pets, whilst ownership of canaries also began in the same way. As trade routes became more established a wider variety of birds were brought into population centers and the modern era of bird keeping was born.