Birds in Life and in Ink: An Errant Tracing

Editor’s Note: It’s EHN’s three-year anniversary this week! We’re celebrating all week long by featuring one piece every day to mark the occasion. Today, Genie Yoo (and Oscar!) show us how bird behavior today opens a window to understanding sources from the past.

Oscar is a notoriously messy eater.[1] Like all male Eclectus parrots, he uses his large candy-corn beak to pick up a piece of fruit and flings it across the kitchen floor. He surgically sucks the marrows of leftover chicken bones, tossing their hollowed remains with complete abandon. This purposeful flinging and tossing is a curious habit. For, as much as he wastes food, he also preserves it, using his smooth, black tongue to push it into the cavity of his lower beak. This technique of food preservation is widely known, but only recently have scientists found the phenomenon of food wasting to be a universal trait among parrots the world over. It serves an important ecological function—as parrots fling whole or half-eaten fruits and seeds from trees, other animals consume and disperse them. In other words, a parrot’s waste is another animal’s sustenance. Their messy eating ultimately leads to the distant dispersal of tree seeds.[2]

Watching Oscar systematically pick at his food and create a mound of detritus on the kitchen island, something clicks. Is it so surprising that back in the seventeenth century, in the so-called spice islands of the world’s largest archipelago, administrators working for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had complained about the islands’ birds?[3]

A green and red Eclectus parrot sitting on the back of a chair.
Oscar perched on a chair.
[Image description: A green and red Eclectus parrot sitting on the back of a chair.]

The VOC’s attempt to monopolize the global spice trade in Maluku was not just about economic competition with other European powers. It was also about controlling the geographic dispersal of trees. Hence the Company’s extirpation policies, which sent soldiers and laborers to different Maluku islands, or contractually obligated local sultans, to uproot and burn spice trees outside of company control. But the seeds continued to spread. Administrators claimed that the people on the island of Ambon continued to filch unripe cloves and nutmegs—“between our noses and lips”—either to transplant them elsewhere or to sell to local merchants.[4] But another source of their worry, one which has gained less attention in this history, were the birds.

In order for cloves to be made into commercially valuable spices, they had to be plucked and dried at the right moment, that is, after the clove buds began to flower but before they ripened into fruit. And, as Joan van Hoorn (1653–1711) warned, once they became ripe, the island’s birds would descend from “every angle” in the sky. Not only would these birds eat a large amount of the fruit, but they would spread an equally large amount of their seeds elsewhere.[5] Georg Everhard Rumphius (1627–1702), another administrator in Ambon, noted that different kinds of birds were responsible for spreading the seeds of cloves and nutmegs. Among them were the green and wild white doves, the hornbills, and the tall and flightless cassowaries.[6] Nutmeg trees were famously propagated by wild blue doves that came to be called “nut eaters,” or noot eters in Dutch, and “nutmeg bird,” or burung pala in Malay.[7]

By the last half of the seventeenth century, the attempt to control plants required a combination of ecological and commercial considerations. It was not enough to have a general understanding of how the life cycle of a plant part—from clove bud to ripe clove fruit—determined the commercial viability of a spice. Administrators were also forced to understand how this life cycle affected other beings and their desires, in this case, the avian appetite. And that they could not entirely control.

A painted illustration showing a blue ship surrounded by red animals, including fish and birds.
Nature surrounds a Dutch ship in this Javanese illustration. Three realms are depicted. In the lower realm, where land- and sea-animals dwell, one sees a cassowary (kasuari) flanked by two fish. In the middle realm, a liminal space for humans and human-made objects, one sees a Dutch ship, manned by sailors in stick figure. In the third realm, one sees celestial creatures, two birds and what seems to be a dragon-snake with horns. My gratitude to Anissa Rahadiningtyas for discussing this illustration with me.
Leiden University Library’s Special Collections, Or. 5470, f. 10r.
[Image description: A painted illustration showing a blue ship surrounded by red animals, including fish and birds.]


Oscar hovers around the microwave where his food is being prepared. Corn and squash. Shumai and a bagel. He imitates the beeping noise of the microwave—and time is up. Alighting on the kitchen island, he walks toward his meal with a growl and a determined gait, the solid silver ring on his left foot visibly worn. He was likely bred in Florida, but his particular breed originates from the Solomon Islands, his subspecies now classified as Eclectus roratus solomonensis.

Electuses are the most sexually dimorphic parrots in the world. The males and the females are easily distinguished by their bright contrasting colors. The males are grass green in plumage; when they spread their wings, astonishing streaks of cerulean blue and cherry red appear in their covert undersides. The females are equally flashy, vivid in their scarlet red and royal blue, sometimes blending to a bluish lavender.

Oscar used to have a female Eclectus companion named Picasso. She was a bobbing red head with a bright blue belly. One day she began to build a nest, using her mighty black beak to shred newspapers and magazines. Finding a secluded nesting site in a corner of the house, she laid several eggs, faintly cloudy in color. She sat on them for days, for weeks, hoping they would hatch from her warmth. They never did. It turned out they were unfertilized and would rot over time. Once the eggs were removed from her paper nest, she would lay another. Then another, each time with painful moans in a familiar voice.

There are at least five subspecies of Eclectus parrots in Maluku. The best known among them, now named Eclectus roratus vosmaeri, was named after the eighteenth-century Dutch naturalist, Arnout Vosmaer (1720–1799). He included an illustration of a female in his printed book of East and West Indies animals.[8] The hand-colored bird, illustrated by Aert Schouman and engraved by Simon Fokke, is not nearly as colorful as Picasso: its body is plum violet, blending almost seamlessly with its red plumage, except for the sweep of blue which peeps out from under its folded wings. It lived in the royal palace menagerie in Voorburg among other rare animals from the Indian Ocean world.[9]

An illustration of the Eclectus parrot sitting on a branch, with red and purple feathers and a yellow tail.
Illustration of a female Eclectus in Arnout Vosmaer’s chapter on a parrot from the East Indies.
John Carter Brown Library, A. Vosmaer, Natuurkundige Beschryving eener Uitmuntende verzameling van Zeldsaame Gedierten (Te Amsterdam, by J.B. Elwe, 1804).
[Image description: An illustration of the Eclectus parrot sitting on a branch, with red and purple feathers and a yellow tail.]

According to Vosmaer, the parrot had been bought and brought to Holland by way of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) on an East India ship.[10] He identified it as a “large Ceylonese purple-red lory” and assumed it was male: “He did not speak and did not want to learn anything, apart from which he was not of a malicious nature, and this was his best characteristic, in contrast to his bright colors and squawkery.”[11] But another characteristic caught his eye: the parrot’s love for fruit. “The ability and the power of these birds are in their beak,” he noted. Parrots used them not only to crack “kernels and piths of some fruits which they prefer to eat,” but also to pierce their hard outer layers “to master” them.[12] Despite Vosmaer’s mistake, the subspecies is now named after him.

Her pitch-black beak and purple-red plumage are as distinctive as her pale yellow tail feathers. They lead us in a different direction, east of Sri Lanka, to an island world straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In fact, those yellow tail feathers tell us that we are peering at a female Eclectus roratus vosmaeri specifically from the northern Maluku, just a stone’s throw away from the island of Ambon.


Maka kucahari kepada syurga yang bernama ketujuh di sana pun tiada
karena si burung pingai lagi memuji Tuhannya di bumi aras Allah Ta’ala.

I searched in the heaven that is named seventh, and even there it could not be found,
for the yellow bird was praising the Lord, in the realm of the Throne of Allah.

Hikayat Si Burung Pingai
Tale of the Yellow Bird[13]

In VOC-controlled Kota Ambon, sometime between 1707 and 1712, a young woman named Cornelia Valentijn, the eldest daughter of a Dutch minister, sat down to copy a Malay-language story called the Tale of the Yellow Bird.[14] Her hand in Arabic script was not as feather-light as that of her younger sister, whose letters pulsed the page, the wing of the kāf stretching, elevating, and flicking in flight. Cornelia’s letters were relatively small, tidy, and modest, easier on the eyes with clean spaces between the lines.

The yellow bird, she copied repeatedly, is “a bird of great beauty, a bird of great prudence, a bird of great wisdom.” It holds within itself—and holds itself within—all that exists: the earth and the sky, the sun and the moon, heaven and hell, the beginning and the end, the inner and the outer self.[15] One day, this beautiful, prudent, and wise bird, the favorite bird of the Prophet, frees itself from its master, Sidang Budiman, its wings aflutter like a Chinese fan. As its voice fades away, Sidang Budiman finds himself filled with darkness, his vision paling into white. He traverses the seven heavens, searching and listening for its voice.[16] Once he finds the yellow bird in the realm of the Throne of Allah, the Angel Jibril sends it flying to a dome of glass, one filled with the wonders of nature.[17]

Stories and scripts cross cultures. So do the voices that recite them and the hands that record them. Cornelia’s eighteenth-century manuscript from Ambon, now preserved in Leiden, is the oldest extant copy of this Sufi tale. Other copies and versions exist, some in the islands, some in Europe. The tale itself was not always a tale; it was partly inspired by a poem, composed in Malay by the famous sixteenth-century Sufi poet Hamzah Fansuri.[18] His life is traced to the town of Barus in Sumatra, a large island in the western archipelago. Fansuri’s name and poems must have circulated widely, reaching the ears and eyes of those living 2,000 miles away in Maluku, in the eastern archipelago. For, in seventeenth-century Ambon, Rumphius would mention a “very strange” type of fern the Ambonese called “Pansuri,” the blade of which they used as a quill “to form the Arabic letters.”[19]

Poems, tales, and names circulated in the islands. So did things and beings. Ideas and formulas. Indigenous people hunted birds, plucked feathers, and engaged in inter-island trade.[20] Many also collected their nests. The most coveted were the famous swallow’s nests found in hollow cliffs and caves. Rumphius noted that swallows would weave their nests with all kinds of weeds, stems, and mosses. They appeared slimy with white substance on the inside and hardened with a gum-like substance on the outside.[21] He learned much from Javanese intermediaries who had learned much from Chinese intermediaries. “The Chinese have first taught the knowledge of edible nests to these indigenous people,” he claimed, “and it was gladly accepted by our Europeans, so that for many years now people have begun to send them to Europe.”[22]

An illustration of a black swallow on the left, and its nest on the right.
Illustration of a swallow and its nest from the late seventeenth century.
Leiden University Library’s Special Collections, BPL 314, Georg Everhard Rumphius, Het Amboinsch Kruydboek, Book 11, Chapter 57.
[Image description: An illustration of a black swallow on the left, and its nest on the right.]

Flows of cross-cultural influence were not unique in the islands. Nests also circulated with their names. In Malay, Rumphius heard “sarong boerong” (sarang burung), and in Javanese, he heard “sussu” (susuh). He also heard their Chinese name, recording it as “jamò” (yanwo). Curiously, one might hear within it distant, if unrelated, echoes of another common word from Java, jamu, which means medicine. A “delicious dish” with medicinal benefits, Rumphius noted that bird’s nest soup could strengthen the body, increase men’s sexual appetite, loosen the bowels, and soften the lungs.[23] Malay-language recipe manuals also listed birds and their nests as ingredients. One such manuscript, most likely from the island of Sumatra, is bookended by two dates based on the Islamic calendar: the years 1203 H (1789 CE) and 1261 H (1845 CE).[24] It is filled with medicinal formulas, prayers, talismans, as well as two illustrations of acupuncture points, one for each arm. In these pages, one can also find a particular recipe for strengthening the bones, which required a baby dove (anak burung merpati), a sparrow (burung gereja, also burung japur), and a bird’s nest (sarang burung).[25] Flows of influence did not necessarily dictate a fixed origin and destination. They were constantly in motion, changing and merging with other influences across cultures.


Once we look and listen, birds are suddenly everywhere, in life and in ink. Circling a narrative around them forces one to trace a beginning that looks like an end. They allow us to see ecological connections in time and space, languages and traditions. They can take us back in time, to specific moments in history—through eating habits and plumage colors, through scientific and indigenous names, religious symbolism, and medicinal uses—and remain firmly anchored in the present. They collapse the familiar and the unfamiliar, allowing us to imagine a space beyond the limitations of our respective landscapes. Birds in life imbue their historical inky counterparts with a sense of intimacy, our current relationship with them shaping how we interpret their past representations across cultures.     

Oscar perches on a stand in front of the desk. He cocks his head as he observes me. I look up from my papers and see him watching me as intensely as I watch him. When he is hungry, he flies and lands on my shoulder. One foot at a time, he inches sideways until he comes close to my face. Then he bends his neck just so and places his large candy-corn beak snugly into my ear. He stays there—silent and still—until I understand. It is his dinner time.

[1] My gratitude to Erika Milam for commenting on a draft of this piece. This is dedicated to Matt and Gil who have long inspired me to write about birds.

[2] Esther Sebastián González, Fernando Hiraldo, Guillermo Blanco, et al., “The extent, frequency and ecological functions of food wasting by parrots,” Scientific Reports 9: 15280 (2019): 1-2, 5.

[3] VOC stands for Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or the United East India Company.

[4] National Archive of the Republic of Indonesia (hereafter ANRI), 747C, f. 30r.

[5] ANRI, 747B, f. 30r, p. 143.

[6] Leiden University Library Special Collections (hereafter LUB), BPL 314, Georg Everhard Rumphius, Het Amboinsch Kruydboek, Book 2, Chapter 2, f. 9v.

[7] Ibid., Book 2, Chapter 6, f. 24b-v.

[8] John Carter Brown Library (hereafter JCB), A. Vosmaer, Natuurkundige Beschryving eener Uitmuntende verzameling van Zeldsaame Gedierten (Te Amsterdam, by J.B. Elwe, 1804). The illustration (Tab. VI) is found before the chapter page, Beschryving van eene Fraaije Oost-Indische Papegaay-Soort (Te Amsterdam, by Pieter Meijer, 1769).

[9] Ria Winters, “The Dutch East India Company and the Transport of Live Exotic Animals in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Animal Trade Histories in the Indian Ocean World, ed. Martha Chaiklin, Philip Gooding, and Gwyn Campbell (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 37-38.

[10] J.C.B. Vosmaer, Beschryving van eene Fraaije Oost-Indische Papegaay-Soort (Te Amsterdam, by Pieter Meijer, 1769), 4.

[11] Ibid., 4-5.

[12] Ibid., 5.

[13] LUB, Or.1626, 5.

[14] Ibid. On a preliminary page, an archivist has noted that the handwriting belongs to Cornelia Valentijn, citing an article by H.T. Damsté. Damsté notes that, of the two sisters, both of whom were named Cornelia, this particular story was copied by the elder. See H.T. Damsté, “De Slang in de steen en de twee Cornelia’s Valentijn,” BKI 109: 2 (1953): 164-179, 174.
Vladimir Braginsky has pioneered the study of this story. See his scholarship comparing the different handwriting exhibited in extant manuscript copies once belonging to François Valentijn. Vladimir Braginsky, “‘Newly Found’ Manuscripts that were Never Lost: Three François Valentijn manuscripts in the collection of Muzium Seni Asia (MS UM 81.163)*,” Indonesia and the Malay World 38: 112 (Nov. 2010): 419-458, 421, 423.
For a summary of this tale and an explanation of its rich Sufi symbolism, which has informed my reading, see Braginsky, “Five Pious Ladies on the Swing: Some considerations about Hikayat si burung pingai,” Indonesia and the Malay World, 33:97 (August 20, 2006): 257-264.

[15] LUB, Or. 1626, 1-2.

[16] Ibid., 4-5.

[17] Ibid., 6, 8-9.

[18] Vladimir Braginsky, The Heritage of Traditional Malay Literature: A Historical Survey of Genres, Writings and Literary Views (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004), 703-706.

[19] LUB, BPL 314, Book 10, Chapter 58, f. 74.

[20] Leonard Andaya, “Flights of fancy: The bird of paradise and its cultural impact,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 48:3 (Oct. 2017): 372-389.

[21] LUB, BPL 314, Book 11, Chapter 57, f. 154v.

[22] Ibid., f. 155v. For more on the history of the collection and trade of edible bird’s nests across the South China Sea, see Leonard Blussé, “In Praise of Commodities: An Essay on the Cross-cultural Trade in Edible Bird’s Nests,” in Emporia, Commodities, and Entrepreneurs in Asian Maritime Trade, c. 1400-1750, ed. Roderich Ptak and Dietmar Rothermund (Stuttgard: F. Steiner, 1991), 317-335. For more on the influence of the marketplace on scientific and literary discourses about exotic objects and ingredients in Qing China, see He Bian, “Chapter 6: Eating Exotica,” in Know Your Remedies: Pharmacy & Culture in Early Modern China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 153-178.

[23] LUB, BPL 314, Book 11, Chapter 57, f. 155v.

[24] LUB, Or. 3298, ff. 1r, 129r. On the first folio and cover page, the earlier date is written out as “hijrat seribu dua ratus tiga,” or 1203 Hijri, in relation to the memory or recollection of an imam named ‘Abd al-Rahman. See E.P. Wieringa, Catalogue of Malay and Minangkabau Manuscripts, Vol. 2 (Leiden: Leiden University Library, 2007), 195-197.

[25] Or. 3298, ff. 63v-64r.

*Cover image: Oscar stares at a crossword puzzle.

[*Cover image description: A green and red Eclectus parrot, stands on a table, peering at the newspaper’s crossword beneath his feet.]

Edited by Shelby Brewster, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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