Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Saturday, 15 September 2012


The still-unidentified red parrot depicted in a previously-unknown painting by George Edwards (Errol Fuller)

I am greatly indebted to acclaimed ornithological author and painter Errol Fuller for kindly bringing the following case to my attention, which had never previously been documented until he kindly permitted me to do so in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999).

The modern-day history of George Edwards's red mystery parrot from Jamaica began in June 1996, when Errol attended the annual Olympia Antiques Fair in London. While walking round, he noticed on the stall of one dealer a picture that he knew at once to be the work of English bird painter George Edwards (1694-1773). Popularly dubbed the father of British Ornithology, Edwards was the author and illustrator of A Natural History of Uncommon Birds (1743-51) and Gleanings of Natural History (1758-64).

George Edwards

Yet although he was very familiar with all of the paintings in both of these books, Errol did not recognise this particular example on the dealer's stall, and suspected that it was an unpublished, unknown work of Edwards. Greatly intrigued, Errol purchased the painting, and after researching it thoroughly he was able to confirm that it was indeed unknown.

Errol has very generously granted me permission to reproduce this painting in my publications (its appearance in Mysteries of Planet Earth was the first time that it had ever appeared in print), so it now appears as the opening illustration in this present ShukerNature blog post. As can be seen, the painting depicts a predominantly red, vaguely amazon-like parrot - which only serves to deepen further the mystery encompassing this picture. For there is no known species of parrot anywhere in the world that corresponds with this specimen. So what could it be, and where did it come from?

The painting bears an inscription at the bottom:

"A very uncommon parrot from Jamaica. Drawn from Nature of the size of life [i.e. life size] by G. Edwards. July 1764".

A more detailed one, clearly penned by Edwards himself, is written on the painting's reverse:

"The insides of the wings and the underside of the tail is of a Durlis [darkest?] yellow, the colours of the upper sides casting faintly through them.

"This bird was lent to me by Dr. Alexander Russell and is Preserved in his collection. It was shot in Jamaica and brought dryed [sic] to England. The people in Jamaica did not remember Ever to have seen one of this species of Parrots before.

"Geo. Edwards, July, 1764

"Some of the feathers have their tipps [sic] red and others have them yellow. The feathers on the undersides, Back and rump have yellow with fine transverse lines of red."

Dr Alexander Russell (1715-1768) was a renowned British naturalist and Fellow of the Royal Society. If only his collection of zoological specimens containing this seemingly unique bird still existed, it may be possible to investigate its taxonomic identity further, perhaps even via modern techniques involving DNA comparison. However, neither Errol nor I have uncovered any record as to the collection's fate. Indeed, 200+ years ago the taxiderm techniques available were such that few specimens survived for any length of time in a satisfactory condition. Quite probably, therefore, the mystery red parrot of Jamaica degraded into a pile of dust and decomposed feathers long ago.

On account of its singularity, and unfamiliarity even to the Jamaican natives, this individual may well have been a mutant specimen of some known species - perhaps an erythristic (aberrantly red) mutant of one of the smaller species of West Indian amazon parrot? - rather than a distinct species in its own right. One such species, the yellow-billed amazon Amazona collaria, is native to Jamaica. So too is the black-billed amazon A. agilis, which at just 10 in long is the smallest known species of amazon parrot.

Yellow-billed amazon parrot (Wayne Sutherland/Wikipedia)

In the painting, which is life size, it is 9 in long, as measured in a straight line from the top of its head to the tip of its tail. Alternatively, it may not have been native to Jamaica, but might conceivably have been brought here from elsewhere. Yet even if so, its taxonomic identity remains unsolved.

As for the origin of the painting itself, all that the dealer could tell Errol was that it had been in a portfolio of 18th and 19th Century watercolour paintings purchased by him at a country house sale, and was the best picture in the portfolio. Judging from its date, 1764, this painting may have been prepared by Edwards for inclusion in his Gleanings but was ultimately omitted, or it may have been prepared for a new book that he never completed.

And here is where, at least for the present time, this double mystery - of the painting, and of the parrot depicted in it - stands. If anyone can shed any light regarding either of them, including sharing any information regarding Dr Alexander Russell's collection, Errol and I would be very interested to receive details.

This ShukerNature blog post is an adapted excerpt from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth: An Encyclopedia of the Inexplicable (Carlton: London, 1999).

Black-billed amazon parrot (Brennan Mulrooney/Wikipedia)


  1. My first thought...he was color blind, lol. Red/green color blindness is common in men, but since there is evidence to show that he knew the parrot was "odd" and that others saw it rules that out, I guess, lol.

  2. My same attitudes apply to this as to the account of Leguatia.

    It is important to understand that there are many new species which human beings have not or have yet to make account. In order to "make account"--one person sharing a new find with everyone else--requires some type of preservation of that new find, and, simultaneous, properly making known to the everyone else what that new something is. In analogy to that, this making known must likewise be satisfied on two fronts. First, the piece of evidence, the specimen, must be preserved on the condition that other people, in a general sense, would be granted access to examine the specimen and make of it what they will. Museums satsify this point. Second, some type of announcement must be generally and formally presented in such a way that makes it evident that the specimen exists. This is called publication, and likewise, the published material must be deposited in such a library or place which allows for accessibility. My personal criteria for publication is based on a mandate for plurality, that two copies exist and at least two different library-type institutions have at least one copy (or have a history of having a copy). In addition, the intent to publish must also be made evident, so manuscripts might not always suffice. Though a specimen is likely to become lost in a collection, publication is much like a permanent insurance of the acceptance of its existence.

    So, the parrots you discuss here, as well as Leguatia, are based only on drawings, and that is unacceptable. Leguat's rail called Aphanapteryx is based on skeletal remains, which is why it is acceptable. Anything other than those remains themselves represents something that cannot be so perfectly accepted (the colors of the feathers).

    The only thing that can be accepted is the specimen itself, not necessarily the type locality, date, or collector. There are many cases where the locality of collection has been discredited or even proven to be deliberate fraud. Ironically, the mandate in published literature does not necessarily require that a scientific name go with anything, but rather, that a description of the specimen be afforded that is free of ambiguity from everything else in that particular collection, such as the diagnostic features.

    It is not remarkable that writers then as now are quick to generate new scientific names. Many of the parrot names in Rothschild's 'Extinct Birds' were simply generated out of the author's obvious sense of parsimony.

    Much of this criteria is detailed in the wording of the 'Code' of the International Council on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). However, be warned that what I have elaborated here is not exactly what the 'Code' requires, and the 'Code' seems to allow acceptance of new scientific names based on drawings if the legitimacy of the author seems to be sufficient.

  3. Hi Mathew,
    I agree entirely that ideally, only a preserved specimen (holotype) and preferably additional ones too (paratypes) can conclusively confirm the validity of a taxon, and that drawings or descriptions alone are rarely sufficient - though as you point out at the end of your response, the ICZN does sometimes permit scientific names to be based upon illustrations (a recently rediscovered species of South American monkey, documented in my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, 2012, is a good example of this, its scientific name having been originally applied not to a specimen but to an illustration of one). However, we must also take into account that in some cases, morphologically distinct animal forms that may also have constituted distinct taxonomic forms became extinct inn historic times without the preservation of specimens having occurred, and are known therefore only from descriptions and drawings. Also, prior to the 1800s, even with specimens that were preserved, the preservation techniques were so inferior to today's that many deteriorated to the point where they were discarded (the Oxford dodo is one such example). So it would be a tragedy if such creatures were ignored simply because they are not (or are no longer) represented by physical specimens. True, because of this absence of physical evidence, we can never confirm their precise taxonomic identity, but we should at least record and not forget their erstwhile existence, hence my documentation here of the Jamaican mystery red parrot and elsewhere of Legautia and other mysterious birds.
    All the best, Karl

  4. I well agree with your point and can see how my comments broadly addressed the subject of species in this circumstance. In ignorance was I that of the specific case you present! Your book may be the first reference to it at all. It is not unusual for important prints or plates to emerge from art/book dealers, and another such case is the final series of the 'Equisses Ornithologiques' of Du Bus de Gisignies.

    It might be worthwhile to evaluate Edwards' books to find any possible discrepancies (relating to other types of birds) in his judgments as an author. This much might either reinforce the authenticity of the parrot picture as his own accurate representation or it might in some degree call the validity of the picture into question.

    This might be a lory brought to the island. Some parrots are known from one or few type specimens, so there could be an opening to say that the painting is of a different species, if it does not represent an unusual freak variety. The link to my name includes images of plates from 'Monograph of the Lories'

  5. Possibly the hypothetically extinct Ara grossei http://www.petermaas.nl/extinct/speciesinfo/jamaicanredmacaw.htm

  6. I have seen this suggestion, linking this painted parrot with Ara gossei, on a number of websites. The fundamental problem here, however, is that this painted parrot does not exhibit the basic shape and form of any type of macaw, comparing much more closely instead with an amazon parrot. Conversely, a different painted red mystery parrot but one which may indeed be synonymous with Ara gossei is the example that I have documented here: http://www.karlshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/mystery-macaws-of-west-indies.html

  7. It is a juvenile Lutino Mutation Yellow-billed Amazon. The Lutino Mutation removes all traces of green and blue from the bird making the bird yellow and revealing the hidden red coloration underneath. The bird in the picture does have blue flights, where they should be white if it was a Lutino. I believe the flights have been depicted blue (not the colour they should have been) as to illustrate that the bird is an Amazon Parrot.

  8. This is an interesting idea, but lutinos do not normally appear as vividly red as this specimen does; they are usually golden-yellow, sometimes with red highlights. Also, as you note, the painted parrot's flight feathers are blue, not white (as they are in lutinos). And as George Edwards is world-renowned for his accurate, faithful renditions of birdlife, my own personal opinion is that I don't think that he would have painted the parrot red with blue flights if it wasn't and didn't have them.

  9. Actually, Eos bornea is a very close match if you disregard the story.

  10. It is most likely a Yellow Billed amazon(or any other of the small amazons of the caribbean)...take a look at the Lutino Cuban Amazon here and see how it can be mostly red.

  11. Here its a link to a video...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuf9c5myfgY