Close-up of the mystery parrot in Bartholomeus van Bassen's famous painting 'Renaissance Interior With Banqueters' (1618-1620) (this high-res image supplied to me courtesy of Michael Klauke, Associate Registrar for Collections at the North Carolina Museum of Art)
In various of my books, magazine articles, and ShukerNature blog posts, I have documented a number of mystery birds that have appeared in paintings by famous artists and which may conceivably represent lost species undescribed by science. In recent times, several additional examples have come to my attention, but perhaps the most significant of these is the following one, which may feature a hitherto-unrecognised depiction of a long-extinct bird officially known only from a single verbal description.
Bartholomeus van Bassen (1590-1652) was a celebrated Dutch architect and painter. Perhaps his most famous painting was 'Renaissance Interior With Banqueters' - an extremely detailed, sophisticated work of art that took from 1618 to 1620 to complete. Having said that, although I naturally cannot help but be highly impressed by its scale and by the architectural splendours and opulence that it depicts, the most fascinating aspect of it for me is an ostensibly insignificant bird perching upon a chair in this painting's bottom left-hand corner. Closer examination of this bird reveals it to be a parrot, but it does not appear to correspond with any species known to be living today. What could it be?
Bartholomeus van Bassen's famous painting 'Renaissance Interior With Banqueters' (1618-1620) (this high-res image supplied to me courtesy of Michael Klauke, Associate Registrar for Collections at the North Carolina Museum of Art)
Please click painting to view it in greatly-enlarged form.
Whenever an identification of a mystifying bird in a painting is attempted, it should always be borne in mind that artists have often included entirely fictitious examples in their works, simply to enhance their visual appeal. In this particular case, conversely, van Bassen's painting is so meticulously executed and so accurate in all other details, including those of other creatures included in it, that it seems highly unlikely that he would have added a made-up bird.
This fascinating case was first brought to my attention during spring 2012 ago by pet expert and fellow author David Alderton, with whom I have since corresponded in some detail concerning this mystery parrot. With regard to the possibility that it is an ornithological invention on van Bassen's part, David shares my own view that this is improbable:
"What I would say is that the other animals in the scene are very clearly recognisable. Based on its position in the painting, and its perch on rare/expensive material, this tends to suggest that this parrot is significant. It would have been rare and exotic of course - representing a flamboyant display of wealth in a very clear visual way, and I can't see it would have been a "fictional" bird."
So if we assume that the parrot represents a bona fide species, are there any that resemble it in some way?
On first glance, it recalls the Carolina parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis, a predominantly green-plumaged species with a bright yellow head marked with red. Once common in North America, it suffered greatly from habitat destruction, from being captured for the pet trade, and by being heavily persecuted due to its fondness for farmers' crops, until the last confirmed specimen died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. Closer observation, however, reveals a number of marked differences between this now-demised species and van Bassen's painted parrot.
John James Audubon's famous painting of Carolina parakeets (eastern subspecies)
The latter has golden-yellow underparts, whereas the Carolina parakeet's were green; it also has yellow lateral tail feathers whereas all of the Carolina's tail feathers were green; its wing primaries are red, not green like the Carolina's; the red markings on its head are more extensive than the Carolina's; and its relative proportions are very different from the Carolina's. Van Bassen's parrot has a much longer tail, a more powerful beak, and, judging scale from the chair upon which it is perched, a much larger overall body size. Indeed, in general appearance, the category of parrots that it most closely agrees with is the macaws.
Consequently, attempts to liken it to various small species of South American conure parakeet, such as the sun conure Aratinga solstitialis and the jenday conure A. jandaya, are not satisfactory either, unless of course the bird has been badly painted, with incorrect plumage and/or dimensions. For all of the reasons already discussed in relation to the prospect of its being a fictitious species, however, this notion seems untenable.
Two jenday conures (left and middle) and a sun conure (right) ((c) Chris Gladis/Wikipedia)
However closely one studies images of a painting, even close-up ones of a specific section of it, there can be no substitute for viewing the painting itself directly. Happily, David Alderton was able to do precisely this, when 'Renaissance Interior With Banqueters' was on display several years ago at the National Gallery in London. As a result, he noticed various features of the parrot not readily visible even in close-up images of it. These include the presence of a white brow line above its eye, and, of particular interest, the extensive amount of bare white facial skin – a feature that is characteristic of macaws. Usually this area is limited to the sides of the face around the eyes, and at the beak's base, but in van Bassen's bird it also extends onto the top of the head.
After viewing the bird directly in the painting, David wondered whether it may be a Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, whose last confirmed wild specimen was shot in 1864, since when this species has been deemed to be extinct. However, in a short account of van Bassen's mystery parrot that he posted on his Pet Info Club website (http://www.petinfoclub.com/Collectibles/Painting_portrays_extinct_parrot.aspx), he conceded that the Cuban macaw's plumage exhibited certain noticeable differences from the latter's, which indeed it does. The most significant of these are the Cuban red macaw's blue wing primaries, its red cheeks, neck, and underparts, its red and blue tail feathers, and the much less extensive area of white facial skin. Exit the Cuban red macaw from further consideration.
Cuban red macaw (from Walter Rothschild's book Extinct Birds, 1907)
However, the Cuban red macaw is not the only extinct Caribbean macaw on record. Several additional species from a number of different West Indian islands – including Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Dominica, Hispaniola, and Martinique - have also been described and named (click here for a detailed ShukerNature article of mine investigating these mystery macaws). Yet whereas the Cuban is physically represented in various museums by a number of preserved specimens, these others are known only from eyewitness descriptions (plus some paintings based solely upon them, not directly upon living specimens). And some of those descriptions are so vague that ornithologists have dismissed certain of the Caribbean's 'lost' macaws as hypothetical species - originating from confusion with known parrots, or even based upon specimens of various South American species of macaw introduced into the West Indies as pets that may have subsequently escaped.
One of the most interesting of these Caribbean mystery macaws is the Dominican green and yellow macaw Ara atwoodi, named after traveller Thomas Atwood, whose History of the Island of Dominica (1791) contains the following informative account of it:
"The mackaw [sic] is of the parrot kind, but larger than the common parrot [this latter parrot actually constituting two separate but closely-related species of much smaller Amazon parrot], and makes a more disagreeable, harsh noise. They are in great plenty, as are also parrots in this island; have both of them a delightful green and yellow plumage, with a scarlet-coloured fleshy substance from the ears to the root of the bill, of which colour is likewise the chief feathers of the wings and tails. They breed on the tops of the highest trees, where they feed on the berries in great numbers together; and are easily discovered by their loud chattering noise, which at a distance resembles human voices. The mackaws cannot be taught to articulate words; but the parrots of this country may, by taking pains with them when caught young. The flesh of both is eat [sic = edible], but being very very fat, it wastes in roasting, and eats dry and insipid; for which reason, they are chiefly used to make soup of, which is accounted very nutritive."
It certainly must have been, because however plentiful these macaws were in Atwood's day, their numbers must have swiftly diminished thereafter, because his description is all that remains to suggest that they ever existed at all. No other reports of them, and no preserved specimens or paintings of living specimens, are known – unless...
A photoshop-created representation of the Dominican green and yellow macaw's possible appearance in life ((c) Rafael Silva do Nascimento)
There is no doubt that Atwood's description of the Dominican green and yellow macaw accords well with the parrot in van Bassen's painting - incorporating the precise configuration of its head's red colouration, its red wing feathers, and obviously its predominantly green and yellow plumage. True, Atwood did not mention any area of white on the Dominican macaws' faces, but it is worth noting that in some species of macaw this region turns red if the bird becomes excited, so perhaps he simply didn't observe any macaws when in a quiescent state, only when they were squawking animatedly while feeding.
Consequently, the only inconsistency in appearance between van Bassen's bird and Atwood's Dominican macaws is the mention of red tail feathers in his description, whereas the central tail feathers of van Bassen's parrot are green and the lateral ones are yellow. Perhaps, however, there was a slight degree of variation in the plumage colouration of the Dominican macaw (sexual dimorphism, for instance?) that could account for this discrepancy? In all other respects, the match is much closer than for any other species, living or extinct.
In 2011, a year before I made known to him the mystery parrot in van Bassen's painting, Brazilian bird artist Rafael Silva do Nascimento had prepared a beautiful painting of his, own reconstructing the likely appearance of the Dominican green and yellow macaw as based upon Atwood's description of it, which is reproduced here with Rafael's kind permission. As you can see, his macaw and van Bassen's parrot, prepared entirely independently of one another, accord very closely indeed, providing further confirmation of just how well Atwood's verbal description compares with van Bassen's painted bird.
Rafael Silva do Nascimento's painting of the Dominican green and yellow macaw ((c) Rafael Silva do Nascimento)
So could it be that the enigmatic parrot perched in this highly-renowned Dutch artist's early 17th-Century painting was a living Dominican green and yellow macaw, brought back to Europe as an eyecatching pet by (or for) a wealthy Dutch citizen? During that period, all manner of rare and extremely exotic fauna were being transported here from every known corner of the globe, many of which had never before been seen in Europe. Consequently, a colourful macaw would be nothing special or unexpected on that score.
What would be very special, and extremely unexpected, conversely, is if the macaw species in question subsequently became extinct but its exquisite appearance was preserved under the very nose of every art-lover in an extremely famous, spectacular painting, yet without its identity or zoological significance being recognised – until now?
If true, this is a great tragedy. After all, to paraphrase a certain classic comedy sketch from the golden age of British television, it may be an ex-parrot, but it had lovely plumage.
I wish to offer my sincere thanks to David Alderton for bringing this extremely intriguing crypto-ornithological mystery to my attention and for kindly sharing his thoughts and information concerning it with me; to Michael Klauke, Associate Registrar for Collections at the North Carolina Museum of Art, for most generously making available to me some high-resolution and close-up images of van Bassen's painting and its mystifying parrot; to Rafael Silva do Nascimento for very kindly permitting me to include his Dominican macaw painting here and also for providing me with a copy of Atwood's original description of Dominica's macaws; and to all of my Facebook friends who offered opinions and suggestions regarding this painted bird's possible identity when I posted an enquiry regarding it on my FB Wall in April 2012.
Reconstructions of the likely appearance of the various extinct species of West Indian macaw that have been reported by various travellers and subsequently named by scientists ((c) Rafael Silva do Nascimento)