In Part 1 of this 2-part ShukerNature blog article (click here to access it), I surveyed an array of mysterious, seemingly-vanished or even still-undiscovered types of macaw with either predominantly blue or predominantly red plumage. Now, in Part 2, I am reviewing a number of varicoloured lost macaws, sporting plumages that were either green and yellow or blue and yellow, and will then be assessing the entire spectrum of Caribbean mystery macaws whose histories I have documented in Parts 1 and 2.
ENIGMAS IN GREEN AND YELLOW
Although there is no species of macaw with almost exclusively green and yellow plumage alive today, two so-called green and yellow macaws, both now extinct, have been described and named from the West Indies. Having said that, one of these, the Jamaican green and yellow macaw Ara erythrocephala, which became extinct around 1842 and was formally named by Lord Walter Rothschild in a 1905 scientific paper, also had a red head, blue wings, and a red-and-blue tail! Only its neck, shoulders, and underparts were green, and only the under plumage of its wings and tail was yellow. Consequently, it is also known as the red-headed green macaw.
According to Jamaican resident Richard Hill (who assisted naturalist Philip H. Gosse in preparing his book The Birds of Jamaica – see Part 1 of my article), this species could be found in a very remote mountain district between Trelawney and St Anne's, and also in the southern part of Jamaica's Cockpit region. Interestingly, Hill did not consider it to be resident in Jamaica, because he claimed that it could only be found there during the winter period, and he assumed that it bred in Mexico instead.
Hill also deemed it to be one and the same as the military (aka great green) macaw A. militaris. Yet a red head is conspicuous only by its absence in that principally all-green species.
Unlike the Jamaican green and yellow macaw, the other one, the Dominican green and yellow macaw Ara atwoodi, believed to have died out around 1800, was indeed principally green and yellow. Today, it is known directly only from a short description penned by British colonial judge Thomas Atwood (after whom it was named) in his book The History of the Island of Dominica (1791). This is what he wrote:
The mackaw [sic] is of the parrot kind, but larger than the common parrot [a species of amazon parrot, much smaller than any macaw], 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 their 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[en], but being 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.
Originally categorised as conspecific with the long-extinct Guadeloupe red macaw Ara guadeloupensis, after reading Atwood's account Austin Hobart Clark reclassified it as a separate species in 1908.
Tantalisingly, moreover, there is a version of a famous painting that actually depicts a principally green and yellow macaw. The painting in question is the spectacular dodo portrait prepared in 1626 by Flemish artist Roelandt Savery, which I previously referred to in Part 1 of this article, in relation to the mysterious, predominantly all-red macaw depicted by Savery to the immediate left of the dodo and which readily recalls descriptions of the vanished Guadeloupe red macaw.
However, this painting also contains a second macaw, depicted to the right of the dodo. On first sight, it looks very like the familiar blue and yellow macaw (aka blue and gold macaw) Ara ararauna from the South American mainland. Yet a closer look reveals that its under-tail coverts are yellow, whereas those of A. ararauna are blue. Nor is that all.
As I noted in Part 1, Japan's dodo expert Masauji Hachisuka owned a copy of Savery's painting, which had been specially prepared for him by another famous but much later bird artist, John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912). It is a near-identical reproduction of Savery's original, except that the colours of the macaws in it are more distinct (also, the dodo itself is more brown than grey).
Of particular interest, the plumage of the right-hand macaw is not blue and yellow but is instead green and yellow. What, I wonder, is the significance of this notable colour discrepancy between Savery's original painting and Hachisuka's version of it?
Might it be that Hachisuka believed that down through the centuries the colours in Savery's painting had faded, and therefore when Hachisuka commissioned his version of it he had attempted to re-create its original appearance? If so, this meant that unless constituting a freak colour variety of it, the right-hand macaw may not have been a specimen of Ara ararauna at all (as already implied anyway by virtue of its yellow under-tail coverts?), but was conceivably an entirely different, seemingly now-extinct green and yellow species instead.
More conservative, alternative options include the prospect that it was an entirely non-existent, fictitious bird, 'invented' by Savery purely as colourful support for the more prosaic plumage of the dodo. Or perhaps it had once existed but Savery's depiction of it was based not upon any physical specimens but instead upon inaccurate verbal descriptions of a known species.
But what if Savery's right-hand macaw had been real, had been depicted accurately by Savery, and before fading during subsequent centuries had genuinely been green and yellow, and not blue and yellow? Might it therefore be a representation of the Dominican green and yellow macaw, thereby indicating that at least one specimen of this now-lost form had been brought back to Holland prior to its species' extinction?
Needless to say, this is all very speculative, but in view of the presence in the same painting of a second mysterious macaw that also just so happens to resemble accounts of another now-vanished West Indian macaw, it is nothing if not a most intriguing coincidence, to say the very least.
No less interesting, moreover, is the equally mystifying macaw depicted in a second very noteworthy painting, this time prepared by Bartholomeus van Bassen (1590-1652), a celebrated Dutch architect and artist. 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. Notwithstanding the architectural splendours and opulence that it depicts, the most fascinating aspect of it for me, however, is the parrot perching upon a chair in this painting's bottom left-hand corner, because it does not appear to correspond with any species known to be living today.
As noted earlier, artists have often included much-modified or even entirely fictitious examples of birds 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 case was brought to my attention some years ago by pets specialist and author David Alderton, who shares my view that the bird is unlikely to be an ornithological invention on van Bassen's part. In an email to me, David stated:
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.
Van Bassen's parrot 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 with regard to the prospect of its being a fictitious species, however, this notion seems untenable.
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 characterising 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 (click here to access my coverage of this species in Part 1 of the present ShukerNature article). However, he conceded that the Cuban red macaw's plumage exhibited certain noticeable differences from van Bassen's. The most significant of these are the Cuban'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.
Conversely, Thomas Atwood's above-quoted description of the Dominican green and yellow macaw accords well with van Bassen's portrayed parrot – 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 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.
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 Dominican macaw's plumage colouration (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.
So, as already suggested for Savery's mystery right-hand macaw, could it be that the enigmatic parrot perched in this other 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, however, 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…
BEWILDERMENT IN BLUE AND YELLOW
The last two Caribbean mystery macaws to be documented here have separate taxonomic binomial names but only a shared common name – the Martinique macaw. This because these blue and yellow species may well have been one and the same species, yet there is no guarantee that even a single species existed. Bewildered? Then read on.
The Martinique macaw proper, as it were, is A. martinicus, which like so many other mystery macaws of the West Indies was formally named by Rothschild in his 1905 paper, although he originally assigned it not to the genus Ara but rather to the blue macaw genus Anodorhynchus (reclassifying it as an Ara species two years later in his book Extinct Birds). Rothschild based his description of it (as did Keulemans when preparing a full-colour painting of it for Extinct Birds) upon a brief account penned by French Jesuit priest Père Jacques Bouton during the 1630s. Bouton stated that the macaws of Martinique were two or three times as large as this island's other parrots, with blue and saffron plumage and a good body, and could be taught to talk.
At least two early paintings exist that may depict the Martinique macaw, one of which is none other than the previously-mentioned dodo painting by Savery, if we assume that the right-hand macaw really was blue and yellow, rather than green and yellow that through time has faded to blue and yellow. Of particular interest at the time was an announcement by Cuban scientist Mario Sánchez y Roig in early 1936 that he had uncovered a taxiderm specimen of this species, which had supposedly been collected in 1845 and mounted a year later. When fellow scientist J.T. Zimmer examined it just a short time after its discovery, however, it was swiftly exposed as a hoax, created by person(s) unknown.
It proved to be a composite specimen, in which the tail of an Old World Streptopelia dove had been combined with the head, body, and wings of a Chilean burrowing parrot Cyanoliseus patagonus byroni [now renamed bloxami]. Bearing in mind, however, that this parrot is small and predominantly green, it is difficult to comprehend how it could possibly have been intended or expected to impersonate with any prospect of success a large blue and yellow macaw.
Tainting the taxonomic waters even further: in his 1907 book Extinct Birds, Rothschild described a second, ostensibly distinct but equally lost species of Caribbean blue and yellow macaw that he formally dubbed A. erythrura, and he also included a full-colour painting of it once again prepared specially by Keulemans.
Rothschild had based this species upon a description in Charles de Rochefort's work Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Îles Antilles de l'Amerique (1658) of a type of macaw of unknown provenance within the West Indies, although both Martinique and Jamaica have been offered as possibilities by researchers.
According to de Rochefort, its head, back, and the upper side of its neck were satiny sky blue, its belly, the underside of its neck, and its wings' underparts were yellow, and its tail was entirely red. Accordingly, it has since been dubbed variously as the red-tailed blue and yellow macaw, the satin macaw, the mysterious macaw, and, confusingly, the Martinique macaw.
American ornithologist James C. Greenway viewed this description with grave reservations, noting that de Rochefort had never even visited Jamaica, and suspecting instead that he had based it upon an earlier account written by Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre. Today, most ornithologists consider A. martinicus and A. erythrura as merely synonyms for the same single species, the Martinique macaw.
Tantalisingly, however, in December 2012 Brazil-based mystery parrot enthusiast Rafael Nascimento drew my attention to a hitherto-obscure early painting entitled Psittacus alux maximus, and of currently-undetermined origin and painter. It depicts a predominantly blue macaw but with golden-yellow wing tips and red under-tail feathers that is somewhat reminiscent of A. erythrura except for lacking the latter's yellow underside.
Rafael had discovered the painting online on Facebook's 'Sixth Extinction Forum', which stated that it had been found in the central library of Paris's National Museum of Natural History but offered no additional information concerning it or the macaw that it depicts. Consequently, Rafael contacted the museum for details, and on 2 January 2013 he received a reply from the museum, in which it was stated that the painting was part of a set of unpublished illustrations prepared between the 17th and 19th Centuries, originally for France's royal collections and then for the museum's collections. Moreover, this particular painting certainly dated from the 18th Century but did not include a signature or any other details that would permit a more specific dating of it to be made.
Also worthy of note is a painting produced during the mid-1700s by English naturalist and watercolour artist Eleazar Albin depicting an unidentified blue and yellow macaw said to have originated in Jamaica but which may be Ara martinicus.
Moreover, in 1740 Albin painted a striking red and blue macaw that again was supposedly of Jamaican provenance but is known only from this single illustration, and hence is referred to nowadays as Albin's macaw.
KNOWN MACAWS OF UNKNOWN APPEARANCE
Irrespective of these contentious (albeit scientifically-named) macaw forms documented by me in Parts 1 and 2 of this ShukerNature article, moreover, there is also the intriguing possibility that there were others that unquestionably existed but died out before their physical appearance had been documented. Two such macaws are certainly known, being represented by physical evidence.
One of these is A. autocthones, the enigmatic macaw of St Croix (one of the American Virgin Islands), which has never been reported in the living state. It was long known only from a single leg bone obtained there, but is now also known from some skeletal material described in 2008 from Puerto Rico. The other is the currently-unnamed Montserrat macaw, presently known from just a single coracoid bone, and again of entirely unknown visual appearance.
IN SEARCH OF ORIGINS AND IDENTITIES
As noted earlier, because almost all of the ostensibly vanished Caribbean macaws documented by me in this 2-part article are known only from descriptions and paintings, not from any physical remains (the Cuban red macaw remaining the lone major exception to date), many ornithologists have discounted them as hypothetical species that may never have existed.
Instead, they suggest, these intangible birds may have been based solely upon misidentified or inaccurately-described known species (possibly even escapee pets belonging to certain mainland South American species) or hybrids of known species. It is certainly well-established that mainland South American species of parrot, including the large showy macaws, have frequently been imported into the West Indies from the mainland, and not only by Europeans and indigenous peoples during historic times but also by Palaeoamericans during prehistoric times.
However, as seen here, descriptions of the lost, mystery macaws reported from various of the Caribbean islands do not correspond with known mainland species. So unless their chroniclers' descriptions were invariably inaccurate, at least some such macaws may well have represented bona fide species distinct from mainland ones rather than merely escapee non-native pets belonging to various mainland species.
This discrepancy between descriptions of mystery macaws reported in the West Indies and known mainland species also provides problems when attempting to identify Caribbean macaws as native West Indian representatives of various mainland species (as James C. Greenway unconvincingly sought to do, for instance, with Jamaica's green and yellow macaw in relation to the mainland's military macaw A. militaris). Having said that, it may be that while still conspecific with their respective mainland counterparts the Caribbean mystery macaws had nonetheless diverged from them morphologically, perhaps even to the point of constituting valid island subspecies of the latter species. Yet if this were the case, i.e. that although conspecific with various mainland species the Caribbean macaws were native, island-indigenous representatives of them, they would surely be present in these islands' subfossil fauna. Yet no such subfossils have ever been found on any of the main Caribbean islands.
As for hybrids: macaws are famous for being able to yield an astonishing array and diversity of crossbred varieties, including many F1, F2, and even F3-generation hybrids – and of such dazzling polychromatic splendour, far exceeding in multicoloured resplendence any of the many pure-bred macaw species, that I have no doubt that in terms of plumage colour any of the Caribbean mystery macaws documented here could conceivably result from hybridisation between various known species.
However, for such crossbreeding to occur there would need to be progenitor species here to begin with, which in turn hearkens back to the problems highlighted above in relation to such a prospect.
How about mutations? Both Tony Pittman and Brazil-based mystery parrot enthusiast Rafael Nascimento have informed me that a very beautiful mutation of the blue and yellow macaw occurs naturally in Brazil, whose aviculturalists refer to it as 'A. mosaica', on account of the eyecatching blue-mosaic pattern decorating the golden-yellow portions of its plumage. This in turn provides a precedent for other mutations similarly occurring in the wild state and thereby possibly even explaining some of the Caribbean's mysterious lost macaws, but all of this is pure speculation, with no physical evidence whatsoever to substantiate any of it.
The same applies to a fifth option that certain ornithologists have favoured – namely, that some Caribbean mystery macaws may actually have been tapiré artefacts, i.e. specimens whose normal, natural colouration has been artificially altered by Amerindians.
My own notion is that quite possibly a combination of all of these suggestions may collectively explain the Caribbean's controversial diversity of lost macaws. In other words: some of these mystery macaws might indeed be based upon nothing more than escapee non-native (i.e. mainland-derived) pets and/or inaccurate descriptions; whereas certain others could have genuinely constituted native island-specific subspecies of known mainland species (a very common occurrence in evolution across the entire zoological spectrum) or even distinct species. Also, a few may have been exotic escapee/released hybrids originally bred from mainland species imported in certain Caribbean islands; and there might even have been occasional spontaneous mutations arising on these islands, originating again from imported mainland species; plus one or two cases of tapiré macaws may possibly having been produced by natives here to sell as high-priced curiosities to visitors.
Personally speaking, I consider the first two of these five options to be much more likely than the others, but without physical evidence to examine we can never know for certain what any of these fascinating but irretrievably lost West Indian macaws truly were.
I wish to offer my sincere thanks to Rafael Nascimento for bringing several hitherto obscure mystery macaws to my attention and which I have thereby been able to document in this present 2-part ShukerNature article, and also for so generously permitting me to include some of his beautiful paintings of various mystery macaws in it. Thanks also go to David Alderton for kindly alerting me to van Bassen's painting and its perplexing parrot, and to Michael Andrew Leigh for kindly photographing for me the green and yellow hybrid macaw at Singapore Bird Gardens (I wonder which specific type of hybrid macaw this bird is?).
This 2-part ShukerNature article is excerpted from a work-in-progress book of mine, Mystery Birds of the World - look out for it in due course.
And finally: does anyone happen to know which precise type of hybrid macaw the following beautiful individual is, which I encountered with its handler while visiting Mandalay Bay Hotel, on the Strip in Las Vegas, during a Stateside holiday in 2004? All suggestions would be greatly welcomed - thanks very much!