Dominican green and yellow macaw statuette, its colouring
digitally created to match Atwood's description (© Dr Karl Shuker)
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
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.
green and yellow macaw Ara erythrocephala,
painted by Dutch wildlife artist John Gerrard Keulemans for Lord Walter
Rothschild's book Extinct Birds, 1907
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.
great green macaws Ara militaris
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
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.
green and yellow macaw Ara atwoodi,
painted by Rafael Nascimento (© Rafael Nascimento)
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
two mystery macaws in Roelandt Savery's famous dodo painting, 1626 (public
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?
two mystery macaws in Keulemans's copy of Savery's original painting, in the
frontispiece of Hachisuka book (public domain)
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.
yellow macaw statuette (left), and the same statuette but now photoshopped into
a green and yellow macaw (right) in order to simulate the right-hand macaw present
in Savery's dodo painting (© Dr Karl Shuker)
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.
Bartholomeus van Bassen's
painting 'Renaissance Interior With Banqueters', 1618-1620 - please click to enlarge for viewing purposes (public domain)
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.
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.
Close-up of the mystery
parrot in Bartholomeus
van Bassen's painting 'Renaissance Interior With Banqueters', 1618-1620 (public
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.
we assume that the parrot represents a bona fide species, are there any that
resemble it in some way?
Carolina parakeets, painted
by John James Audubon (public domain)
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
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.
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.
all of the reasons already discussed with regard to the prospect of its being a
fictitious species, however, this notion seems untenable.
Jenday conure (public domain)
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
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
Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, by Keulemans, from
Rothschild's Extinct Birds, 1907
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.
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.
A representation of the Dominican
green and yellow macaw, created by A.C. Tatarinov by modifying Keulemans's original
painting of a blue and yellow macaw Ara
ararauna, but not including the red tail and red wing feathers mentioned
for the former species by Atwood (public domain)
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?
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.
Keulemans's original blue and
yellow macaw Ara ararauna painting
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?
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.
macaw Ara martinicus, painted by
Keulemans (public domain)
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.
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.
Chilean burrowing parrot Cyanoliseus
patagonus bloxami, painted
by Edward Lear during the 1800s (public domain)
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
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.
Mysterious macaw Ara erythrura, aka satin macaw or
red-tailed blue and yellow macaw, painted by Keulemans, (public domain)
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.
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
Psittacus alux maximus, a mystery blue macaw with yellow wing tips and red under-tail
feathers, depicted in an early painting by an unknown artist (public domain)
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.
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.
Mystery blue and yellow macaw
painted by Eleazar Albin in mid-1700s, possibly Ara martinicus (public domain)
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
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.
Albin's Macaw, painted by
Eleazar Albin in 1740 (public domain)
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.
macaw with predominantly blue, green, and yellow plumage (public domain)
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.
macaw with green and yellow plumage (© Justin Henry/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
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
Might a green and yellow strain of hybrid macaw, like this exquisite individual specifically photographed for me by Facebook friend Michael Andrew Leigh at Singapore's famous Bird Gardens in April 2014, explain some of the earlier-documented historical reports of green and yellow macaws on Jamaica and Dominica? (© Michael Andrew Leigh)
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
Caribbean mystery macaws have been based upon nothing more than escaped pet
specimens of known mainland species, such as South America's familiar blue and
yellow macaw? (copyright-free)
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.
A gorgeous multicoloured hybrid macaw (public
Finally: for more
mystery blue macaws documented on ShukerNature, not to mention turquoise,
glaucous, purple, and even black forms, please click here
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?).
A very handsome pair of blue and yellow macaws – representing
one of the many macaw species that definitely do exist! (public domain)
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!
A beautiful hybrid macaw of currently-undetermined identity on display with its handler at Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas, which I visited in 2004 (© Dr Karl Shuker)