In two previous ShukerNature blog articles, I surveyed a number of mysterious, seemingly-vanished or even still-undiscovered types of macaw with very diverse histories but united morphologically by their eyecatching plumage whose hues were all drawn from the blue, indigo, and violet sections of the colour spectrum (please click here and here to access these two articles). However, as will now be revealed in Part 1 of this major new 2-part ShukerNature article on missing macaws, also on file are some equally intriguing, mystifying examples of lost mystery macaws whose plumage exhibits vibrant hues drawn from the colour spectrum's red, orange, and yellow sections, and which were all reputedly different from any of the familiar macaw species known today. All of these species, moreover, were reported from the West Indies archipelago (click here for a very much briefer, introductory coverage of them on ShukerNature several years ago), and many chroniclers claimed that macaws were once extremely common there, yet today none of its islands (other than Trinidad, but see my comment later here) are home to any macaws at all.
Although I have since read many much more detailed accounts of them elsewhere, when still only a child I first learned about the Caribbean's lost macaws from Purnell's Encyclopedia of Animal Life. This was an extremely comprehensive, authoritative six-volume wildlife encyclopaedia first published during the 1960s and edited by zoologists Drs Maurice Burton and Robert Burton – which included the following very succinct summary of most of them:
The red macaw of Jamaica has not been seen since 1765 and the green and yellow macaw of the same island became extinct in the early 19th century. The Guadeloupe red macaw became extinct a century before this [i.e. during the 1700s] and the Dominican green and yellow macaw in the late 18th Century. The Martinique macaw has not been heard of since 1640 and then there was one which has been called the mysterious macaw. No specimen of this is known but a description of it was published in 1658 – and that is all we know of it except that it lived on 'one of the West Indian islands'.
The red macaw of Jamaica is A. gossei; the Jamaican green and yellow macaw is A. erythrocephala; the Guadeloupe red macaw is A. guadeloupensis; the Dominican green and yellow macaw is A. atwoodi; and the Martinique macaw is A. martinicus. As for the 'mysterious macaw', this is A. erythrura, and like the Martinique macaw it was principally blue and yellow in colour.
Two additional erstwhile Caribbean macaws not noted above by the Burtons are the Cuban red macaw A. tricolor and the scientifically-undescribed Hispaniolan red macaw (there is also the purple macaw of Guadeloupe Anodorhynchus purpurascens, already documented by me on ShukerNature here). I shall be examining the Caribbean's green and yellow mystery macaws as well as its blue and yellow mystery macaws in Part 2 of this article, so let us concentrate now upon its red and yellow examples.
Incidentally, I wish to point out that the illustrations that I am presenting here and also in Part 2 include several beautiful paintings depicting these birds' possible appearance in life that were commissioned by Lord Walter Rothschild for his magnificent tome Extinct Birds (1907).
In addition, please note that I am omitting from these two Parts' discussion any coverage or consideration referring to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, because only one mystery macaw has ever been documented from either of them. This is Seaforth's macaw, described in 1822 from Trinidad by ornithologist J.A. Latham (but by no-one else), and almost certainly referable to a colour variety of the scarlet macaw Ara macao, a South American mainland species but which is native there too. Indeed, unlike all other Caribbean islands, but no doubt due to its very close proximity to South America, Trinidad is known to be inhabited by mainland macaw species (no less than four, in fact, including the above-noted scarlet macaw, plus the blue and yellow macaw A. ararauna, the red-shouldered macaw Diopsittaca nobilis, and the red-bellied macaw Orthopsittaca manilatus).
THE CUBAN RED MACAW
Depending upon which authority is consulted, as many as 15 endemic macaw species may have once inhabited various islands in the West Indies, but all of them are now extinct – always assuming, of course, that they ever existed to begin with. Indeed, most of them are nowadays commonly referred to in ornithological circles as hypothetical. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt whatsoever that at least one striking, predominantly red-plumed species of indigenous Caribbean macaw did indeed once exist.
This is because there are not only many eyewitness reports of it on file but also at least 19 preserved skins and taxiderm specimens in 15 major city museums around the world (including Liverpool, London, Berlin, Dresden, Paris, Stockholm, Washington DC, New York, Cambridge in Massachusetts, and Havana), plus subfossil remains. This species is, or was, the Cuban red macaw Ara tricolor, which, as its common name suggests, formerly inhabited the island of Cuba (plus the much smaller Isle of Pines, aka the Isla de la Juventud, nearby).
Quite small for a macaw, measuring a mere 20 in long, when adult this species was predominantly red and yellow in colour, but its wings were purplish-blue, and its tail was blue with pale blue upper tail coverts (hence its binomial name, tricolor – 'three-coloured', i.e. red, yellow, and blue). As in all macaws, the sexes were alike, but according to American zoologist Austin Hobart Clark, writing in an Auk paper of 1905 concerning Greater Antillean macaws, its juveniles were mostly green, rather than exhibiting the tricoloured plumage of the adults. No specimen or description of its egg is known.
Judging from a plethora of good native eyewitness accounts, the Cuban macaw existed in small populations scattered virtually throughout its island home, nesting in holes in palm trees and feeding upon fruit and seeds plus flower buds and sprouts, but was most common in the extensively forested area of Cuba's vast Zapata Swamp (Ciénaga de Zapata). There is contention as to how tasty (or otherwise) its flesh was, but it is certainly known that it was hunted by Cubans for its meat, and that its young were captured alive by them to be sold and bred as pets.
Although the Cuban red macaw was still said to be abundant in 1849, by the 1850s only one large flock still existed, which frequently came to feed at a small group of trees at Zarabanda in the Zapata Swamp, where quite a few of them were 'collected' (i.e. killed) by German-Cuban ornithologist Dr Juan C.C. Gundlach. This activity on his part and also by others, coupled with portions of its swampland habitat being lost to the creation of plantations, proved disastrous for the species, and in 1864 the last pair of Cuban red macaws known to have been killed in the wild were shot at San Francisco de la Vega.
This is not near the Zapata Swamp on mainland Cuba as frequently yet erroneously reported, but rather on the Isle of Pines, as correctly identified in 2013 by James W. Wiley and Guy M. Kirwan in their extensive Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club paper on extinct Caribbean macaws. They also correctly stated that it was a pair of macaws that was shot there, not a single one as is still so often mistakenly claimed by other writers.
Two single specimens were reputedly shot as late as 1867 by members of Spanish writer-priest Antonio Perpiña's entourage while travelling through central Cuba, and Gundlach believed that the species existed in the Zapata Swamp until as late as the mid-1880s, but there is no physical evidence to support his claim. Perhaps the best-known captive specimen is one that lived at Paris's famous Jardin des Plantes, its body being donated to Paris's National Museum of Natural History in 1842 after its death on 6 October of that year. However, once again contradicting frequent but incorrect claims cited elsewhere, it was not the last captive specimen.
One that was exhibited at Amsterdam Zoo, for instance, survived until 1858, and a specimen living in the Knowsley Park aviaries of the 13th Earl of Derby died in March 1846. Both of these latter specimens were again donated to museums following their deaths, with the Knowsley Park individual being retained at Liverpool's World Museum.
Habitat destruction, hunting them for their meat, and the capturing of young macaws to serve as pets have also been cited as causes for the extinction of the other lost Caribbean macaws documented here and in Part 2, and certainly they showed surprisingly little fear of their hunters, thereby making their killing a tragically easy task. Yet unlike the Cuban red macaw, there are no preserved skins or stuffed specimens of any of these latter forms. As will now be seen, however, there are for at least certain of them some noteworthy written accounts and intriguing illustrations testifying to their erstwhile reality.
RED MACAWS OF HISPANIOLA AND GUADELOUPE
Until the end of the 16th Century, a scientifically-undescribed species of red macaw, one that was fairly similar in appearance to that of Cuba, may also have existed on the neighbouring island of Hispaniola, judging from a short description given in 1561 by Spanish historian and Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas within his authoritative three-volume Historia de Las Indias (History of the West Indies).
Differentiating by their respective size three different species of Hispaniolan parrot (seemingly a macaw, an amazon parrot, and a conure), he stated:
The largest…differ from those of the other islands in that they have over the bill or the forehead white, not green or red; those of this species that are in the island of Cuba have over the bill or the forehead red.
A single later report of a macaw on Hispaniola, on the authority of local resident M. Deshayes, was subsequently documented in 1779 by the eminent French naturalist Count Georges-Louis de Buffon within his multi-volume magnum opus Histoire Naturelle. In 1983, German macaw enthusiast Dieter Hoppe dubbed the Hispaniolan red macaw Ara tricolor haitius in his book Aras, thereby classifying it as a subspecies of the Cuban macaw.
A third alleged Caribbean species that was apparently predominantly red-plumed, and which was formally named by Austin Hobart Clark in 1905, was the Guadeloupe red macaw A. guadeloupensis, also known as the lesser Antillean macaw. The first known mention of this species by a European derived from the voyages of none other than Christopher Columbus, who mentioned in his writings that when visiting Guadeloupe in 1493, his landing party observed "red parrots as large as chickens" there (or guacamayos, as referred to by the island's native Caribs at that time). And according to Diego Álvarez Chanca, who joined Columbus on his second voyage (1493-94), they took two such macaws from the houses of Caribs encountered by them on Guadeloupe.
Furthermore, during the 1650s, French missionary Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre also referred to these very distinctive red macaws of Guadeloupe, which he termed the arras and documented as follows:
The Arras is a sort of Parrot bigger than all the others. This is proved because those of Guadaloupe [sic] are larger than all the other Parrots, both those from the Islands as well as from the Mainland; while this Arras is larger than these by one third. It has the head, the neck, the belly and the back of the colour of fire; its wings are a mixture of yellow, azure, and crimson feathers; while the tail is entirely red and a foot-and-a-half long.
A sepia line drawing of one such macaw in the company of various other Guadeloupe fauna appears in Du Tertre's book Histoire Generale des Antilles (1667).
In Die New Welt (1534), German humanist and historian Johann Huttich stated that he had recorded on Guadeloupe a red macaw "present in such numbers as grasshoppers are with us", thereby indicating that it was very common back then. Nevertheless, this fiery-plumed macaw had seemingly vanished before the end of the 1700s, and has never been conclusively identified with any species alive today. Of great interest, however, is that it readily recalls a mysterious, predominantly red macaw featured prominently in one of the most famous depictions of another extinct bird, the Mauritius dodo Raphus cucullatus.
The depiction in question is a beautiful oil painting by Flemish artist Roelandt Savery (1576-1639), which was painted in Holland in 1626. It was once owned by George Edwards (1694-1773), a very talented English bird painter and author in his own right, and it is now housed at London's Natural History Museum. This great work has become virtually the 'standard' notion of what the dodo looked like in life (though in more recent times, the veracity of its chubby form has been questioned), and has thus attracted great attention.
In stark contrast, almost entirely ignored from an ornithological standpoint are the two very striking, colourful parrots that Savery painted to the dodo's immediate left and top-right in this same painting. Judging from their size and form, they are evidently macaws, but they do not resemble any known species. I'll be dealing with Savery's right-hand macaw in Part 2 of this article, as it is of potential relevance to two different Caribbean mystery macaws that I'll be documenting there. However, his left-hand macaw may well be equally pertinent to one specific Caribbean mystery macaw discussed here in Part 1, because other than its pale facial skin and some yellow-gold and blue wing plumes, this latter Savery-depicted macaw is entirely red.
If these two depicted macaws were meant to be real, it suggests that they may be lost (and possibly even undescribed) species, or unusual freak/hybrid individuals, but what happened to the specimens that they were based upon? Or could they have been 'invented' by Savery purely as colourful support for the more prosaic plumage of the dodo? Or perhaps they did exist but Savery's depictions of them were based not upon physical specimens but instead upon inaccurate verbal descriptions of known species?
What I find so interesting about Savery's depicted left-hand macaw is that it greatly recalls Du Tertre's description of the arras or Guadeloupe red macaw – so much so, in fact, that I cannot help but wonder whether a specimen of this latter macaw was brought back to Holland and became the model for Savery's red macaw.
Moreover, in his book The Dodo and Kindred Birds (1953), Japanese dodo expert Masauji Hachisuka included as the frontispiece a copy of Savery's original painting specially prepared for him by another famous but much later bird artist, John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912), and stated in the accompanying caption that the two macaws depicted in it were indeed from the West Indies.
Certainly, transportation of Caribbean birds back to Europe in post-Columbus times frequently occurred. Hence it is by no means impossible that one or more Guadeloupe red macaws found their way to Europe at the time of Savery when this species was still extant in its West Indies homeland.
Having said that, while communicating in December 2010 with Jolyon Parrish, subsequently the author of The Dodo and the Solitaire: A Natural History (2012), I was informed by him that Savery sometimes altered the colours of his subjects to suit his specific needs for the painting in question, and that I should therefore be wary of placing too much emphasis upon the colours of the depicted dodo's two macaw companions. Jolyon also stated that some ornithologists have sought to identify Savery's depicted red specimen not as a Guadeloupe red macaw but rather as the much more familiar, and extant, red and blue (aka green-winged) macaw A. chloroptera from the South American mainland.
However, I find such an identification to be both surprising and implausible, because Savery's mostly blue-lacking and entirely green-lacking red macaw bears scant resemblance to A. chloroptera, bearing in mind that the latter species has vivid, instantly visible, and very sizeable portions of both blue and green upon its wings.
In any case, Savery's painting is not the only putative depiction of a Guadeloupe red macaw on record. A second, but hitherto much more obscure example was kindly brought to my attention in July 2013 by Brazil-based bird artist and crypto-ornithological researcher Rafael Nascimento.
The bird in question is a large red macaw, depicted sitting on a perch in the top-left corner of an oil painting from c.1665 by Dutch artist Jan Steen, entitled 'The Way You Hear It, Is The Way You Sing It'. As I soon realised when viewing it, this bird closely resembles Savery's depicted red mystery macaw (see the direct visual comparison of them that opens this present ShukerNature article).
Both of these birds have yellow and blue wing plumes (although the blue plumes are scarcely discernable in Steen's bird), but otherwise their plumage is uniformly red. Were these two depictions based upon two different specimens of the same species, I wonder – and could that species have been the now-demised Guadeloupe red macaw? Or perhaps Steen's depicted macaw was directly inspired by Savery's? But who can now say with any degree of certainty, more than four centuries later?
Yet for there now to be two classical works of art depicting what is clearly one and the same variety of mystery red macaw, and one that corresponds closely with a verbal description of an ostensibly real but long-lost Caribbean species, certainly lends weight to the prospect that this latter macaw was indeed real, and not merely hypothetical, as some ornithologists have suggested due to no physical evidence for its former realty having been procured to date.
Also worthy of mention here is a colour plate that appeared in François-Nicolas Martinet's Histoire Naturelle (1765), which depicts a supposed Guadeloupe red macaw. Thanks to its wings' very striking blue and yellow plumes, which are much more prominent than those of the red mystery macaws depicted respectively by Savery and Steen, however, this bird bears much more of a resemblance to the scarlet macaw, and it may simply represent an imported scarlet macaw specimen.
A revised version of this plate that appeared in a contemporary work by Buffon makes it look even more like a scarlet macaw. Nevertheless, in both versions it lacks the blue tail feathers characteristic of the latter species but apparently lacking in the Guadeloupe red macaw, so this artwork remains something of an enigma.
THE JAMAICAN RED MACAW
The final principally red Caribbean macaw on record is A. gossei, the Jamaican red macaw (also known as the yellow-headed macaw). It was one of several extinct West Indies parrots formally described and named in 1905 by Lord Rothschild within a paper published by the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club. Rothschild named this particular macaw in honour of the famous Victorian naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, who in his book The Birds of Jamaica (1847) had documented an individual shot about 10 miles east of Lucea in c.1765 by a Mr Odell.
Gosse had obtained his information concerning this specimen from an account sent to him by a Dr Robinson (not Robertson, as often mistakenly given elsewhere) who had observed it as a preserved taxiderm exhibit (but lacking its legs). Sadly, this unique specimen, the only one known of the Jamaican red macaw, is now lost, but Robinson's description of it is preserved in Gosse's book, so here it is:
Basal half of upper mandible black, apical half ash-coloured; lower mandible black, tip only ash-coloured. Forehead, crown, and back of neck bright yellow. Sides of face around eyes, anterior and lateral part of neck, and back, a fine scarlet. Wing coverts and breast, deep sanguine red. Winglet and primaries, an elegant light blue. The legs and feet were said to have been black; the tail red and yellow intermixed.
Of great interest, moreover, is that in 2003, researchers C.T. Fisher and F.E. Warr, writing on the subject of avian-related library and manuscript resources in a paper published by the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club, revealed that a hitherto-overlooked full-colour painting of a mysterious Jamaican macaw largely fitting Robinson's description as documented by Gosse had lately been discovered in a work containing many wildlife paintings published in 1765 – namely, Lieutenant L.J. Robins's The Natural History of Jamaica. The copy of this work in which the painting had been spotted was owned by the Earl of Derby.
Other researchers have since speculated that it was more likely to have been a Cuban red macaw that had been imported into Jamaica. (Moreover, parrot expert Tony Pittman has mentioned to me that A. gossei as a whole, not just this one specimen, might well have been based entirely upon examples of A. tricolor imported or traded from Cuba and therefore never existed as a valid species in its own right.)
Yet as can be seen here by comparing my article's illustrations of the Cuban red macaw with the Robins-derived painting, the Jamaican red macaw does not correspond precisely with the Cuban red macaw. In particular, its golden-yellow underparts differ markedly from the much darker underparts of the Cuban red macaw, as does its bright red back in comparison with the Cuban's very dark back.
Evidencing that mainland South American macaws (or, at the very least, known macaw species from Trinidad) have indeed been imported into Jamaica, within an Archives of Natural History paper published in October 2010 ornithological researcher S.T. Turvey documented a previously-unconsidered watercolour painting of a probable scarlet macaw A. macao that had lived on Jamaica, where it had been depicted in 1765 by John Lindsay.
However, whereas this latter specimen certainly does resemble the scarlet macaw, it does not recall either the macaw in the Robins painting or the macaw of Robinson's verbal description, indicating once again that A. gossei was a distinct, valid Jamaican endemic. Indeed, concluding their coverage of A. gossei within their authoritative tome Extinct Birds (2012), Julian P. Hume and Michael Walters opined:
Thus there seems to be reasonable evidence that at least one other endemic red macaw, along with Ara tricolor of Cuba, once occurred in the West Indies. Whether it justified specific status is now impossible to ascertain.
Finally: in 1967, within the second revised edition of his classic volume Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World, the esteemed American ornithologist James C. Greenway opined that perhaps the scarlet macaw, the Cuban red macaw, and the mysterious red macaws reported from Hispaniola, Guadeloupe, and Jamaica collectively constituted a species complex, or superspecies as he called it. However, with no specimens of the last three macaws to examine, this must remain just an opinion, albeit a most intriguing one.
In Part 2 of this ShukerNature article (click here to access it), I examine reports and illustrations of some lost Caribbean macaws that reputedly sported green and yellow or blue and yellow plumage. I also survey the possible taxonomic status of a most interesting macaw-like mystery parrot featured in a very famous painting by the celebrated 17th-Century Dutch architect and painter Bartholomeus van Bassen – so don't miss it!