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Extinct Parrots Part I: The Western Hemisphere

August 31, 2012 Leave a comment

While a few parrot species are quite abundant, many are endangered due to habitat destruction or capture for the pet trade. Additionally, several island species (like the Ultramarine Lorikeet or Kakapo) are endangered because they have been preyed upon extensively by introduced predators, such as cats or rats. Many parrot species exist in the wild today only because of intense efforts by conservationists to protect them.

Unfortunately, it is too late to save some parrot species. This series of articles will introduce the extinct species, starting with those from the Western Hemisphere. The majority of extinct parrots from that area are species that occurred in the Caribbean. Unless otherwise noted, the paintings with this article were done by the Dutch bird illustrator John Gerrard Keulemans. They appeared in the book Extinct Birds by Walter Rothschild. The below chart lists the extinct parrot species from the Caribbean, and North and South America.

Two of the extinct parrots of the Caribbean were Amazons. The Martinique Amazon occurred on the island of Martinique, and it disappeared in 1722. The likely cause of extinction was deforestation, and possibly hunting.

Martinique Amazon.

The Martinique Amazon was a  green bird, with some red on the wings, throat and tail. The head was apparently slate coloured.

The Guadeloupe Amazon occurred on the island of Guadeloupe, and the last records of it are from 1779, although it is unclear exactly when it went extinct. A combination of hunting and deforestation likely lead to its demise.

Guadeloupe Amazon

The Guadeloupe Amazon was, like most Amazons, a primarily green bird. However, the neck, head and belly were violet mixed with black, and they had yellow and red on the wings. These birds looked much like Imperial Amazons, which still occur on the island of Dominica.

There are no specimens left of either of the Martinique or the Guadeloupe Amazon, and they are known only from traveler’s accounts.

There are six possible extinct macaws from the Western Hemisphere and five of these are from the Caribbean. I say six “possible” macaws, as some of the species listed below may be subspecies of each other.

The Dominican Green-and-Yellow Macaw occurred on Dominica and was described in 1791. It is known from the writings of only one person, and there are no archaeological remains of it. It was apparently green and yellow with some red on the head. It is unclear when it went extinct, but it was likely during the late 18th or early 19th century. The birds were hunted as a source of food and were sometimes kept as pets.

The Jamaican Green-and-Yellow Macaw, much like the other extinct parrots described thus far, is known only from written descriptions. It was described in 1847, and likely disappeared in the 19th century.

The written description of this bird, by a Mr. Gosse, is as follows:

“:—” Head red; neck, shoulders, and underparts of a light and lively green; the greater wing coverts and quills, blue; and the tail scarlet and blue on the upper surface, with the under plumage, both of wings and tail, a mass of intense orange yellow. The specimen here described was procured in the mountains of Trelawny and St. Anne’s by Mr. White, proprietor of the Oxford estate.”

Jamaican Green and Yellow Macaw. The “yellow” on this bird was under the wings and tail.

Mr. Gosse also noted that a Reverend had seen two of the birds flying at the foot of the mountains.

The extinct Jamaican Red Macaw appears to have resembled the extinct Cuban Macaw, and the two may have been of the same species. Unlike the Cuban Macaw, of which there are specimens left, the Jamaican Red Macaw is known only from descriptions. The last known specimen was taken in 1765.

Mr. Gosse described it as follows:

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 parts of the neck, and back, a fine scarlet ; wing coverts and breast deep sanguine red ; winglet and primaries an elegant light blue. The legs and feet are said to have been black ; the tail, red and yellow intermixed (Rob.)

Jamaican Red Macaw

The Lesser Antillean Macaw is another primarily red, Caribbean Macaw that is known only from descriptions. This bird was described by multiple authors and appeared to be rare by 1760. It occurred on Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The Cuban Macaw occurred on Cuba and the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Pines), which is just off the coast of western Cuba. It is much better known that the other extinct Caribbean Parrots, as several skins exist in museums.

Cuban Macaws were widely hunted for meat and for the pet trade, and they also experienced a major loss of habitat due to deforestation. The last documented specimen was shot in 1864, though the species may have held on until 1885.

Cuban Macaws were primarily red, with blue on the wings and tail. They were a little smaller than other members of the genus Ara, at about 40-50 cm long.

Cuban Macaw

There was one conure species that occurred on Guadeloupe, the Guadeloupe Parakeet. These were green conures with pale beaks. They also had a bit of red on the head. Apparently, they were kept as pets and could be taught to speak easily. The species may have occurred on Martinique and Barbados as well, although due to a lack of clear descriptions of the conures that occurred on those islands, they have not been given taxonomic names. The conures on those islands may have been imports from the mainland. Guadeloupe Parakeets appeared to have gone extinct in the second half of the 18th century.

Guadeloupe Conure

Rothschild also lists a species of “purple macaw” (Anodorhynchus purpurascens) that is proposed to have existed on Guadeloupe.

Purple Macaw of Guadeloupe?

The above illustration shows a Purple Macaw. It does look suspiciously like a Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthicus) and the Purple Macaws may have simply been hyacinths (or perhaps Lear’s Macaws) from the mainland. However, hyacinths are more of a cobalt blue than violet, and some travelers did report seeing violet parrots on Guadeloupe. However, those may have been Guadeloupe Amazons.  Since the descriptions of the various Caribbean parrots from the 1600-1800s were so vague, very little is known about the ones that went extinct.

There are other paintings of extinct macaw species in Rothschild’s book and they are interesting to say the least. The paintings are based on collections of vague descriptions of macaws and since these birds look so much like hybrids of hyacinths and scarlet or blue and gold macaws, I wonder if they were based on separate descriptions of completely different macaws brought from the mainland. The bird labelled “Ara erythrura” looks like it has a hyacinth head on a blue and gold’s body (with a scarlet macaw tail) and the bird labelled “Ara martinicus” looks like a hyacinth mixed with a blue and gold.

Macaw (“Ara erythrura”)

Macaw (“Ara martinicus“)

Speaking of Hyacinth Macaws, there is one potentially extinct blue macaw from mainland South America that most certainly did exist. I am referring to the Glaucous Macaw (Anodorhynchus glaucus), formerly of northern Argentina, southern Paraguay, northeastern Uruguay and adjacent parts of Brazil. It probably went extinct during the 1960s. However, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists the species as “critically endangered,” since there is a small possibility that a few birds exist in very isolated areas.

Glaucous Macaw painting by Bourjot Saint-Hilaire

The most recent parrot extinction in the Western Hemisphere involved the Carolina Parakeet. This bird – a close relative of the Aratinga conures – occurred in woodlands in the eastern United States. This is the only parrot species that occurred in the eastern US in historic times. The last documented wild specimen was killed in 1908 and the last captive individual died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.

Several factors contributed to the demise of the Carolina Parakeet. Much of their habitat was destroyed by European settlers, and introduced honeybees competed with the birds for nesting holes. The birds were also shot for their plumage, which was used to decorate women’s hats, and  for being agricultural pests. Unfortunately, the birds’ habit of gathering around fallen flock members made them an easy target for hunters.

DNA obtained from museum specimens of Carolina Parakeets has been compared to that of several extant South and Central American species. The Carolina Parakeet’s closest living relatives include Aratinga auricapillus (Gold-capped Conure), Aratinga solstitialis (Sun Conure), and Nandayus nenday (Nanday Conure). The Jenday Conure (Aratinga jandaya) is also likely a close relative but was not included in the study.

Carolina Parakeets. Painting by John James Audubon.

The next post in this series will describe the recently extinct parrot species of the Eastern Hemisphere. As is the case with the Western Hemisphere, most of these species were from islands.

Major References

Kirchman, J. J., Schirtzinger , E. E., and Wright, T. F. 2012. Phylogenetic relationships of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) inferred from DNA sequence data. Auk, 129, 197-294.

IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.1. http://www.iucnredlist.org

Rothschild, LW. 1907. Extinct birds : an attempt to unite in one volume a short account of those birds which have become extinct in historical times : that is, within the last six or seven hundred years: to which are added a few which still exist, but are on the verge of extinction. Hutchinson and Co., London. Online Version.

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