Schlagwort-Archive: Society Islands

Black-fronted Parakeet – lesser known depictions

This Tahitian parakeet is one of my favorite birds, unfortunately it doesn’t exist any longer because it was wiped out by introduced cats, dogs and rats.

Here are two depictions that were both made in the year 1792, when the HMS Providence stayed at the island of Tahiti with the mission to collect breadfruit trees and other botanical specimens from the Pacific to be transported to the West Indies.


This depiction was made by a George Tobin, Lieutenant on board the HMS Providence
(public domain)


This depiction apparently was made by William Bligh himself, Captain of the HMS Providence
(public domain)


edited: 27.10.2019

Miller’s Rail

Miller’s Rail is one of the more commonly known so-called mysterious birds.

This species is actually known exclusively from a single drawing made by Georg Forster sometimes between 1772 and 75 during the second voyage of James Cook [and a copy of it made by John Frederick Miller, who described the bird as a new species in 1784]. The annotation just states that it is a Rallus minutus, [a small rail], [called] Maho, [and coming from] Taheitee, [Tahiti]. 

The drawing is rather a crude one, not „fieldguide-suitable“ and shows a small bird, clearly identifiable as a crake, with rather dark, almost black feathers, sitting on its red legs.

The bird could very well just be a Spotless Crake (Zapornia tabuensis (Gmelin)), which today is still [patchily these days] distributed all over Polynesia, and of course was even more so 250 years ago!


There is yet another quite detailed description supposed to be of this species, made by John Latham in 1785 from the actual type, that is now lost.:

Otaheite R[ail].

LENGTH six inches. Bill three quarters of an inch, black: the head, neck, and all the under parts of the body, dark ash-colour: palest on the chin: the upper parts, and wing coverts, deep red brown: quills dusky, edged with white: edge of the wing, and the first quill feather, white: tail an inch and a half long, rounded in shape, and black: legs dusky yellow. Claws black.
Inhabits Otaheite, and the Friendly Isles. Sir Joseph Banks.
“ [2]


The same book contains the description of a variety of the Tabuan rail [now Spottless Crake (Zapornia tabuensis)] from the island of Tanna in the Solomon Islands chain which is often regarded to as being the description of the actual type specimen of Miller’s Rail, however, the description differs quite significantly from G. Forster’s depiction.:

This varies in having the plumage more inclined to brown: the vent white, transversely barred with black lines: legs red.
Inhabits the island of Tanna. Sir Joseph Banks.
” [1]

The island of Tanna, mentioned here as place of origin of this bird, was just one of several islands that were visited by Cook and his entourage in the middle of the 18th century, and the place names given by J. Latham are very often completely wrong, however, the descriptions on the other hand are rather complete and trustworthy.

It has to be taken into account that such old books most often lack any kind of register and that they mostly just use common names but lack scientific ones, searching inside them is a long-term venture.


It is now quite well known that in former times probably all of the islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean were inhabited by endemic rails, with several islands being known to have been inhabited by more than one species, and in many cases these were congeneric species, meaning species from one and the same genus – something that today is extremely rare, which, however, is a relict situation, left behind by human-induced extictions. [3]


[1] John Latham: A General Synopsis of Birds 3(1): 235. Leigh & Sotheby, London 1785
[2] John Latham: A General Synopsis of Birds 3(1): 236. Leigh & Sotheby, London 1785
[3] David W. Steadman: Extinction and Biogeography of Tropical Pacific Birds. University of Chicago Press 2006


Depiction by Georg Forster, 1772-75
(public domain)


edited: 23.10.2019

The Raiatea Swamphen

Swamphens (genus Porphyrio) are distributed worldwide (except of course Antarctica), five species are currently officially recognized. In my opinion there are actually more species, 11 to be exact, namely if the Purple Swamphen (species complex) is split into the distinct species which it actually consists of.

And then there are the extinct members including five described species and seven not-yet-described ones.


And … then there are the hypothetical ones … two so far, one of which I have already written about here:

The Tahitian Mountain Goose

The other one is way less mysterious and on the other hand much more mysterious, it is a swamphen from Ra’iatea, Society Islands.

The island of Ra’iatea lies 50 km east of Huahine, the home island of McNab’s Swamphen (Porphyrio mcnabiKirchman & Steadman), one of 12 the extinct swamphen forms known on the basis of subfossil bones only.


What do we actually known about the mysterious bird of today’s post?

Not much. There is a little note among a big listing of Polynesian (including Melanesian and Micronesian) birds, which says the following.:

319.* Porphyrio sp.
Porphyrio sp. (Schmeltz), Cat. Mus. Godef. 1874 V, p. XVI; Garrett, 1. C. note.
Island of Raiatea, Society Is. (Garrett).
This species is known from two young specimens only.
“ [1]


And that’s it.

I could not find out anything else.

But … the Australian Swamphen is known to be a trampy species and has colonized new Zealand only quite recently, maybe only after the colonization of the islands by the first Polynesians. The same species has also colonized parts of Oceania, where the ssp. pelewensis Hartlaub & Finsch has evolved in Palau and the ssp. samoensis Peale (including. ssp. vitiensis Peale) in western Polynesia.

So, the two Ra’iatean birds may in fact not have been collected on Ra’iatea at all but on another island, or they may have been taken there but may have originated from another place, maybe from Samoa, the closest place where swamphens still exist today.
… or the Ra’iatean birds were indeed a distinct subspecies or perhaps rather species that survived into the 19th century.


[1] Lionel K. Wiglesworth: Aves polynesiae: a catalogue of the birds of the Polynesian subregion (not including the Sandwich Islands). Berlin: R. Friedlaender & Sohn 1891 In: Abhandlungen und Berichte des Königl. Zoologischen und Anthropologisch-Etnographischen Museums zu Dresden Bd. 3: 1-84. 1890/91. herausgegeben von Hofrath Dr. A. B. Meyer, Director des Museums


edited: 07.10.2018; 01.01.2019

Psittacus pacificus – what if …?

… some thoughts about my favorite parrot genus – Cyanoramphus, I think about them very often ….   😉


28.* Cyanoramphus erythronotus.

Society Is.: Tahiti and Raiatea (Forster)
“ [1]


30.* Cyanoramphus ulietanus.

?Ulietea or Raiatea, Society Islands (Lath.). – ?Tanna, New Hebrides (Bullock Coll. Brit. Mus.).
If the Parrot, P. ulieteanns Gm., really came from Ulietea as stated by Latham, it may prove to be the young of P. pacificus Forst. = erythronotus Kuhl.
“ [1]


Number 28., the Black-fronted- or Tahiti-Parakeet is now named as Cyanoramphus zealandicus (Latham), what if the two species, the black-fronted and the Society Islands Parakeet, where indeed only one species?

The Black-fronted Parakeet appears to be very much like the remainder of the Cyanoramphus species, more or less completely green, with bluish wing feathers, and some red feathers behind the eye, but the other species, the Society Islands Parakeet, has a completely different coloration, being brownish olive-colored with a completely blackish head, it is completely unlike any of ist congeners.

The dull form may indeed have been the juvenile of the green one, yet all other species in the genus lack a special juvenile plumage, the young birds look exactly like the adult ones, and the only two known specimens of the Society Islands Parakeet appear to be adult birds – so no, this theory is invalid.


The origin of the two species is another question, it is not that much for certain, that in historical times one was found only on the island of Tahiti and the other one only on Ra’iatea, let alone the prehistorical times …! The only thing absolutely for sure is that the Black-fronted Parakeet indeed inhabited Tahiti.

Can you still follow me?

The genus is very rich in species in New Zealand and occurs there almost everywhere with at least two sympatrical species, and even as much as three on the large South Island (Yellow-fronted Parakeet (Cyanoramphus auriceps), Orange-fronted Parakeet (Cyanoramphus malherbi), Red-fronted Parakeet (Cyanoramphus novaezealandiae)).

So why should the island of Tahiti not have harbored two species as well? And why should these two species not have occurred on other islands within the Society archipelago as well? We will probably never know that for sure.


There are still so many mysteries surrounding this genus, one is the very disjunct distribution, with giant gaps of which one was only recently filled with the discovery of subfossil remains on the island of Rapa, Austral archipelago.

But this is another story for another day.   🙂



[1] Lionel K. Wiglesworth: Aves polynesiae: a catalogue of the birds of the Polynesian subregion (not including the Sandwich Islands). Berlin: R. Friedlaender & Sohn 1891 In: Abhandlungen und Berichte des Königl. Zoologischen und Anthropologisch-Etnographischen Museums zu Dresden Bd. 3: 1-84. 1890/91. herausgegeben von Hofrath Dr. A. B. Meyer, Director des Museums


edited: 24.10.2018

The Tahitian Mountain ‚Goose‘

There exists an almost unknown contemporaneous account from the 18th century, made by James Morrison, boatswain’s mate aboard the famous or infamous ‚Bounty‘, who made mention of a mysterious bird [… and how I love mysterious birds …!].:

… the mountains produce birds of different kinds unknown to us, among which are a large bird nearly the size of a goose, which is good food; they are never observed near the sea nor in the low lands.” [1]


So, usually called the Tahiti Goose, Tahitian Goose, or Tahitian Mountain Goose – what are we talking about here actually?

We very probably do not talk about a goose, but why?

First we have to take into account who made the report: 

A boatswain’s mate from the 18th century very likely was not a zoologist, but may in fact have known at least several European birds, especially poultry, so very likely knew chickens, doves, ducks, and geese, and very likely also quails, partridges and other so called game birds. 

As a seafarer he perhaps may have had some good knowledge about seabirds, and probably could very well tell several species of them apart from each other.

These are the birds that we can just sort out, but what may it have been then? 

Well, the Tahitian Mountain ‚Goose‘ apparently was a somewhat large, terrestrial bird, more or less the size of a feral goose, it was ‚good food‘ so it must have been easy to catch, it probably [actually very likely to almost certainly] was flightless, and it was unlike any bird known to ‚us‘, to the sailors of the ‚Bounty‘. 

In my opinion, and in that of many others, the Tahitian Mountain ‚Goose‘ almost certainly was a kind of rail, a large, flightless rail, maybe a species from the widespread genus Porphyrio, somewhat like a Tahitian version of the New Zealand Takahe (Porphyrio mantelli (Owen)).

However, there is of course the chance that the Tahitian Mountain ‚Goose‘ was something completey different, we probably will never know for sure.

… mysterious ….



[1] J. M. Derscheid: An unknown species – the Tahitian Goose. Ibis 81: 756-760. 1939


edited: 22.09.2018

Mysterious Polynesian parrots

I was writing about a hypothetical parrot species, that formerly may have inhabited the island of Bora Bora, Society Islands here.  


I will now write about some very interesting accounts that were left by Teuira Henry (1847-1915), a educator, ethnologist, folklorist, historian, linguist, and scholar from Tahiti, Society Islands in a manuscript that she reconstructed during her lifetime from the pieces of a lost manuscript which again was written by her grandfather in the years between 1817 and 1856. It included significant amounts of oral folklore, genealogy, histories, myths, and traditional knowledge such as astronomy and navigation. Her manuscript was posthumously published as ‘Ancient Tahiti’ by the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in 1928. [1]  


In 2006, Philippe Raust wrote a little article [2] about the newly discovered and described parrot species found as subfossil remains in French Polynesia, he also mentioned the old Tahitian names of several such parrots, of which some still cannot be assigned to any known species.:  

… Peut être étaient-ce le vini-pa-tea perroquet de couleur pourpre à gorge blanche commun à toutes les îles de la Société et le vini-pa-uri de Pora Pora entièrement rouge décrit par T. Henry dans Tahiti au temps anciens? Il est connu que les plumes rouges étaient recherchées dans les sociétés polynésiennes préeuropéennes où elle symbolisaient le pouvoir des chefs; c’est peut être à cause de cela que ces espèces, trop chassées, ont disparu. T. Henry cite aussi le vini- rehu (perroquet sifleur gris), le tētē (perroquet noir de la Société), le ‘ura (perroquet rouge des montagnes) et le ‘a’a taevao (‘a’a sauvage des îles-sous-le-vent), le tavae (au plumage brillant et multicolore de Motu Iti, Tupai et Maupiha’a): cela fait au moins six espèces de perroquets, perruches et loris qui sont rapportés par la tradition.”  


… Perhaps it was the vini-pa-tea parrot of ​​purple color with white throat common to all Society Islands and the all-red vini-pa-uri from Pora Pora [Bora Bora] described by T. Henry in Tahiti in ‘Tahiti au temps anciens’? It is known that red feathers were sought after in pre-European Polynesian societies where they symbolized the power of chiefs; it is perhaps because of this that these species, overhunted, have disappeared. T. Henry also cites the vini-rehu (gray whistling parrot), the tētē (the society’s black parrot), the ‘ura (red mountain parrot) and the ‘a’a taevao (wild ‘a’a of the islands-under-the-wind), the tavae (with bright and multicolored plumage of Motu Iti, Tupai and Maupiha’a): this makes at least six [seven!] species of parrots, parakeets and loris which are brought back by the tradition.”  


So obviously we have seven species of parrots here, which of them is which?  

‘a’a taevao – Society Parakeet (Cyanoramphus ulietanus (Gmelin)) 
tavae – Kuhl’s Lorikeet (Vini kuhlii (Vigors) ssp. ‘Bora Bora’) ? 
tētē – Black-fronted Parakeet (Cyanoramphus zealandicus (Latham)) 
‘ura – a more or less complete red parrot, since it was named for this color 
vini-pa-tea – Blue Lorikeet (Vini peruviana (Statius Müller)) 
vini-pa-uri – Kuhl’s Lorikeet (Vini kuhlii (Vigors) ssp. ‘Bora Bora’) ? 
vini-rehu – a gray parrot [?] which produced a whistling sound, anyway, rehu just means gray  


The Society Islands were home to five scientifically named parrot species that are known either from historical accounts and specimens or from subfossil remains, furthermore there was another species that now is restricted to a single island in the Austral Islands group but was much more widespread in ancient times.  

There are only two of them still existing today, and only one of them still inhabits at least some remnants of its former range – the amazingly beautiful Blue – or Sapphire Lorikeet (Vini peruviana).  



[1] Teuira Henry: Ancient Tahiti. Bishop Museum Bulletins 48: 1-651. 1928 
[2] Philippe Raust: Les Psittacidés disparus de Polynésie Francaise. Te Manu: Bulletin de la Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie 56. Septembre 2006  


Blue Lorikeet (Vini peruviana)  

Depiction from: François Le Vaillant: Histoire naturelle des perroquets. Paris: Levrault, Schoell & Cie. An IX-XII. 1801–1805  
(public domain)  


edited: 17.09.2018