Extinct macaw rediscovered?

Early European explorers encountered a number of different macaws - the largest and most spectacular members of the parrot family - on various islands in the Caribbean. These majestic birds were already declining by this stage, being hunted by the Carib Indians who were the native inhabitants of the region.

Historical accounts suggest that island macaws were to be found on Jamaica, which may have been home to two species. Others were probably present on St. Vincent, Dominica, Guadeloupe and Hispaniola, although only the feathered remains of those which lived on Cuba are represented in museums today. Portrayals of this particular species are featured here.

All the others are mysterious, known only from travellers' descriptions and a single leg bone in the case of the St. Croix macaw, unearthed from a kitchen midden, which confirms they were used as a source of food. The lack of actual specimens means that these macaws cannot be officially recognised by science, although contemporaneous writings have left tantalising clues about their appearance.

A growing interest in parrots

From the 1500s onwards, there was a fascination among the wealthy with the Cuban amazonCuban amazonparrots which were being discovered in the New World. This began when Christopher Columbus brought back a pair of Cuban Amazon parrots in 1493 for his patron, the Queen Isabella of Spain. These birds were paraded triumphantly through the streets of Barcelona as part of the celebrations surrounding his safe return and attracted considerable comment from the onlookers.

Parrots became fashionable, not just for their powers of mimicry but also for their colourful plumage. In Elizabethan England, their colloquial description of popinjay was even used to describe the brightly-coloured and slightly shocking fashions worn by the trendsetters of that time.

Owning a New World parrot rapidly became a significant status symbol in Europe, available only to the very wealthy and well-connected. Almost certainly, the first examples brought back were obtained from the native Indians in the Caribbean, who not only ate the adult birds but also hand-reared the chicks to keep as pets around their settlements. This began the link between sailors and parrots which has lasted for centuries in the public mind, and was reinforced through popular books such as Treasure Island by R.L. Stevenson.

Dutch influence

At the start of the 1600s, the Dutch city of Delft was a port of major importance. It had built up a reputation as a marketplace for luxury items originating from overseas, including the New World. Such goods were often sold locally to those who had gained substantial wealth over generations, frequently from trading enterprises. These same families would also pay handsomely to have their portraits painted, typically in surroundings which emphasised their status and possessions.

Among the artists receiving commissions during this period was Bartholomeus van Bassen, who lived from 1590 to 1652. It took him two years, starting in 1618, to complete perhaps his most famous work, entitled Renaissance Interior with Banqueters. The exquisite detail in this painting captures both the opulence of the period, as well as the exotic, reflected in the guise of a macaw positioned prominently in the foreground.

Close study reveals there are striking similarities in appearance between this bird and the Cuban macaw (Ara tricolor), most notably in the two-tone coloration of the wings and the reddish-orange coloration on the head. But there are also differences. The underparts of van Bassen's macaw are a more yellowish shade, rather than fiery orange.

This need not necessarily be significant however - sun conures (Aratinga solistalis), a smaller relative of the macaws, may differ significantly in the depth of orange-yellow coloration of their underparts, and it is possibly that Cuban macaws showed similar variation. The wings are more greenish however, rather than red.

An undescribed species

But there is also one other significant detail which suggests that the parrot in this Renaissance painting was probably not a Cuban macaw, although it is clearly a member of this group of parrots. The main distinguishing feature of these macaws is the large, essentially unfeathered area of white skin restricted to the sides of the face around the eyes. In the case of the macaw portrayed by van Bassen, however, the white areas are far more extensive than in the Cuban macaw, extending on to the top of the head itself.

Based on contemporary descriptions, including the name of “Guacamayo” used by the Carib Indians, it seems likely that a population of related macaws probably extended right across the Caribbean, from Cuba eastwards to Hispaniola and thence to Guadeloupe.

There is no surviving detailed description of what the macaws on Guadeloupe were like, apart from Ferdinand Columbus's account of such birds being as large as chickens, but there is a key note from de las Casas, in his book called History of the Indies which he completed in 1561. Here he states how these particular macaws could be distinguished from their Cuban counterparts by their white brows - just as reflected in van Bassen's painting.

The artist therefore appears to have captured on canvas a member of the parrot family for which no records exist. We do not even know when these macaws became extinct on Guadeloupe or Hispaniola. The lack of specimens and recorded information suggests this occurred quite early after the arrival of Europeans however - possibly by the late 1600s. The specimen portrayed in van Bassen's painting would therefore have been exceedingly rare.
v In contrast, the Cuban macaw managed to survive until 1864, when the last recorded example in the wild was shot at La Vega in the Zapata Swamp. At least one of these birds reached Europe around this time, being displayed at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

In conclusion

Rather ironically therefore, van Bassen's painting truly reflects its title, in a way that he could not possibly have foreseen. It adheres to the Renaissance tradition, by representing a fusion of art and science, revealing knowledge which has been hidden down the course of centuries. It also raises the fascinating possibility that other artists might also have included other contemporary images of macaws from this region in their paintings, which may yet await discovery.