Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ara tricolor: Cuba's extinct endemic macaw

Up to 150 years ago Cuba possessed three parrots in its avifauna-one of them a large and beautifully colored macaw.


Watercolor of the Cuban macaw Ara tricolor circa 1800 by Jacques Barraband,
a French zoological illustrator. From the Cuban macaw Wikipedia.
 
Parrots belong to the bird family Psittacidae, of which Cuba has two representative genera and species: the endangered Cuban conure Psittacara eups (=Aratinga), and the better widespread Cuban parrot Amazona leucocephala. Up to the mid-XIX, Cuba also had a large macaw, Ara tricolor. The last known pair was shot in 1864 at La Vega, in the Cienaga de Zapata-the largest wetland swamp of the Caribbean archipelago. The ornithologists Johannes Gundlach and C. B. Cory believed that this species survived up until the later XIX century. In Spanish, these large parrots are known as guacamayos, which is the Arawak indian name, or papagayos, the Castilian.


Oil on canvas: "A moorhen, a gull, and a Scarlet Macaw by a stream in a landscape" by Philip Reinagle
circa early XIX century.

Scientist recognize that other large Ara macaws existed in other islands of the Caribbean, but the Cuban macaw is the only one known from complete specimens, preserved as stuffed, mounted, or skins, and several skeletal parts found in paleontological and archaeological deposits.


Painting of Ara tricolor by Francois-Nicolas Martinet, in 1765.

Colonists that came to the island after Columbus’s rediscovery of the New World, documented the massive killings of these birds by amerindians, but mostly by conquistadors, who used them for food, plumage, or kept them as pets. In one occasion, Father Bartolome de las Casas records a mass killing of macaws at the indian town of Casaharta in 1513 by the natives for the sake of the colonists:

“[my translation] …the many things marvelous and abundance of food from many sources, bread and game, and fish, but above all of macaws, which if I have not forgotten, during the 15 days that we were there, at least 10,000 macaws were eaten. These were of the most beautiful in the world, which was a real shame to see them killed. Even the little native kids would climb trees to catch them…”
 
Las Casas also recorded the presence of a “different” macaw, with a white, not red, forehead on the island of Hispaniola. He mentions that when Columbus reached the island of Cuba, “nice, green macaws” were gifted to him by the natives (Las Casas, 1875:296, vol. 1). The colonists accepted these gifts, and many macaws were sacrificed for their beautiful feathers, which were to be sent to Spain as exotic souvenirs. 
 
Mounted specimen of the Cuban macaw from the RMNH.
Naturalis Biodiversity Center.
 
It seems, by these accounts, that the Caribbean amerindians were also fond of keeping parrot pets. Yet still, during these early years of the conquest, “there were so many flocks of parrots, that they covered the sun”. This was not to last past the colonial era.
 
Illustration by the Cuban zoological illustrator Otton A. Suarez (1974) from
Las Aves de Cuba: Especies Endemicas (1980) by Orlando A. Garrido.
This is the same specimen from the Institute of Ecology and Systematics, in Havana, below.

The causes of its final extinction are closely tied to human pressure: overhunting at first, and later, deforestation for agricultural development, most intensified during the XVIII and early XIX. During this time, the king’s preserves of forests were maintained and untouched until then by Real decree and accessed only illegally or under special grant by the king. But with the massive onset of agriculture deforestation for tobacco and sugar cane plantations likely drove these large birds to the few remaining forests of the island, Cienaga de Zapata being one of them, and one of the most protected even now. It was at these locations that a few naturalists secured the last specimens, treasures of American and European museums. Sadly, the only surviving mounted skin of Ara tricolor in Cuba was recently stolen from the Institute of Ecology and Systematics (IES) in the outskirts of the city of Havana. This was a gorgeous well-preserved specimen collected by Johannes Gundlach, and one of the most treasured specimens of the old Academy of Sciences, which are now housed at the Institute.
 
Cuban macaw Ara tricolor from the National Museum
of IES in Havana, Cuba.
This specimen has been recently lost or stolen.
Courtesy of A. Tejedor.
 
These rare representatives of Cuban macaws belong in museums, were they are taken care by specialists, people who have studied their whole lives to preserve specimens such as these, and where they are kept under special conditions, and where they can be studied by those that are interested. They do not belong in some collector’s cabinet. It is only hoped that the final itinerary of this specimen is secured, and that the collector protects the beautiful mounted specimen with the dignity it deserves-for the rarity it represents, and as a reminder of the vulnerability of the Earth’s fauna before human destructiveness.

 

Bibliography


De Las Casas, Bartolomé (1560/1875). Historia de las Indias. Vol. 1-4. Imprenta de Miguel Ginesta (Press), Madrid.

Gundlach, J. C. 1876. Contribución a la ornitología cubana. Imprenta La Antilla, La Habana, 364 pp.

Gundlach, J. C. 1893. Ornitología cubana. Imprenta La Moderna, La Habana, 357 pp.

Wetmore, A. (1928). Bones of birds from the Ciego Montero deposit of Cuba. American Museum Novitates 301: 1-5.

Wiley, James W. and G. M. Kirwan (2013). The extinct macaws of the West Indies, with special reference to Cuban macaw Ara tricolor. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 132 (2):125-156.

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