Tag Archives: Gesellschaftsinseln

Mo’ora-‘ura and toroa – a red duck and a surf duck from Tahiti?

In ancient times, Tahitians believed that several of their Gods and other celestial beings would show themselves to the human eye in form of an animal, a so-called ata and Teuira Henry [see also here] lists some of them, among them also three kinds of ducks.:

Red-feathered duck (mo‘ora-‘ura), ata of ‘Orovehi‘ura (‘Oro in his manifestation of Red-feather-covered). 
Wild duck (mo‘ora-ōviri), ata of “sylvan elves.” 
Surf duck (toroa), ata of Hau, god of peace.
” [1][3]

The ‘Wild duck’, mentioned here, is the Pacific Black Duck (Anas superciliosa J. F. Gmelin) which is the only duck species known from French Polynesia at all, so what are the other two ‘ducks’?

The most showy headdress worn officially by the king and princes and high chiefs was the taumi, a superb helmet made of clusters of crimson feathers of the moora ‘ura (red-feathered duck), set upon a light framework and covering the head like a bird, with a glossy terminal behind of outspreading red, black, and white feathers tastily mixed together.” [1][3]

taumi, however, actually is a gorget decorated with feathers, a feathered helmet was called fau.:

Henry gives a description of a headdress which has some characteristics of a fau, but which seems to be a mixture of remembered types, further confused by the use of the name taumi, which we know was a gorget:” [4]

The fau was also decorated with several of the elongated tail feathers of tropicbirds (as you can see in the depiction, in which they are from the White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus ssp. dorotheae Daudin)).

This depiction shows three men wearing a taumi, one of them, a tahu’a, a high priest, also wearing a fau, decorated with a ray of white tail streamers of the pete’a (Phaethon lepturus ssp. dorotheae).

Depiction from: ‘William Hodges: The fleet of Otaheite assembled at Oparee, 1777’

(public domain)


A little update here:

A “surf duck” apparently is nothing but an albatross (Diomedea spp.), a bird that is well known to the Polynesians, even in the tropical parts of the region. [2]



[1] Teuira Henry: Ancient Tahiti. Bishop Museum Bulletins 48: 1-651. 1928 
[2] Kenneth P. Emory: Tuamotuan bird names. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 56(2): 188-196. 1947
[3] Douglas L. Oliver: Ancient Tahitian Society. The University Press of Hawai’i, Honolulu 1974
[4] Karen Stevenson; Steven Hooper: Tahitian fau – unveiling an enigma. Journal of the Polynesian Society 116(2): 181-212. 2007


edited: 31.07.2023

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 extinctions. [5]


In ancient Tahiti, the meho too was thought to represent a deity, namely Tu (in his manifestation of moonlit sky), the meho‘s cry is given as having been a “ho”, which is also thought to be the characteristic sound made by Tu himself. [3][4]

This little sentence is yet another prove for the former existence of another rail species on Tahiti beside the Red-billed Rail (Gallirallus pacificus (Gmelin)), which is also mentioned in this short enumeration of birds representincg gods in ancient Tahiti.



[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] Teuira Henry: Ancient Tahiti. Bishop Museum Bulletins 48: 1-651. 1928
[4] Douglas L. Oliver: Ancient Tahitian Society. The University Press of Hawai’i, Honolulu 1974
[5] David W. Steadman: Extinction and Biogeography of Tropical Pacific Birds. University of Chicago Press 2006


Depiction by Georg Forster, 1772-75

(public domain)


edited: 28.07.2020

The less popular case of Columba R. forsteri

A pigeon collected during one of J. Cook’s journeys in the middle of the 18th century on the island of Tahiti, Society Islands, was described and named Columba R. forsteri in 1829 by J. G. Wagler, this is the original description.:

C. R. Forsteri. Habitus et magnitudo C. globicerae; capite et cervice prorsus nigris; dorso, uropygio, remigibus et rectricibus coeruleo et viridi nitentibus; gula, jugulo, pectore, abdomine femoribusque fuliginosis; crisso ferrugineo; capistro albo; cera prorsus non globosa.

Columba globicera var.? Reinh. Forster in Manuscr.

Rostrum nigrum; pedes rubri. Habitat in insula Otaheite, ab incolis Aroobu appeliate.
” [1]

(my humble) translation:

C. R. Forsteri. Shape and size of C. globicera; head and neck completely black; on the back, from the rump, and the rectrices shining blue and green; throat, neck, breast, belly (hips?) sooty; undertail coverts ferruginous; lores white; cere absolutely not globose.  

Columba globicera var.? Reinh. Forster in Manuscr.  

Beak black; feet red. Inhabits the island of Otaheite, named by the islanders Aroobu.


According to S. L. Olson and D. W. Steadman this description fits very well with the Nuku Hiva Imperial Pigeon (Ducula galeata (Bonaparte)), which is now restricted to the island of Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, but which indeed is known to have been much more widespread in former times. [2]

However, this species is much larger than the Polynesian Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aurora Peale) from Tahiti, named Columba globicera in the description, and not of the same size, and its head and neck are slate-colored and not black as the description says; anyway, neither the adult nor the juvenile Polynesian Imperial Pigeon have ferruginous undertail coverts while the Nuku Hiva Imperial Pigeon again has.

Nuku Hiva Imperial Pigeon (Ducula galeata); unfortunately the ferruginous undertail coverts are not visible in this photo

Photo: Samuel Etienne

So, after all, this little description may indeed be the only historical record of the Nuku Hiva Imperial Pigeon outside the island of Nuku Hiva, it disappeared sometimes during the 18th century. Subfossils assigned to this large bird are now known from Mangaia, Cook Islands; Hiva Oa, Tahuata and Ua Huka, Marquesas; as well as from Huahine, Society Islands. [3] 

However, I personally still have some doubts about the identity of these large imperial pigeon forms outside of the Marquesas, in my humble opinion they should rather be considered distinct forms.



[1] J. G. Wagler: Beiträge und Bemerkungen zu dem ersten Bande seines Sytsema Avium. (Fortsetzung III.) Isis von Oken 7: 735-762. 1829 
[2] S. L. Olson; D. W. Steadman: Comments on the proposed suppression of Rallus nigra Miller, 1784 and Columba R. Forsteri Wagler, 1829 (Aves) .Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 44, 126-127. 1987 
[3] David W. Steadman; Dominique S. Pahlavan: Extinction and biogeography of birds on Huahine, Society Islands, French Polynesia. Geoarchaeology 7(5): 449-483. 1992


edited: 18.03.2020

Ari-manou – an extinct parrot from Bora Bora?

While checking old papers regarding the enigmatic Divine Kingfisher from the island of Bora Bora, I found that the same paper mentions the existence of a lorikeet on the same island, well actually even two species of lorikeets, one being the Blue Lorikeet (Vini peruviana (Statius Müller)) and the other one being Kuhl’s Lorikeet (Vini kuhlii (Vigors)).  

Or was it something else? 


Well here are the original text passages.:  

On nous donna á Borabora une espèce vivante de perruche très-voisine du phigy de Levaillant …, peut-être encore plus voisine de la perruche fringillaire …, et que M. Vigors a décrite récemment … sous le nom de psittacula Kuhlii. 
Cet oiseau, sur lequel nous fournirons de nouveaux détails dans la partie descriptive des espèces, a la langue terminée par un petit cercle de papilles nerveuses; ses habitudes sont vives et colériques, et son naturel sauvage.


We were given on Borabora a living species of parrot very close to the phigy of Levaillant …, perhaps even closer to the parakeet that Mr. Vigors has recently described … under the name of psittacula Kuhlii. 
This bird, on which we will furnish new details in the descriptive part of the species, has the tongue terminated by a small circle of nerve papillae; his habits are lively and angry, and his temper is wild.

and the second part:  

Cet oiseau a les narines en scissure et la langue terminée par un cercle de papilles longues, qu’on retrouve chez l’ Ari-manou. Il se nourrit de bananes, et son caractère est extrêmement colérique. Nous nous le sommes procuré dans l’île de Borabora. 
Cette petite perruche à queue pointue a de longueur totale six pouces. Son bec et ses tarses sont orangés; le front est vert; les plumes de la tête et de l’occiput sont longues, étroites, d’un bleu céleste au sentre et frangées de noir sur les bords; les joues, le devant de la gorge et du cou, jusqu’au haut du ventre, sont d’un rouge vermillon mat: le milieu du ventre est aussi de ce même rouge, mais la région anale et les plumes des cuisses sont dún bleu pourpré. Le plumage est en entier d’un vert lustré clair, plus foncé et teint roussatre sur le manteau; la queue est jaune en-dessous et verte et jaune en-dessus. Les rémiges sont noires et vertes.


This bird has cracked nostrils and the tongue ends with a circle of long taste buds, found in the Ari-manou [?]. It feeds on bananas, and its character is extremely choleric. We obtained it on the island of Borabora. 
This small parrot with a pointed tail has a total length of six inches
[ca. 15,3 cm]. Its beak and tarsi are orange; the forehead is green; the feathers of the head and of the occiput are long, narrow, of a heavenly blue in the center, and fringed with black on the edges; the cheeks, the front of the throat and the neck, up to the upper part of the belly, are of a matt vermilion red: the middle of the belly is also of this same red, but the anal region and the feathers of the thighs are of a blue purple. The plumage is entirely lighter green, darker and reddish on the mantle; the tail is yellow below and green and yellow above. The flight feathers are black and green.”  


Well, the description mostly fits with Kuhl’s Lorikeet, except for the color of the mantle (said to be darker and reddish; but is yellowish green in V. kuhlii), and the tail (said to be yellow below and green and yellow above; but is yellowish green and red in V. kuhlii).  

So what do we have here?  

Kuhl’s Lorikeet was once more widely distributed, this is a fact that is known, the bird inhabited mostly all of the Austral- and the Cook Islands, but what about the Society Islands?  

Kuhl’s Lorikeet (Vini kuhlii); photographed at the Museum Heineanum, Halberstadt

There are also some old oral traditions from the Society Island published in 1928, mentioning at least seven different kinds of parrots, some can be identified as well-known species, others can’t.  


My guess is, the likeliest possibility is that this parrot from Bora Bora may represent a now extinct subspecies of Kuhl’s Lorikeet from the Society Islands.  


There’s a little update here as well:

The following small account is found in G. R. Gray’s ‘ Catalogue of the birds of the tropical islands of the Pacific Ocean in the collection of the British Museum’.:


‘Ari-manou’ of the natives of the Society Islands.
Society Islands (Borabora); Sandwich Islands.
” [2]

I thus changed the name of the supposed bird in the headline.



[1] Teuira Henry: Ancient Tahiti. Bishop Museum Bulletins 48: 1-651. 1928 [2] M. L. I. Duperrey: Voyage autour du monde: Exécuté par Ordre du Roi, Sur la Corvette de Sa Majesté, La Coquille, pendant les années 1822, 1823, 1824, et 1825, par M. L. I. Duperrey; Zoologie, par Mm. Lesson et Garnot. Paris: Arthus Bertrand 1828
[2] George Robert Gray: Catalogue of the birds of the tropical islands of the Pacific Ocean in the collection of the British Museum. London: printed by order of the Trustees 1859


edited: 05.01.2023

A swamphen from Ra’iatea?

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.


Here is a little update for this enigmatic bird.:

Porphyrio porphyrio (L.), Talève poule-sultane. 

La seule citation de l’espèce en Polynésie orientale est due à Wiglesworth (1891b) qui mentionne «Porphyrio species» à Raiatea d’apres deux spécimens immatures collectés par Andrew Garrett. Il semble que les spécimens aient disparu. Il est douteux qu’il s’agisse d’une erreur d’étiquetage car Garrett ne visita certainement pas les Samoa, ni d’autres îles de ‘ouest du Pacifique. Ces oiseaux étaient donc, soit des visiteurs de Samoa, soit les représentants d’une population vivant autrefois à Raiatea et éteinte depuis longtemps.
” [2]


Porphyrio porphyrio (L.), Purple Swamphen.  

The only quotation of the species in Eastern Polynesia is due to Wiglesworth (1891b) which mentions «Porphyrio species» in Raiatea according to two immature specimens collected by Andrew Garrett. The specimens appear to have disappeared. It is doubtful that this was a labeling error because Garrett certainly did not visit Samoa or other islands in the western Pacific. These birds were therefore either visitors from Samoa or representatives of a population formerly living in Raiatea and extinct for a long time.


[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
[2] D. T. Holyoak; J.-C. Thibault: Contribution à l’étude des oiseaux de Polynésie orientale. Mémoires du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle 127(1): 1-209. 1984


edited: 10.03.2020

The enigmatic Washington Island Gadwall

The most mysterious of all the Pacific waterfowl is Coues’ Gadwall, Anas strepera couesi, only two specimens of which have ever been found, on Washington Island, more than six hundred miles south of Hawaii. The two specimens, the male type and a female, collected in 1874, are now in the U.S. National Museum in Washington. In appearance these birds are simply Gadwalls reduced to about two-thirds normal size. The plumage too is rather dull and somewhat unfinished-looking. Washington Island is a marshy place only a few miles long, with a small brackich lake near the centre and a fringe of palms. Since he original pair of birds were discovered, several expeditions have stopped at the island, but no one has ever seen Coues’ Gadwall again. Speculation is perhaps unprofitable, but sometimes it is irresistible. I often like to wonder how these birds ever came to Washington Island. It is my guess, for what it is worth, that these two specimens represent the last of a very small inbred breeding population of true Gadwalls which by an accident of migration had become established on the island. I suspect that their size and coloration are due to environment and inbreeding rather than to any genetic change.“ [4]

This account summarizes quite well what’s known about this bird.

Gadwall and Washington Island Gadwall (the smaller bird on the right side)

Depiction from: ‘John C. Phillips: A Natural History of the Ducks. Boston; Houghton Mifflin Company; 1922-1926’

(public domain)


Then there are some strange accounts, or rather misinterpretations of accounts, let’s start with one that is rather less known, and speaks of the occurence of a form of gadwall on the Society Islands.:

Forster met with a species of Gadwall on the Society Islands and identified it with A. strepera Linn. It is much more likely that is was C. couesi, for the range of that species doubtless extends beyond Washington Island, the only locality as yet known for it.” [2]

I read this original account by J. R. Forster, which is completely in Latin, and which merely is a enumeration of species, the duck is mentioned here just as “Anatem streperam“, that’s all, and this account almost for sure refers to the Pacific Black Duck (Anas superciliosa Gmelin), which occurs on the Society Islands, and which is not separately mentioned here … and in fact, Forster mentiones “Anas strepera” again in an enumeration of birds he describes from New Zealand, this also clearly refers to the Pacific Black Duck! [1]


Then there’s another account in a German book, which again is refering to an account in James C. Greenway’S “Extinct and vanishing birds of the world” from the 1960s.:

Interessant ist eine weitere Bemerkung desselben Autors, wonach nach Angaben von Ripley ein auf den Tuamotu-Inseln gefundenes Entenkücken sich bei Erreichen der Geschlechtsreife als Schnatterente herausstellte.” 


Interesting is another comment of the same author [J. C. Greenway], based on which according to Ripley a duckling found on the Tuamotu islands, when reaching maturity, turned out to be a gadwall.” [6]


Okay … after purchasing J. C. Greenway’s book, which took me ages again, I can now proudly present you this abovementioned account by the ominous Ripley.:

But, on the other hand, Dr. S. Dillon Ripley tells me that a duckling taken on the Tuamotu Islands was raised by Charles Nordhoff at Tahiti. When it reached maturity it turned out to be a gadwall.” [5]

That’s all, we actually deal with hearsay, an account of an account of someone who claimes to have caught a duckling on one of the Tuamotu Islands (these are actually the largest island group in the world consisting of no less than 76 atolls, just by the way ….) without naming the island in question.

However, given the geographic position of Washington Island/Teraina, a former occurence of this bird on the Tuamotu Archipelago makes much more sense than on the Society Islands.


But now let’s take a look on what these two persons, Dr. S. Dillon Ripley and Charles Nordhoff, have to tell; we start with Mr. Ripley …:

It sometimes happens that migrating Ducks plummet down on to isolated islands in the Pacific. Mr. Charles Nordhoff told me once that a schooner captain inbound to Tahiti from Flint island, an isolated rock pinnacle three hundred miles or more north towards Hawaii from the Society Islands, brought him a duckling which he had picked up on the island. Mr. Nordhoff was able to raise the bird, and found that it was a Pintail, presumably from wild parents. If Pintails can fly so far south of Hawaii where they are in the habit of wintering, there seems no reason why Gadwalls should not be able to do the same thing.” [4]

… and go on with Mr. Nordhoff.:

In his article in the Waterfowl number of the AVICULTURAL MAGAZINE, Dillon Ripley mentions a duckling I received some years ago from Flint Island, which when reared proved to be a fine male Pintail. I believe that a good many stray Ducks from the Northern Hemisphere land on the Pacific Islands, and occasionally, as Ripley suggests in the case of Coues’ Gadwall, give rise to a sedentary and eventually inbred race. I have reliable information that Shovelers in winter plumage have vistited both the Marquesas and the Tuamotu on several occasions, and that Pintail have been seen on Atiu in the Cook Group, south-west of Tahiti.” [3]

Well, well, so the Tuamotu Islands suddenly has changed into Flint Island, which in fact is not a part of the Tuamotu Archipelago but of Kiribati – and – the duckling that was supposed to turn out being a Gadwall was in fact a Pintail (Anas acuta L.), a completely different species of duck! 

After all, we are left with probably more questions than answers.



[1] Johann Reinhold Forster; Hinrich Lichtenstein: Descriptiones animalium quae in itinere ad Maris Australis terras per annos 1772, 1773 et 1774 suscepto. Berolini: Ex Officina Academica 1844
[2] 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
[3] Charles Nordhoff: Notes on the birds of Tahiti. The Avicultural Magazine ser. 5. 8(5): 119-120. 1943
[4] Dillon Ripley: Pacific Waterfowl. The Avicultural Magazine ser. 5. 8(3): 67-70. 1943
[5] James C. Greenway, Jr: Extinct and vanishing birds of the world. Dover Publications, 2nd Edition 1967
[6] Dieter Luther: Die ausgestorbenen Vögel der Welt. Westarp Wissenschaften 1986


edited: 28.02.2020

A Tahitian Swamphen?

While researching some accounts reffering to the Washington Island Gadwall (Mareca strepera ssp. couesi Streets), I stumbled accros a footnote that made me wonder … a bit at least.:

The native birds of Tahiti are in a sad state; the Porphyrio is extinct, as is the small grey, Thrush-like Omaomao [Tahiti Reed-Warbler (Acrocephalus caffer (Sparrman))], famous for its beautiful song, and the magnificent large Fruit Pigeon [Polynesian Imperial-Pigeon (Ducula aurorae (Peale))], of which a few existed as late as 1920.” [1]

Well, aside the fact that the name “Omaomao” is rather applied to the Garrett’s Reed-Warbler (Acrocephalus musae ssp. garretti (Holyoak & Thibault)), the Tahiti Reed-Warbler is still alive.

What amazes me is that the author mentiones the term “Porphyrio” in a absolutely casual way, and this certain author, Charles Nordhoff, knew what a Porphyrio is, he kept six New Zealand Swamphens (Porphyrio melanotus (Temminck)) in the garden of his house while living on the island of Tahiti.


There is furthermore a painting by Paul Gaugin, made in 1897 during a stay on Tahiti, it is called “Vairumati” (see below) and shows a female islander sitting on a chair and to her left a strange-looking white bird that very much reminds on a swamphen. 

I personally do not think that Gaugin painted a real bird here because the same bird appears in several of his paintings, always in the same pose, differing only in the coloration.

Paul Gaugin “Vairumati” 1897

(public domain)


It nevertheless is almost certain that a swamphen species once inhabited the island of Tahiti, and that additional species inhabited all of the other Society islands, however, the only true evidence for that assumption are the subfossil remains of McNab’s Swamphen (Porphyrio mcnabi Kirchman & Steadman) found on the island of Huahine.

I only somehow doubt that this Tahiti Swamphen disappeared only around the 1940s … but, who knows.



[1] Charles Nordhoff: Notes on the birds of Tahiti. The Avicultural Magazine ser. 5. 8(5): 119-120. 1943


edited: 27.02.2020

Schwarzstirnsittich – weniger bekannte Darstellungen

Dieser tahitianische Papagei ist einer meiner Lieblingsvögel, leider existiert er aber nicht mehr da er durch eingeschleppte Säugetiere (Hunde, Katzen, Ratten) ausgerottet wurde.

Hier möchte ich zwei Darstellungen zeigen, die ich noch nicht kannte; beide stammen aus dem Jahr 1792 und wurden von Mitgliedern der Besatzung der HMS Providence angefertigt, die mit der Mission nach Tahiti gekommen war, Brotfruchtbäume und anderes botanisches Material vom Pazifik zu den Westindischen Inseln zu transportieren. 


Darstellung: George Tobin, Leutnant an Bord der HMS Providence

(public domain)


Darstellung: William Bligh, Kapitän der HMS Providence

(public domain)


bearbeitet: 27.10.2019

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

Mysteriöse Papageien aus Polynesien

Ich hatte hier bereits über eine hypothetische Papageienart geschrieben, die einst auf der Insel Bora Bora im Gesellschaftsarchipel vorgekommen sein mag.


Ich möchte nun über ein paar sehr interessante Überlieferungen schreiben, die von Teuira Henry (1847-1915), einer tahitianischen Pädagogin, Ethnologin, Folkloristin, Historikerin, Linguistin und Gelehrten, in einem Manuskript hinterlassen wurden, das sie zu Lebzeiten aus den Stücken eines verlorenen Manuskripts rekonstruierte, das in den Jahren zwischen 1817 und 1856 ursprünglich von ihrem Großvater verfasst wurde. Es enthielt bedeutende Beiträge an mündlicher Folklore, Genealogie, Geschichte, Mythen und traditionellem Wissen wie Astronomie und Navigation. Ihr Manuskript wurde 1928 posthum vom Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum als “Ancient Tahiti” veröffentlicht. [1]


Im Jahr 2006 schrieb Philippe Raust einen kleinen Artikel [2] über neu entdeckte und beschriebene Papageienarten, deren subfossile Überreste in Französisch Polynesien gefunden worden waren, er erwähnte hierbei auch die alten tahitianischen Namen einiger dieser Papageien, von denen einige jedoch immer noch keiner bekannten Art zugeordnet werden können.:  

… 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.”  


… Vielleicht waren es der vini-pa-tea Papagei von purpurner Farbe mit weißem Hals, der allen Inseln der Gesellschaft gemein war, und der völlig rote vini-pa-uri von Pora Pora [Bora Bora], die von T. Henry in ‘Ancient Tahiti’ beschrieben wurden? Es ist bekannt, dass rote Federn in voreuropäischen polynesischen Gesellschaften begehrt waren, da sie die Macht der Häuptlinge symbolisierten; dies könnte der Grund sein, warum diese überjagten Arten verschwunden sind. T. Henry benennt auch den vini-rehu (grauer pfeifender Papagei), den tētē (schwarzer Papagei der Gesellschaftsinseln), den ‘ura (roter Bergpapagei) und den ‘a’a taevao (wilder ‘a’a der Inseln unter dem Winde), der tavae (mit strahlendem und buntem Gefieder von Motu Iti, Tupai und Maupiha’a): dies macht mindestens sechs [sieben!] Arten von Papageien, Sittichen und Loris, über die Überlieferungen existieren.


Nun haben wir hier also offenbar sieben Papageienarten, aber welche davon ist welche?

‘a’a taevao – Raiatea-Sittich (Cyanoramphus ulietanus (Gmelin)) 
tavae – Rubinlori (Vini kuhlii (Vigors) ssp. ‘Bora Bora’) ? 
tētē – Schwarzstirnsittich (Cyanoramphus zealandicus (Latham)) 
‘ura – ein mehr oder weniger komplett rot gefärbter Papagei, der offenbar nach seiner Farbe benannt wurde 
vini-pa-tea – Saphirlori (Vini peruviana (Statius Müller)) 
vini-pa-uri – Rubinlori (Vini kuhlii (Vigors) ssp. ‘Bora Bora’) ? 
vini-rehu – ein grauer Papagei [?] der pfeifende Geräusche macht, wie dem auch sei, rehu bedeutet jedenfalls nur grau; eventuell ein juveniler Saphirlori?


Die Gesellschaftsinseln waren die Heimat von mindestens fünf wissenschaftlich beschriebenen Papageienarten, die entweder anhand alter Überlieferungen bekannt sind oder anhand von subfossilen Überresten, außerdem gab es eine weitere Art, die heute auf eine einzige Population auf nur einer Insel im Australarchipel reduziert ist, früher aber viel weiter verbreitet war.

Nur ganze zwei davon existieren auch heute noch und nur eine davon bewohnt zumindest noch winzige Reste ihrer einstigen Heimat – der unfassbar schöne Saphir- oder Tahiti-Lori (Vini peruviana).  

Saphirlori (Vini peruviana)  

Darstellung aus: ‘François Le Vaillant: Histoire naturelle des perroquets. Paris: Levrault, Schoell & Cie. An IX-XII. 1801–1805’  

(public domain)   



[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  


bearbeitet: 17.09.2018