Tag Archives: Mangaia

Pā-Tangaroa – an extinct starling from the island of Mangaia?

Nowadays there is only one single species of starling in central Polynesia, the Rarotonga starling (Aplonis cinereacsens Hartlaub & Finsch), which occurs exclusively on the island of Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands; another form, the Plain Starling (Aplonis mavornata Buller), itself a mystery for over a century, came from another of the Cook Islands, namely Ma’uke.  

So, it’s pretty certain that other forms were once found on other islands in this archipelago, right?  

I just found a clue in this direction when I was writing down the names from a list of birds compiled in the early 20th century by someone named F. W. Christian; this list is part of a kind of dictionary of the Mangaian dialect, the dialect spoken on the island of Mangaia, the southernmost and second largest of the Cook Islands.

Here a list of the bird names.:

Pā-Tangaroa. – A speckled bird; somewhat larger than the Kere-a-rako. Frequents coconut palm blossoms. 
Tangaa-‘eo. – The native Wood-pecker; blue above, yellow and white below. 
Kere-a-rako. – A small yellow and green song-bird much resembling a canary. 
Titi. – A bird living in the rocks and crags. Much relished for food. Cf. Maori Titi, the Mutton-bird. Sanskrit and Hindustani, Titti: Tittiri, the Partridge. 
Mokora’a. – The Wild Duck, or rather, a small species of teal, found in abundance round Lake Tiriara. 
Kauā. – A sea-bird. 
Rakoa. – A sea-bird. 
Torea. – A sea-bird. 
Kotuku. – The Blue Heron. 
Kakaia. – A beautiful small white tern or sea-gull. 
Kotaa. – The Frigate or Boatswain Bird. Cf. Samoa, A ta fu,; id. 
Fijian, Kandavu; id. Uleai (W. Carolines) Kataf; id. Sonserol (S. W. Caralises) Gatyava; id. Cf. Sanskrit Gandharva, a celestial messenger: angel. 
Tavake. – The Tropic Bird (Phaethon). Called in the Marquesas Tavae-ma-te-ve’o, from its two long red tail-feathers. Used in Polynesian head-ornaments. Cf. Ponape Chaok: Chik; id. Cf. Sanskrit Stabaka, Stavaka a peacock’s feather: tuft: plume. 
Kara’ura’u. – A sea-bird. 
Kururi: Kuriri. – The Sand-Piper.
Karavi’a. – The Long-tailed Cuckoo. 
Kura-mō. – A small Parrakeet (on Atiu).
” [1]

The respective scientific names of the birds.:

Pā-Tangaroa. – ?
Tangaa-‘eo. – Todiramphus ruficollaris
Kere-a-rako. – Acrocephalus k. kerearako
Titi. – Pterodroma nigripennis
Mokora’a. – Anas superciliosa
Kauā. – Numenius tahitiensis
Rakoa. – Puffinus lherminieri
Torea. – Pluvialis fulva
Kotuku. – Egretta sacra
Kakaia. – Gygis alba
Kotaa. – Fregata spp.
Tavake. – Phaethon rubricauda
Kara’ura’u. – Procelsterna cerulea
KururiKuriri. – Tringa incana
Karavi’a. – Eudynamis taitensis
Kura-mō. – Vini kuhlii


All of these names can be assigned to actually existing bird species, with one exception – the first name.

So which species is hiding behind the name Pā-Tangaroa?

This is actually a rather unusual name for a Polynesian bird, and the reference to Tangaroa, one of the most important Polynesian gods, is very interesting. Perhaps a bird with such a name was also considered God-like or sacred, or at least as being tapu.

The description of this bird: speckled and slightly larger than the Kerearako (i.e. larger than 16 cm), often found on coconut flowers, fits a star of the genus Aplonis quite well, in fact it suits this genus more than any other genus in question.

So there was almost certainly once a star of the genus Aplonis that lived on the island of Mangaia, and its subfossil bones may sooner or later be discovered; the question is, did the species survive long enough that locals could at least remember that it was called Pā-Tangaroa? Given that research into the fauna and flora of the Cook Islands didn’t begin until the early 20th century … it is entirely possible! 


I should also mention that this listing, which dates back to 1920, already mentions the Cook Island reed warbler (Acrocephalus kerearako Holyoak), which was not officially discovered until 1973 (and described a year later). [2] 



[1] F. W. Christian: List of Mangaia birds. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 29(114): 87. 1920
[2] D. T. Holyoak: Undescribed land birds from the Cook Islands, Pacific Ocean. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 94(4): 145-150. 1974


Pā-Tangaroa (Aplonis sp.)


edited: 01.11.2021

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

(under creative commons license (3.0))

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

Did the Cook Islands sandpiper survive into the 19th century?

I just found an interesting little side note in ‘Aves polynesiae: a catalog of the birds of the Polynesian subregion (not including the Sandwich Islands)’ from the 19th century in which the South Sea Sandpiper (Prosobonia cancellata Peale / parvirostris J. F. Gmelin) under the name Phegornis cancellatus is listed for an island called Hervey Island (now the Manuae Atoll in the north of the Cook Islands). [1]  

Is that just a mistake or does this little side note refer to a last surviving population of the unnamed Prosobonia species known only from subfossil remains, the remains of which have been found on Mangaia Island in the south of the Cook Islands?  


I wish I had more time for all this research, but unfortunately, I have to work to live (… actually more work than life at the moment …).



[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: 10.10.2018