Extinct Birds

“Lord Howe Island has lost nine land-birds.”

The birdlife on islands evolve over many millions of years in absence of predators, and many species have no instinct to protect themselves from predators.

When humans began travelling the world in sailing ships, the primary reason they visited remote islands was to obtain food and water.

The main form of animal life on small islands is birdlife. So, often the first birds to become extinct on islands from human action are the larger bird species that were the best food resource. And so it was on Lord Howe island. Two terrestrial birds, Porphyrio albus and Columba vitiensis godmanae, were hunted to extinction by visiting sailors.

The third species to become extinct was the red-crowned parakeet Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae subflavescens that was eradicated by 1869 because it damaged the islanders’ crops. 

           Extinct birds of Lord Howe Island

However, it was the arrival of ship rats in 1918 that  caused  the main  wave of extinctions on the island. These included five terrestrial birds: the vinous tinted thrush Turdus poliocephalus vinitinctus, the Lord Howe warbler Gerygone insularis, the Lord Howe fantail Rhipidura cervina, the robust silvereye Zosterops strenuus and the Lord Howe starling Aplonis fuscus hullianus.  The rats climbed trees and ate the eggs and chicks of these birds.

The island also had a small subspecies of Boobook owl, Ninox novaeseelandiae albaria which  persisted until the 1950s. It was thought that competition for food and nest sites from the Masked owls that were introduced in the 1920s to eat the rats led to their demise.

An exciting prospect for the future of the island birdlife, having removed rodents from the island in 2019, is to repatriate some of the similar subspecies of these birds from nearby Norfolk Island or New Caledonia.

1. White swamphen - Porphyrio albus

The white swamphen (Porphyrio albus), also known as the Lord Howe swamphen, Lord Howe gallinule, or white gallinule, is an extinct species of rail.

It was first encountered when the crews of British ships visited the island between 1788 and 1790, and all contemporary accounts and illustrations were produced during this time.

Today, two specimens exist: the holotype in the Natural History Museum of Vienna, and another in Liverpool’s World Museum. Although historical confusion has existed about the provenance of the specimens and the classification and anatomy of the bird, it is now thought to have been a distinct species endemic to Lord Howe Island and most similar to the Australasian swamphen.

The white swamphen was 36-55cm long. Both known skins have mainly-white plumage, although the Liverpool specimen also has dispersed blue feathers. This is unlike other swamphens, but contemporary accounts indicate birds with all-white, all-blue, and mixed blue-and-white plumage. The chicks were black, becoming blue and then white as they aged. Although this has been interpreted as due to albinism, it may have been progressive greying in which feathers lose their pigment with age. The bird’s bill, frontal shield and legs were red, and it had a claw (or spur) on its wing.

Little was recorded about the white swamphen’s behaviour. It may not have been flightless, but was probably a poor flier. This and its docility made the bird easy prey for visiting humans, who killed it with sticks. Reportedly once common, the species may have been hunted to extinction before 1834, when Lord Howe Island was settled.

More information can be found at the NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage, here.

Banner image, at top of this web page: the earliest known original drawing of the white swamp-hen, Porphyrio albus, by Surgeon Arthur Bowes RN, in 1758 (courtesy Mitchell Library, Sydney).

2. Lord Howe pigeon - Columba vitiensis godmanae

The Lord Howe pigeon, or white-throated pigeon, was a sub-species of the metallic pigeon, and became extinct in the 1850s. It was mostly brown, with a purple head and breast, and a white patch on its throat.

A written report was made by Arthur Bowes, Surgeon, who landed on the island when the Lady Penrhyn stopped there in 1788. Parties from his ship collected many birds from the island, including Lord Howe pigeons, which they subsequently ate.

The tameness of the birds made hunting particularly easy. The Lady Penrhyn had been travelling with the Charlotte, and her Captain, Thomas Gilbert, wrote that he captured five or six dozen of the birds, almost all that he found. By breaking the legs of the birds and leaving them to cry, others were drawn to investigate, allowing his near complete capture.

In 1790, midshipman George Raper of HMS Sirius produced a painting of the bird. Raper had never personally travelled to Lord Howe Island, but may have seen specimens of the pigeon caught there and taken aboard the Sirius or another ship. Few reports of the bird’s existence were made before its extinction.

As no skins or specimens of the bird were ever obtained, Raper’s painting, and a second painting in the 1800s, provide the only concrete evidence of the bird’s existence.

Dr Foulis, who was a resident of the island from 1844 until 1847, recorded the bird as being the only bird of value on the island. At this time the island’s population was only 16 humans, but the Lord Howe pigeon was soon extinct.

The species was driven to extinction in the mid-19th century. Hunting by humans is believed to be the likely cause of extinction. The last recorded sighting of the bird took place in 1853. No specimens were collected before extinction. The species was described by Gregory Mathews in 1915, using Raper’s painting as a guide. At the time, he named it Raperia godmanae for Alice Mary Godman. It was eventually reclassified as a subspecies of Columba vitiensis.

More information can be found at the NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage, here.

3. Red-crowned parakeet - Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae subflavescens

The Lord Howe parakeet (Cyanoramphus subflavescens), also known as the Lord Howe red-fronted parakeet, was described as a full species by Tommaso Salvadori in 1891, but subsequently it has been regarded as subspecies of the red-crowned parakeet. In 2012, the IOC World Bird List recognised it as species.

The Lord Howe parakeet was a medium-sized green parrot with a crimson cap and eye-stripe. Measurements of specimens indicate that it was slightly larger than the nominate subspecies, as well as having yellower plumage and less extensive red markings on the head.

The parrot was formerly abundant on the island, but was persecuted by the early settlers because of its raids on their crops and gardens. It was last recorded in 1869.

Only two specimens of the Lord Howe parakeet exist. They come from the John Gould collection, taken by John MacGillivray in September 1853 on the voyage of HMS Herald, and are held in the Natural History Museum.

Pending molecular analysis, Christidis & Boles (2008) have suggested on biogeographical grounds that the taxon is likely to be most closely related to the Norfolk Island green parrot (Cyanoramphus cookii), as either a subspecies of what they have tentatively called the Tasman parakeet (Cyanoramphus cookii subflavescens), or possibly a full species (Cyanoramphus subflavescens).

More information can be found at the NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage, here.

4. Lord Howe thrush - Turdus poliocephalus vinitinctus

The Lord Howe thrush (Turdus poliocephalus vinitinctus), also known as the vinous-tinted thrush or vinous-tinted blackbird, is an extinct subspecies of the island thrush (Turdus poliocephalus). It was also called the doctor bird or ouzel by the islanders.

It had a length of 22.9 cm. The head was olive brown. The upperparts were chestnut brown. Wings and tail were dark brown. Throat and chin were dull brown with an olive tinge. The underparts were chestnut-coloured with a lavender tinge.

It was quite common in 1906 but its population began to diminish in 1913 due to disturbance by man, cats, dogs, goats and feral pigs. When the SS Makambo was shipwrecked on Lord Howe in June 1918, rats escaped from the vessel and over-ran the island. With other endemic bird species this ground-nesting bird became extinct within six years.

Museum specimens are on display in Leiden (Netherlands), Tring (United Kingdom), Berlin, New York, Washington and Sydney.

More information can be found at the NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage, here.

5. Lord Howe warbler - Gerygone insularis

The Lord Howe warbler (also known as the Lord Howe gerygone or Lord Howe flyeater) was a small bird in the family Acanthizidae.

It had a variety of common names: locally, it was known as the “rain-bird” due to its activity after the rains, or the “pop-goes-the-weasel”,  due to the similarity of its song to the well-known tune. The meaning of its name – gerygone – is “born of sound”.

It lived in the canopy of the island’s forests, and its small body coupled with its thin bill was ideal for feeding on insects and spiders. They were very abundant after rainfall due to the presence of more small insects during this time.

The Lord Howe gerygone had a ring of feathers around its eye of lighter grey forming a light perimeter around the orbital, which matched the similarly light feathers of its chin and throat. On average, the bird grew to be roughly 12 centimeters long and weighed 6 to 7 grams. The small body type is common with perching songbirds.

There have been no records of the species since 1928, and it is considered to be extinct. Its extinction is almost certainly due to predation by black rats which were accidentally introduced to the island in 1918 following the shipwreck of the SS MakamboAlso, it is believed that disease introduced by other similar birds may have been related to the cause of extinction.

More information can be found at the NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage, here.

6. Lord Howe fantail - Rhipidura cervina

The Lord Howe fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa cervina), also known as the fawn-breasted fantail, was a small bird in the fantail family, Rhipiduridae. It is an extinct subspecies of the New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa).

It differed from the other subspecies by its entire underparts being light cinnamon-brown, with a paler throat, lacking the white throat with the dark bar delimiting it from the breast.

The birds were very tame, commonly seen around buildings which they often entered in search of insects.

The fantail built a cup-shaped nest, with a rudimentary tail, of decayed wood fibre and grass, bound with cobwebs and lined with fine grass, situated on a horizontal branch. The clutch was usually three, sometimes two, eggs.

The Lord Howe fantail was reported as common in 1909 but disappeared not long after black rats were accidentally introduced to the island with the grounding of the ship SS Makambo in June 1918. It was reported in 1924 that the birds were “practically wiped out” and there are no records from subsequent years. The fantail was only one of a suite of Lord Howe’s endemic birds and other fauna exterminated by rat predation.

More information can be found at the NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage, here.

7. Robust silvereye - Zosterops strenuus

The robust silvereye (Zosterops strenuus), also known as the Lord Howe white-eye or robust white-eye, and locally as the “big grinnell”, was a species of bird in the family Zosteropidae.

It was a mainly green bird, around 7.6 cm long, with a white belly and yellow throat, which separated it from other species of white-eye.

The robust white-eye built loosely constructed, cup-shaped nests out of palm fibre and dried grasses, which were sometimes found in shrubs overgrown with vines. This made the species vulnerable to predation by black rats (Rattus rattus), which were accidentally introduced in 1918 following the grounding of the steamship S.S. Makambo on the island. Although once common, the bird was extinct by 1923.

Despite its small size, the bird was known to islanders as “big grinnell”, to differentiate it from the much smaller but related “little grinnell”, or Lord Howe silvereye (Zosterops lateralis tephropleurus), another subspecies of the silvereye.

Lord Howe silvereye - Zosterops lateralis

The Lord Howe silvereye (the “little grinnell”) is only found on Lord Howe Island, in the native subtropical rainforest as well as around homes and gardens.

The population has been estimated at about 5,000 breeding birds and is stable. Nonetheless, it is considered “Vulnerable” because of the restricted size of the population and area of its distribution.

More information can be found at at the NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage, here.

8. Lord Howe starling - Aplonis fusca hulliana

The Lord Howe starling (Aplonis fusca hulliana) was a small bird in the starling family. It is an extinct subspecies of the Tasman starling (Aplonis fusca), the only other subspecies being the Norfolk starling which is also extinct.

The Lord Howe starling was 18 cm long. The head, the neck, the mantle and the throat were glossy metallic green. The back was slate grey with a dull greenish gloss. The rump and the underparts were grey. The tail was grey with brownish tips to the feathers. The wings were rich brown. The iris was orange red.

The starlings were called “red-eyes” from their eye colour, or “cudgimeruk” from their distinctive calls, by the islanders. They were forest dwellers which lived and foraged in pairs. During the nesting period a clutch of four to five bluish red-blotched eggs were laid in a nest in a hollow in a dead tree or tree fern.

The fate of the Lord Howe starling was sealed in June 1918 when the SS Makambo grounded at Ned’s Beach, allowing black rats to leave the vessel and overrun the island. Within two years 40% of Lord Howe’s endemic bird species were extinct. The Lord Howe starling vanished by 1919.

More information can be found at the NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage, here.

9. Boobook owl - Ninox novaeseelandiae albaria

The Lord Howe boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae albaria), also known as the Lord Howe morepork, was a bird in the true owl family. It is a little-known subspecies of the morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae), and inhabited the native forests as well as occurring around the settlements.

The Lord Howe boobook was similar in appearance to other subspecies of the morepork, being a small brown hawk owl with white-mottled plumage, paler than other subspecies. Measurements taken from museum specimens indicate that it was smaller than most mainland Australian subspecies of boobook but larger than both the New Zealand and Norfolk Island subspecies.

Exactly when the Lord Howe boobook became extinct is uncertain. Boobook calls were apparently heard on the island until the 1950s, but during the 1920s boobooks from near Sydney in eastern Australia had been introduced, along with barn owls and masked owls, in an unsuccessful effort to control the black rats that had overrun the island. The rats had been accidentally introduced in June 1918 with the grounding of the steamship SS Makambo, and several of Lord Howe’s endemic birds disappeared during the next few years.

The endemic boobook may have been extirpated by rat predation, owl predation or owl competition, and the calls heard until the 1950s may have come from either the endemic or the introduced boobook subspecies, or both.

Specimens of the Lord Howe boobook are held in the Australian Museum.

More information can be found at the NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage, here.

References

The text for this article has been adapted from several sources, including many Wikipedia entries. The images have been sourced from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain. Wherever possible, the sources, artists or authors have been attributed above.

Additional reading:

The Extinct Birds of Lord Howe Island, K. A. Hindwood, Australian Museum Magazine, Vol 6, IX, March 1938.
The Rats of Lord Howe: What kind of biodiversity is achieved through biocide? David Brooks, 2019
NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage Threatened Species App
Lord Howe Island Board Rodent Eradication Program

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