Printing Piopio

Category : birds

Piopio block

I finished this guy last weekend, in the middle of a bathroom renovation at work and assorted upheaval. Piopios were small New Zealand songbirds. There were two slightly different kinds, one for the North Island and one for the South. The 19th century New Zealand naturalist Walter Buller described their calls as being the most beautiful of any New Zealand bird. The could even mimic the calls of other birds. You can learn more about them here and here.

piopio blue key block

final print piopio

I think he came out quite nice. New Zealand, as an isolated island nation, was host to huge numbers of exotic endemic species of birds, who were able to enjoy life almost predator free. Over 65 million years New Zealand became a land dominated by birds. When Captain James Cook arrived in the eighteenth century he described the sound of their calls as deafening.

Gigantic prehistoric birds and the lure of imaginary animals.

Category : birds

Moa, via Wikipedia

The Moa were a family of large ancient flightless birds endemic to New Zealand. The two largest of the nine kinds found there were about 12 feet tall and weighed in at 500 pounds. They had small heads, and were completely wingless, lacking even the stubby vestigial wings of other flightless birds; they were the dominant herbivores in the neighborhood. For millions of years they flourished, then abruptly disappeared, around the time the first Maori settlers reached New Zealand in the late 13th century. 

Reenactment of a Moa Hunt.

The Moa were the last of the Pleistocene megafauna-giant animals including mammoths, mastodons, aurochs, giant sloths and moas-to disappear from the earth. There’s been a lot of discussion of why the megafauna are gone, and how much humans had to do with it. A combination of factors-the arrival of homo sapiens, climate disruptions, volcanic eruptions, and disease- probably led to the extinction of many of these animals, but the moa’s disappearance were the exception, and can definitively be tied to overhunting by humans. Archaeologists know that the Maori ate Moa of all ages, as well as the birds’ eggs. We like to think of indigenous people as living in harmony with nature; the Moa complicate that story. The large birds offered sizable meals, and archaeologists have found piles and piles of the birds’ bones in excavated sites.  When we arrived on the islands of New Zealand, humans were the first mammals other than bats the birds had even seen. Their only possible predator before us was the Haast’s Eagle (another impressively-sized bird).  Researchers analyzed DNA from discovered bird skeletons and came to the conclusion that the Moa population was booming in New Zealand right up until the arrival of the Maori, at which point they disappeared very fast. Most, if not all, were gone by 1400. 

Even today, though, some people hold out hope that moas survive somewhere. Gigantic prehistoric birds appeal to the imagination. Some hotels in New Zealand even offer to take tourists into the mountains to look for them, though killjoys will point out that these birds are too big to walk around undiscovered for long.

John Megahan’s rendition via Wikipedia of a Haasts Eagle attacking two Moa



Cryptozoology is one of the glorious things I’ve discovered while researching extinct birds. There is a range of animals this term applies to; in general, cryptozoology is the search for animals whose existence has not been proven. This could mean animals that once definitely existed, but are now considered extinct-many extinct birds, like the moa, can fall into this category, as do creatures like dinosaurs, mastodons, and the like.

It can also mean animals that really do exist somewhere in the world, but most likely not in the places cryptozoologists are looking for them. Panthers in Britain is my favorite example of this category, called Phantom Cats, or Alien Big Cats.

Other animals (sometimes called cryptids) pursued by cryptozoologists include creatures that lack physical evidence but appear in myths, legends, or anecdotal evidence, like Bigfoot, Chupacabra, the Yeti, and the Loch Ness Monster.


Hoax photo of Nessie

Confusing the line between real and not-so-real are the animals claimed by cryptozoologists as former cryptids, which are now real, verified-by-science-animal species, like the okapi, the komodo dragon, and the mountain gorilla. The Okapi, ( a fairly unlikely looking animal, you have to admit) is the mascot of the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology.

An Okapi at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

The International Society of Cryptozoology (ISC) was a former professional organization founded in 1982 in Washington, D.C. It ceased to exist in 1998 due to financial difficulties. It was founded to serve as a scholarly center for documenting and evaluating evidence of unverified animals. According to the journal Cryptozoology, the ISC served “as a focal point for the investigation, analysis, publication, and discussion of all matters related to animals of unexpected form or size, or unexpected occurrence in time or space.” Despite the existence of such a center, cryptozoology is generally regarded as a pseudoscience.

If all of this has whetted your appetite for unverified animals, let me point you in the direction of this excellent book: The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Speciesby Scott Weidensaul. He covers the gamut of real and not-so-real animals, ranging from the once existing to the imaginary, and why the imaginary and the elusive are so damn seductive.

Bachman’s Warbler and an update

Category : birds
Bachman’s Warbler and an update

Bachman's Warbler

Bachman’s Warbler was named after the Reverend John Bachman, a good friend of Audubon’s, who collaborated with him on his second book, Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Audubon named the bird after his friend when he included it in The Birds of North America, though he never saw a living example of the bird himself. It is a small passerine that lives in the swamps and low-lying forests of the southeastern US, and winters in Cuba. The last confirmed sighting of this bird was in 1988 in Louisiana and many scientists believe it to be most likely extinct.

Want to learn more about him? I’d like to direct you to the new site for my field guide: On this site will be information about all the birds in the book, stories, photos of the printing process, a reading list, video, and more. I’ll be posting info here about the production part of the book, but the research and writing about extinction is moving there, so it will all be together in one place.

Here’s some photos from this weekend’s printing sessions; I finished up the Wake Island Rail, and he looks handsome.





First bird printed.

Category : birds, book
First bird printed.

This weekend I worked some more on the first print of the first bird for my new book.     …

Run one.

Category : art, birds, book
Run one.

I would understand if you thought that this here extinct birds field guide project was all talk. When is she actually…

Kangaroo and King Island Emus

Category : birds

Kangaroo Island Emu

One of the things I’ve learned from the great book The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions by David Quammen is that funny things happen on islands. Species get smaller or larger, or weirder and more complex. Islands are where you find hundred of lemurs, giant tortoises, dwarf elephants, gigantic flesh-eating lizards, and other exotic creatures. Both the Kangaroo Island Emu and the King Island Emu, evolving as they did on islands just south of mainland Australia, are dwarfed relatives of the mainland Australian Emu.

Kangaroo Island (left) and King Island Emus.

There’s exactly one stuffed specimen of the Kangaroo Island Emu left on Earth, in the Natural History Museum of Geneva . It was common enough when first described in 1802 by British Naval Officer Matthew Flinders, but disappeared by 1827 through hunting and loss of habitat.

King Island Emu

King Island is a smaller bit of land in the strait between mainland Australia and Tasmania, which played host to the smallest of the Australian Emu variations. The behaviour of both extinct subspecies probably did not differ much from that of the mainland kind. The birds gathered in flocks to forage and during breeding time. They fed on berries, grass and seaweed. They ran swiftly, and could defend themselves by kicking.

In 1804 several live and stuffed King and Kangaroo Island Emus were sent to France by members of a French expedition in the midst of mapping the coast of Australia. The two live King Island specimens were kept in the Jardin des Plantes and the remains of these and the other birds are scattered throughout various museums in Europe today. Hunting pressure and fires started by early settlers on King Island drove the wild population to extinction by 1805. The two captive specimens in Paris both died in 1822 and are believed to have been the last of their kind.

Illustrations of an Emu from Kangaroo Island.

There are fewer numbers of species on islands, and species will take on different niches as evolutionary time progresses than they would or could on the mainland. One lemur will develop into many, many different kinds of lemurs, each with their own different needs and appetites. A large bird will find it more efficient over time to develop a smaller body. A lizard might find itself presented with the unique opportunity to become the dominant predator in town and so evolve into a vicious, blood-thirsty carnivore.

Invasive brown tree snakes ate almost all the birds on Guam.

But all this interesting-ness comes at a price; extinction is a more common occurrence on islands. For a variety of reasons, the majority of extinct birds lived on islands. 30% of all known recently extinct birds in the world come from  Hawaii. 60% of Guam’s native birds are extinct. Island species in general, and flightless island species in particular are most at risk. Islands are isolated, and isolated populations are more vulnerable to any number of threats: new diseases, invasive predators, freak accidents and fires, loss of habitat. The explorers and natural history enthusiasts of the Age of Exploration brought all of these factors with them on their voyages.

The reason all of this is important is the way the process of extinction works on islands can today be applied to many mainland habitats. The more fragmented and isolated our remaining bits of wilderness become in a world overrun by structures constructed by humans (the world’s dominant invasive species), the more the lessons we’ve learned about extinctions on islands become applicable to wildlife everywhere.

New Zealand Quail

Category : birds

The New Zealand Quail (Coturnix novaezelandiae) has been officially extinct since 1875. Sir Joseph Banks was the first westerner to describe it; he was an illustrious naturalist, mostly interested in botany, who accompanied Captain James Cook on his famous sea voyage from 1768–1771, exploring the globe and dispersing invasive species around the world. Cook took several jaunts around the globe, often focused on the southern hemisphere, and sought to find evidence of the postulated Terra Australis Incognita or “unknown southern land”.

The New Zealand Quail has a close relative on the Australian mainland called the Australian Stubble Quail; there are other quails in the area that it also shares genetic material with, but as an island dweller, it evolved far enough away from the others to be classified as a separate species.

In September 1769, Cook’s expedition reached New Zealand, being the second Europeans to visit there, after having been found by Abel Tasman 127 years earlier. Cook’s crew charted the New Zealand coast for six months before heading out further west, where they would finally stumble upon Australia (somehow missed by Abel Tasman earlier ) in April of 1770.

Terre Australle, 1583.

Terra Australis was one of the names given to a hypothetical continent which appeared on European maps between the 15th and 18th centuries. Hypothetical because, although it appeared on maps, Terra Australis was not based on any actual surveying of such a landmass but rather based on the idea that the continents of the northern hemisphere really ought to be balanced by corresponding land in the south. SO they drew that bit in.

In the early 1800s, a British explorer named Matthew Flinders popularized naming Australia after the mythical continent with his 1814 book A Voyage to Terra Australis, rationalizing that at this point there was “no probability” of finding anything larger than Australia any further south.

The continent of Antarctica, nearly twice the size of Australia, would be first sighted in 1820, though not explored until much later.

The New Zealand Quail was still around for Cook’s second expedition, but had become rare by 1840. Fires which destroyed the food and grassland habitat of the bird, in combination with invasive species of dogs, cats, and rats, brought to New Zealand by Western explorers, seem to have did it in. Their decline was sudden, over the course of a year or two, and in spite of the efforts of landowners to conserve the game by setting aside tracts of habitat for it. Once a bird becomes rare, it is often too late.


Hoopoe Starling

Category : birds

We’re back to birds now that the new year is over. Without further ado, I give you the Hoopoe Starling.

The Hoopoe Starling also goes by the names Bourbon Crested StarlingHuppeCrested Starling, or Réunion Starling. The Hoopoe Starling was discovered in 1669 and first described 1783 by the Dutch Naturalist Pieter Boddaert, who found it in its home on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, just east of Madagascar.

It was characterized by it’s lovely crest, a white head, neck, and abdomen, and long yellow legs. Its wings were grey-brown. They were a little larger than young pigeons when full-grown.

The age of exploration brought to many small islands new invasive species of predator to small islands that had previously had very few, or even none. Many island-dwelling birds became extinct due to the introduction of rats, cats, feral goats and pigs, and other animals to their homes. Many were also not used to fleeing from predators, and were therefore extremely easy to hunt. The French naturalist  François Pollen wrote in 1868:

The old Creoles told me that, in their youth, these birds were still common, and that they were so stupid that one could kill them with sticks.

The main reason for its extinction was the introduction of rats. Along with rats, settlers also introduced an invasive species of bird called the Common Myna for the purpose of combating locusts on the island, which also caused a drop in the population. Hunting finished the bird off. This apparently tasty and easy-to-hunt bird became increasingly rare during the 1830s. The last known specimen was shot in 1837.

One specimen is currently in the Dutch National Natural History Museum, which not only has an excellent index of extinct birds, but also features neat 3-D videos of the specimens in their collection. Take a look. 

Bonin Islands Grosbeak

Category : birds

Back to birds! Bonin Island Grosbeaks were technically not Grosbeaks, and technically only found on one of the Bonin Islands, (though maybe at one point it had lived on more than one). So let’s start at the beginning:

1. Where are the Bonin Islands?

The Bonin Islands are also known as the Ogasawara Islands, and are an archipelago of over 30 subtropical and tropical islands,  some 1,000 kilometers  directly south of Tokyo, Japan. Bonin is the English name for the archipelago, derived from an archaic Japanese word for “uninhabited”. Which these islands, for the most part, are. The exception is the island Chichi-jima, the largest, which was the home, when it was alive, of the Bonin Island Grosbeak.

2. What do you mean, not a grosbeak? Why’s it called a grosbeak, if it isn’t one?  Beats me. It’s used sometimes as more of a vernacular word for various finches with a big beak, instead of as the name of a specific species. The beak in question for all these birds is large and powerful, and was useful for beating open the shells of seeds.
3. Why is it extinct? Well, it liked to stay on the ground, looking for seeds to eat, and wasn’t so into flying or perching in trees. Ground dwelling birds are generally much more vulnerable to predators. It also lived mostly on one island, and one island alone. That right there is a recipe for evolutionary disaster. The smaller and more specific your habitat is, the more likely you are going to disappear.

Which is what happened to the Bonin Island Grosbeak. Whalers in the nineteenth century used the island as a stopping point, introducing rats, goats, sheep, dogs, and cats, all new predators to the island in the process, and cleared some of the island for settlement. The combination of habitat loss and a whole bunch of new animals running around their island home looking for something to eat did in the bird.

But before it disappeared, several people decided to draw it; here’s a sampling of various images of the bird:

Bonin Grosbeaks by F.H. von Kittlitz, 1828 (wikipedia)

Depiction from ‘The zoology of Captain Beechey’s voyage; comp. from the collections and notes made by Captain Beechey, the officers and naturalist of the expedition, during a voyage to the Pacific and Behring’s Straits performed in His Majesty’s ship Blossom. London, H. G. Bohn, 1839’

Specimens from the National Museum of Natural History, Leiden, the Netherlands , via the Oriental Bird Club Image Database.