Mauritius Had Other Strange Birds, Not Just The Dodo

According to a very old document written by a Dutch settler back when Mauritius was colonised, the island was home to a number of other strange birds, apart from the Dodo.

Mtian wildlife

Photo credits: Julian Hume/ London Natural History Museum

We all naturally think of the dodo when colonised Mauritius is mentioned. The famous bird, endemic to the country, went extinct after Dutch settlers killed all individuals of the species. Its memory has, however, remained etched in history, specially because of its queer appearance. It seems that the dodo was not the only bizarre-looking animal in Mauritius centuries ago. Scientists have recently found out more about the weird animals that have lived in Mauritius before.

A document dating back from around years 1666-1669 that has recently been translated and transcribed reveals interesting information relating to the biodiversity of Mauritius during that time. The report was authored by soldier Johannes Pretorius who was a ziekentrooster, who had as role to comfort the sick. In his writings, he included descriptions – thought to be the most detailed accounts to have been recorded – of the endemic animals living on the island. The analysis of the document has been published in Historical Biology. He had also mentioned the effects that introduced animals had on the existing native ones. He also wrote about bird species that went extinct.

Lead author of the analysis of the document, Julian Hume, explained that the soldier provided detailed wildlife accounts because he might have been asked to report whether Mauritius was suitable for permanent settlements, and thus had to mention the animals that could have been food sources.

One of the most peculiar creatures he described is the extinct Broad-billed Parrot that could not fly. Their inability to escape the ground might have facilitated their killing. Pretorius explained that the bird were aggressive, and “very bad tempered”. It is said that they would fight back against predators like macaques and black rats which were brought to the island by settlers.

The bird in question appears to have been strong-minded. Pretorius wrote that they would refuse to eat the meals given to them when held captive – they preferred death to living in captivity.

Another bird described by Pretorius is the Mauritius blue pigeon. He narrated how he tried to rear the bird many times, but never succeeded in doing so. He wrote that the bird had a warty face. This is a valuable piece of information, as Hume affirms that modern illustrations and accounts speak of the bird as having had smooth faces, while its close relatives also have warts on the face.

Yet another extinct creature mentioned is the Mauritius Red Rail. It was also flightless like its other two counterparts. Pretorius qualified it as being stupid: it would run in the direction of people who would wave objects at them; they were noisy and would not even try to escape from the settlers who would catch them for meals. He also described the cooked meat as being fatty and greasy.

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