The “red hen” of Mauritius

March 22, 2021 • 10:15 am

by Greg Mayer

Yesterday’s Readers’ wildlife photos featured photos of birds with “Red Feathers” by frequent contributor and evolutionary biologist, John Avise. Coincidentally, I had been reading the previous day Lost Land of the Dodo, by Anthony Cheke and Julian Hume, and one of the birds they feature is the “red hen” of Mauritius. This red bird, called a “hen” or some equivalent by Dutch colonists and English and French visitors, is actually a rail, Aphanapteryx bonasia (Selys) 1848, and is also known by the English name Red Rail.

The red hen, Aphanapteryx bonasia, plate 29 from Rothschild, 1907 (Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Sadly, it is now extinct, known only from descriptions, drawings, and subfossil remains; a stuffed specimen, now lost, was recorded in Prague in the early 1600s.

Mauritius was known to earlier Arab and Portuguese sailors, but not documented until the Dutch arrived in 1598. The early sailors and colonists found a pristine land, untouched by humans, and among its many wonderful inhabitants were the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) and the red hen, both flightless and easy to kill, and thus to eat. Red hens were last reported in 1693.

The 400 year history of the ecological degradation of Mauritius (and of the two other Mascarene Islands, Reunion and Rodrigues) is well told by Cheke and Hume in their meticulously researched volume, which skillfully weaves together history, zoology, paleontology, and ecology to tell the tale. The book is enhanced by numerous color plates by Hume, which beautifully and expertly depict the islands’ aboriginal biota; you can see some of Hume’s paintings, including of the red hen, here. (My only quibble with this book is that it is encumbered by a numbered endnote reference and note system. One is thus forced to continually turn to the back of the book to find out who the authors being cited are, and to consult the many worthy notes– nearly 100 pages!– accompanying the citations. The book would have greatly benefited from a true footnote system.)

Both the red hen and the dodo quickly went extinct, although the red hen persisted in appreciable numbers for longer. Cheke and Hume indicate that it was the introduction of cats to Mauritius in the late 17th century that did the red hens in.

The dodo, Raphus cucullatus, plate 24 from Rothschild,1907 (Biodiversity Heritage Library).

Interestingly, there is a debate about whether the name dodo might have been transferred to the red hen late in Dutch colonial history, after the true dodo had become extinct. That the name transfer had occurred was first suggested by Alfred Newton in 1868, and in a recent paper, Cheke and Jolyon Parish (2020) argue strongly that such did indeed occur. They suggest that the Dutch, returning to the island in the later 17th century after a hiatus in colonization, and finding the only flightless bird to be Aphanapteryx, called it by the name of what they expected to find– dodaers being their word for what had been the most well-known flightless bird on Mauritius.

The name transfer hypothesis implies that the true dodo was extinct, or nearly so, by the time of these accounts from the second Dutch settlement (1666). The latest dodo record that is generally accepted is of birds on an off shore islet, Isle d’Ambre, reported by shipwreck survivors in 1662. Under this hypothesis, later accounts (up to 1688) that use the name “dodo”, but are unaccompanied by a description of the bird seen, cannot be relied upon. Hume, Cheke’s erstwhile coauthor, though, seems to disagree with the hypothesis that all late uses of the word “dodo” (or equivalent) apply to the red hen (see references in Cheke and Parish, 2020).

Cheke, A. and J. Hume. 2008. Lost Land of the Dodo: An Ecological History of Mauritius, Réunion & Rodrigues. Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn. US UK

Cheke, A.S. and J.C. Parish. 2020. The dodo and the red hen, a saga of extinction, misunderstanding, and name transfer: a review. Quaternary 3(3,4), 15 pp. pdf

Newton, A. 1868. Recent ornithological publications. Ibis 4(New Series): 472–486. BHL

Parish, J.C. 2013. The Dodo and the Solitaire: A Natural History. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. (most of a review)

Rothschild, L.W.R. 1907. Extinct Birds. Hutchinson, London. BHL

8 thoughts on “The “red hen” of Mauritius

  1. I will have to check out Cheke and Hume.
    Perhaps they also tell the parallel tale of Mauritius’s giant tortoises. That and several other tragic extinction stories are told very well by Paul Chambers, in A Sheltered Life: The Unexpected History of the Giant Tortoise (Oxford 2006). (should be ‘Tortoises’)

  2. I’ve had this book on my shelf for years but have yet to get around to it. I’ve been fascinated by the dodo and fellow fauna of the islands ever since I first heard about it as a small child. It may have been my earliest realization of how horrible humans are.

  3. And what is doubly disgusting (really in a double if not triple way) in this saga is that the dodo meat was considered hardly edible. The Dutch sailors called it the “walgvogel”, literally: ‘the nauseating bird’.

    The heart-braking stories of extinction on islands is most chillingly told by David Quammen in his “The Song of the Dodo”. And he ominously shows that most of the equatorial rain forests (carrying about half of all biodiversity) have become ‘islands’ too.

  4. Thanks Greg – really interesting. Yet why is it that it is nearly alway rails / gallinules that end up being flightless island birds? There are lots, South Atlantic, Pacific & Indian Ocean.

    You do not find flightless gulls yet they find it easy to fly long distances, also do not rely on finding food on land. This suggests to me that fightlessness is not a natural progression for isolated bird populations, rather that it requires the founding population to be
    -reliant on land for finding food
    -not an efficient long distance flier

    Other questions occur – are rails etc natural migrants or generally resident? How do colonies get established? Etc

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