Passerines

Swifts (Apodidae)

Only one species of swift occurs in the Mascarenes the Mascarene swiftlet Collocalia francica. It is now rare on Mauritius but still common on Réunion.

Passerines (perching birds)

The perching birds are the largest avian order of birds and have been particularly successful at colonising remote oceanic archipelagos. The Mascarenes, however, are an exception and the islands are seemingly poorly represented in passerine species.

Swallows (Hirundinidae)

Swallows, like swifts, are not known from the fossil record but it is unlikely that the present status is any different now than in pre-human times. The migratory Mascarene swallow Phedina borbonica borbonica is found on Mauritius and Réunion and is a vagrant to other Indian Ocean Islands, whilst the race P.b. madagascariensis is endemic to Madagascar. Leguat in 1692 mentions swallows on Rodrigues and it may well have been this species that he was referring to.

Cuckoo shrikes (Campephagidae)

Cuckooshrikes are small to medium sized birds that skulk in dense undergrowth. Two endemic species occur on the Mascarenes, Coracina typica of Mauritius and Coracina newtoni of Réunion. No direct written evidence from early accounts refers to them but they would certainly been considered fair game along with the Hypsipetes bulbuls (see below). The Réunion species is endangered and restricted in range. The Mauritius species is more widespread, but it is declining and also considered endangered.

Bulbuls (Pycnonotidae)

Bulbuls or Merles are medium-sized passerines that frequent forests and scrub, feeding on fruit and insects. They are noisy birds and can be approached quite closely. The Mauritian Bulbul Hypsipetes olivaceus and Réunion Bulbul Hypsipetes borbonica were considered a delicacy and because of this, they are the only passerines that can be positively identified from the early literature. For example, as late as the 1920s, up to 50 merles could be shot in one outing and were often used to make pate. Today, both species are uncommon, the Réunion merle particularly so. A Hypsipetes bulbul once inhabited Rodrigues, as confirmed by fossil remains collected in 1974, but was never recorded in the early literature.

Old World warblers (Sylviidae)

Only one species of warbler occurs within the Mascarenes, the Rodrigues warbler Bebrornis rodericanus, endemic to Rodrigues. Although now restricted in range, it once occurred all over the island.

Monarch-flycatchers (Monarchinae)

Although the small Tersiphone flycatchers in the Seychelles and Madagascar have distinct sexual dimorphism in plumage colour and tail length, the Mascarene species Terpsiphone bourbonnensis exhibit only slight differences, with the males resembling females of the Seychelles and Madagascar species.  They are shy on Mauritius, but less so on Réunion where they can be approached quite closely.

White eyes (Zosteropidae)

The white-eyes are successful oceanic island colonists and inhabit numerous islands within the Western Indian Ocean; nine endemic species are known. The Mascarenes were colonised twice in their history, the olive white-eye with two closely related species (Mauritius olive white-eye Zosterops chloronothus and Réunion olive white-eye Zosterops olivaceus), and the Grey white-eye Zosterops borbonicus, which has undifferentiated populations on Mauritius and Réunion. The olive white is now rare on Mauritius but common on Réunion while the grey white-eye has proved extremely adaptable and is common everywhere.

Starlings (Sturnidae)

Reunion - Hoopoe StarlingThe starlings are gregarious, medium to large-sized birds and inhabit forests and open woodlands. The Mascarenes were once inhabited by two very distinct species, both accurately described in early accounts, but only the Réunion species has been preserved as skins. The Réunion Crested starling or Huppe Fregilupus varius was a large crested bird that was reported as common until the late 1840s. It disappeared with extreme rapidity, with the final records beig made in the 1850s; reports in the 1860s are but hearsay. Brasil in 1912 stated that Huppe’s had lived alongside a number of introduced, potentially dangerous predators and competitors, e.g the black rat Rattus rattus and the Indian mynah Acridotheres tristis, for decades and it was more likely that a disease was to blame for its extinction. The Huppe was considered good eating and therefore indiscriminately hunted; they were also persecuted for their apparent damage to crops. The last specimens were taken in the early 1840s; nineteen have been preserved, of which two are pickled specimens and one is a skeleton. Of these, at least 5 specimens have been lost or destroyed during World War II. This species had long, strong legs and a long decurved bill. Its sturnid affinities have been questioned but it is, apart from the crest, morphologically similar to Sturnus starlings found in S.E. Asia and most likely the genus it is derived from.

The Rodrigues starling Necropsar rodericanus is known from skeletal remains and one detailed account. Its tarsometatarsus and tibiotarsus are particularly robust and the jaw musculature strong. Tafforet’s account describes the starling’s ability to tear (juvenile?) turtles [tortoises] out of their shells – a strong gape would have been useful for this purpose – and the birds could be easily reared using meat for food. They, like the pigeons and parrots, were scarce or absent on mainland Rodrigues and feeding on the islets by 1726. In 1761, Pingré never reported them, so it is likely that they had died out in the intervening years.

Weavers (Ploceidae)

Fodies are small members of the family and are Indian Oceanic endemics. One species, the Madagascan fody Foudia madagascariensis has been introduced to the Mascarenes, and other Indian Ocean Islands. The Mauritius fody Foudia rubra is now very rare and extremely restricted in range. On Rodrigues, the endemic Rodrigues fody Foudia flavicans was mentioned first by Tafforet in 1726, scientifically described in 1865 when it was found on the coast, but is rare today and confined to the central plateau.

An undescribed fody of Réunion, sometimes termed ‘Foudia bruante’ is an enigmatic species, but based on reliable accounts, it is now described as Foudia delloni. Dellon in 1668 stated that they were so numerous and unafraid that birds flew into kitchens and into open fires, and Dubois in 1674 described swarms of birds that destroyed entire crops. Fodies were not mentioned again after Dubois and it is likely that the species died out with extreme rapidity. F. madagascariensis was subsequently introduced and is everywhere common.

  • Copyright © 2010 Julian Hume. All rights reserved.