Solitaire (Columbidae)

Vice Admiral Hans Hendricksz Bouwer, sailing with the fleet under Admiral Wolfert Harmensz first mentioned the solitaire Pezophaps solitaria of Rodrigues in 1601. Due to Rodrigues’s isolation, the island was generally ignored until the arrival of Francois Leguat and his Huguenot followers in 1691. After 2 years on Rodrigues, Leguat and his surviving comrades constructed a boat from local timber and made the journey to Mauritius, some 674 km to the west. The survivors were then imprisoned on Mauritius by the Dutch commander Roelof Diodati, before finally reaching Batavia (present day Jakarta) from where they returned to Europe. Leguat, now based in London, wrote his memoirs in 1708 and as a result of his account, the first and most complete description of the solitaire was made known. Although Leguat readily ate the solitaire, he wrote about the species with great admiration:

“Of all the Birds in the Island the most remarkable is that which goes by the name of the solitary, because it is very seldom seen in company, tho’ there are abundance of them. The Feathers of the Males are of a brown grey Colour: the Feet and Beak are like a Turkey’s, but a little more crooked. They have scarce any Tail, but their Hind-part covered with Feathers is roundish, like the Crupper of a horse; they are taller than Turkeys. Their Neck is straight, and a little longer in proportion than a Turkey’s when it lifts up his Head. Its Eye is Black and lively, and its Head without Comb or Cop. They never fly, their Wings are too little to support the Weight of their Bodies; they serve only to beat themselves, and flutter when they call one another. They will whirl about for twenty or thirty times together on the same side, during the space of four or five minutes. The motion of their Wings makes then a noise very like that of a Rattle; and one may hear it two hundred Paces off. The Bone of their Wing grows greater towards the Extremity, and forms a little round Mass under the Feathers, as big as a Musket Ball. That and its Beak are the chief Defence of this Bird. ‘Tis very hard to catch it in the Woods, but easie in open Places, because we run faster than they, and sometimes we approach them without much Trouble. From March to September they are extremely fat, and taste admirably well, especially while they are young, some of the Males weigh forty-five Pounds.

“The Femals are wonderfully beautiful, some fair, some brown; I call them fair, because they are the colour of fair Hair. They have a sort of Peak, like a Widow’s upon their Breasts [Beaks], which is of a dun colour. No one Feather is straggling from the other all over their Bodies, they being very careful to adjust themselves, and make them all even with their Beaks. The Feathers on their Thighs are round like Shells at the end, and being there very thick, have an agreeable effect. They have two Risings on their Craws [crop]’ and the Feathers are whiter than the rest, which livelily represents the fine neck of a Beautiful Woman. They walk with so much Stateliness and good Grace, that one cannot help admiring them and loving them; by which means their fine Mein often saves their Lives.”

“Tho’ these Birds will sometimes very familiarly come up near enough to one, when we do not run after them, yet they will never grow Tame. As soon as they are caught they shed Tears without Crying, and refuse all sustenance till they die.

“We find in the Gizzards of both Male and Female, a brown Stone, of the bigness of a Hen’s Egg, ‘tis somewhat rough, flat on one side and round on the other, heavy and hard. We believe this Stone was there when they were hatched, for let them be never so young, you meet with it always. They never have but one of ‘em, and besides, the Passage from the Craw to the Gizard is so narrow, that a like Mass of half Bigness cou’d not pass. It serv’d to whet our Knives better than any other Stone Whatsoever. When these Birds build their Nests, they choose a clean Place, gather together some Palm-Leaves for that purpose, and heap them up a foot and a half high from the Ground, on which they sit. They never lay but one Egg, which is much bigger than that of a Goose. The Male and Female both cover it in their turns, and the young is not hatch’d till at seven Weeks’ end : All the while they are sitting upon it, or are bringing up their young one, which is not able to provide itself in several Months, they will not suffer any other Bird of their Species to come within two hundred Yards round of the Place; But what is very singular, is, the Males will never drive away the Females, only when he perceives one he makes a noise with his Wings to call to the Female, and she drives the unwelcome Stranger away, not leaving it till ‘tis without her Bounds.  The Female do’s the same as to the Males, whom she leaves to the Male, and he drives them away. We have observ’d this several Times, and I affirm it to be true.

“The Combats between them on this occasion last sometimes pretty long, because the Stranger only turns about, and do’s not fly directly from the Nest. However, the others do not forsake it till they have quite driven it out of their Limits. After these Birds have rais’d their young One, and left it to itself, they are always together, which the other Birds are not, and tho’ they happen to mingle with other Birds of the same Species, these two Companions never disunite. We have often remark’d, that some Days after the young leaves the Nest, a Company of thirty or forty brings another young one to it, and the now fledg’d Bird, with its Father and Mother joyning with the Band, march to some bye Place. We frequently follow’d them, and found that afterwards the old ones went each their way alone, or in Couples, and left the two young ones together, which we call’d a Marriage.

“This Particularity has something in it which looks a little Fabulous, nevertheless, what I say is sincere Truth, and what I have more than once observ’d with Care and Pleasure ”

(Leguat 1708 pp71-74).

This thought provoking description by Leguat of the solitaire is extremely important for a number of reasons. Leguat is the only person to record the ecology of any member of the large flightless pigeons including dodo of the Mascarenes, he also mentions the diet as being palm fruit, and inadvertently became the first person to describe territorial behaviour in birds.

Reunion SolitairesThe solitaire was also mentioned by second mate, Julien Tafforet, while he and four other men were marooned on Rodrigues in 1725-6 for 8 months. Tafforet also noted that they were still common and added to Leguat’s description by stating that solitaires were adorned with a frontlet of black feathers like velvet and would bite hard if approached too closely. Cossigny tried to procure a solitaire in 1755 and he clearly stated that they were exceedingly rare by this time. Pingre, in 1761, was told that they still existed in secluded places, although he never personally saw one. The speed with which the solitaire disappeared can be correlated with the increased tortoise trade between Rodrigues and Mauritius/Réunion from 1730 – 1750. The tortoise hunters burnt off the vegetation and surely would have captured solitaires at every opportunity for food. Cats and pigs had also been introduced by this time and may have been serious predators of eggs and chicks. Inevitably, probably by the late 1760s the solitaires had become extinct, as the discovery of the first bone material in 1786 did not evoke any reference to a living bird.

Recent DNA analysis has confirmed the monophyletic origins of the dodo and solitaire and suggested they have a sister group relationship to Coloenas nicobarica. If correct, the ancestor of this S.E. Asian species presumably must have made its way to the Mascarenes via island hopping during glacial low sea level stands, when islands and island groups were much larger and in greater number above sea level than at present. The separation of the Coloenas dodo/solitaire stock has been set as the Eocene (74.5 Ma) and the dodo/solitaire separation at 15 Ma. These dates appear entirely unsupported and do not correspond to the geological, geographical or ecological evidence.

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