Rodrigues starling

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Rodrigues starling
Necropsar rodericanus.jpg
The syntype bones as depicted in 1879
Conservation status

Extinct  (mid-18th century) (IUCN 3.1)[1]
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Suborder: Passeri
Infraorder: Passerida
Superfamily: Muscicapoidea
Family: Sturnidae
Genus: Necropsar
Günther & Newton, 1879
Species: N. rodericanus
Binomial name
Necropsar rodericanus
Günther & Newton, 1879
Location of Rodrigues
  • Necrospa rodericanus Shelley, 1900
  • Necrospar rodericanus (lapsus)
  • Testudophaga bicolor Hachisuka, 1937

The Rodrigues starling (Necropsar rodericanus) is an extinct species of starling which was endemic to the Mascarene island of Rodrigues. Its closest relatives were the Mauritius starling and the hoopoe starling from nearby islands, and the three appear to be of South East Asian origins. The bird was first reported by French sailor Julien Tafforet who was marooned on the island in 1725–1726, and only observed it on the offshore islet Île Gombrani. Subfossil remains found on the mainland were described in 1879, and correlated with the old account, but much confusion arose about the bird and its taxonomic relations throughout the 20th century.

The Rodrigues starling was 25-30 cm (10-12 in) long, and had a stout beak. It was described as being white with partially black wings and tail, with a yellow bill and legs. Little is known about its behaviour. Its diet included eggs and dead tortoises, which it processed with its strong bill. Predation by introduced rats was probably responsible for its extinction some time in the 18th century, first on mainland Rodrigues, and finally on Île Gombrani, its last refuge.


Mounted specimen of the related hoopoe starling, in the ornithological collection of the Pisa Charterhouse

In 725–1726 the French sailor Julien Tafforet was marooned on Rodrigues nine-month, and his report of this time was later published as Relation d'île Rodrigue. Herein he described encounters with various indigenous species, including a white and black bird which fed on eggs and dead tortoises, and was confined to the offshore islet Île Gombrani, then called islet au Mât. François Leguat, a Frenchman who was also marooned on Rodrigues in 1691–1693 and wrote about several other species there, did not have a boat, and could therefore not explore the various islets like Tafforet did.[2] No later travellers mentioned the bird.[3] In an 1875 article, the British ornithologist Alfred Newton attempted to identify the bird, and hypothesised it was related to the likewise extinct hoopoe starling (Fregilupus varius) of nearby Réunion.[4]

In 1874, Reverend Henry Horrocks Slater, a naturalist of the British Transit of Venus expedition, found subfossil bones of a starling-like bird on Rodrigues, as had magistrate George Jenner shortly before. These were found in caves on the Plaine Coral, a limestone plain in south west Rodrigues.[5] These consisted of the cranium, mandible, sternum, coracoid, humerus, metacarpus, ulna, femur, tibia, and metatarsus of several individuals, which were deposited in the British Museum and Cambridge Museum. The bones became the basis of a scientific description by ornithologists Albert Günther and Edward Newton (brother of Alfred) in 1879.[6] They named the bird Necropsar rodericanus, a binomial used by Slater in his unpublished manuscript.[7] "Nekros" and "psar" are Greek for "dead starling", and the species name refers to Rodrigues.[5] The describers found the Rodrigues bird to be closely related to the hoopoe starling, and only kept it in a separate genus due to what they termed "present ornithological practice". They considered the new species likely identical to the bird mentioned in Tafforet's account, due to the strongly built bill.[6]

In 1900, British scientist George Ernest Shelley used the spelling Necrospa in a book, thereby creating a junior synonym, and attributed the name to zoologist Philip Sclater instead.[8] In 1967, American ornithologist James Greenway suggested that the Rodrigues starling belonged in the same genus as the hoopoe starling, Fregilupus, due to their similarity.[9] Further subfossils found in 1974 confirmed that the Rodrigues bird was a distinct genus of starling.[10] The stouter bill is mainly what warrants generic separation from Fregilupus.[2] In 2014, British palaeontologist Julian P. Hume described a new extinct species, the Mauritius starling (Cryptopsar ischyrhynchus), based on subfossils from Mauritius. It was shown to be closer to the Rodrigues starling than to the hoopoe starling in skull, sternum and humerus features.[5] Until then, the Rodrigues starling was the only Mascarene passerine bird described from fossil material.[11]

1907 restoration by John Gerrard Keulemans, partially based on a specimen that turned out to be an albinistic grey trembler (right)

In 1898, British naturalist Henry Ogg Forbes described a second species of Necropsar, N. leguati based on a skin in the World Museum Liverpool, specimen D.1792, which was labelled as coming from Madagascar. He suggested that this represented the bird mentioned by Tafforet, instead of the one described from the bones found on mainland Rodrigues, which he suggested to be another variant of Fregilupus.[12] Walter Rothschild instead believed the Liverpool specimen to be an albinistic individual of a Necropsar species supposedly from Mauritius.[13] In 1953, the Japanese writer Masauji Hachisuka suggested that N. leguati was distinct enough to warrant its own genus, Orphanopsar.[14] Through a 2005 DNA analysis, the specimen was eventually identified as an albinistic individual of the grey trembler (Cinclocerthia gutturalis) from Martinique.[15]

Hachisuka believed the carnivorous habits described by Tafforet to be unlikely for a starling and thought the lack of a crest suggested against a close relationship with Fregilupus. He was reminded of corvids by the black-and-white plumage, and assumed the bird seen by Tafforet was a sort of chough. In 1937 he named it Testudophaga bicolor.[14] Hachisuka's assumptions are disregarded today, and modern ornithologists find Tafforet's bird to be identical to the one described from subfossil remains.[16][15][5]

In 1987, British ornithologist Graham S. Cowles prepared a manuscript that described a new species of Old World babbler, Rodriguites microcarina, based on an incomplete sternum found in a cave on Rodrigues. The name was mistakenly published in 1989, before the description, making it a nomen nudum. Later examination of this sternum by Hume has showed that it is referable to the Rodrigues starling.[5]


In 1943, American ornithologist Dean Amadon suggested that Sturnus-like species could have arrived in Africa, and given rise to the wattled starling (Creatophora cinerea) and the Mascarene species. According to Amadon, the Rodrigues and hoopoe starlings were related to Asiatic starlings such as some species of Sturnus, rather than the glossy starlings (Lamprotornis) of Africa and the Madagascan starling (Saroglossa aurata), based on their colouration.[17][18] A 2008 study which analysed the DNA of various starlings confirmed that the hoopoe starling was a starling, but with no close relatives among the sampled species.[19] Extant East Asian starlings such as the Bali myna (Leucopsar rothschildi) and the white-headed starling (Sturnia erythropygia), have similarities with these extinct species in colouration and other features. As the Rodrigues and Mauritius starlings seem to be closer relations to each other than to the hoopoe starling, which appears closer to South East Asian starlings, there may have been two separate colonisations of starlings to the Mascarenes from Asia, with the hoopoe starling being the latest arrival. Apart from Madagascar, the Mascarenes were the only islands in the South west Indian Ocean with native starlings. This is probably due to the isolation and varied topography and vegetation of these islands.[5]


Hypothetical restoration, based on Tafforet's account, subfossils, and relatives

The Rodrigues starling was large for a starling, 25-30 cm (10-12 in) in length. It was white or greyish white, with blackish-brown wings, and a yellow bill and legs.[2] Tafforet's complete description of the bird reads as follows:

A little bird is found which is not common, for it is not found on the mainland. One sees it on the islet au Mât [Ile Gombrani], which is to the south of the main island, and I believe it keeps to that islet on account of the birds of prey which are on the mainland, as also to feed with more facility on the eggs of the fishing birds which feed there, for they feed on nothing else but eggs or turtles dead of hunger, which they well know how to tear out of their shells. These birds are a little larger than a blackbird [Réunion bulbul (Hypsipetes borbonicus)], and have white plumage, part of the wings and tail black, the beak yellow as well as the feet, and make a wonderful warbling. I say a warbling, since they have many and altogether different notes. We brought up some with cooked meat, cut up very small, which they eat in preference to seed.[2]

Tafforet was familiar with the fauna of Réunion, where the hoopoe starling lived, and otherwise made comparisons between the faunas, so the fact that he did not mention a crest on the Rodrigues species indicates it was absent. His description of their colouration is similar.[5]

Hume notes that the skull elements of the Rodrigues starling were about the same size as those of the hoopoe starling, but the skeletal elements were smaller. They differed mainly in details of the skull, jaws, and sternum. The maxilla of the Rodrigues starling was shorter, less curved, with a less slender tip, and a stouter mandible. Though the Rodrigues starling was clearly able to fly, its sternum was reduced in size compared to other starlings, but it may not have required powerful flight, due to the small area and even topography of Rodrigues. Too few remains of the Rodrigues starling have been found to date to assess whether it was sexually dimorphic.[9] Subfossils show a disparity in size between specimens, but this may instead be due to individual variation, as the differences are gradual, with no distinct size classes. There is difference in bill length and shape between two individuals, which could indicate dimorphism.[5]

Limb elements

Günther and Newton noted that the skull of the Rodrigues starling was shaped somewhat differently from that of the hoopoe starling, being longer, about 29 mm (1.1 in) long from the occipital condyle, and narrower, 21–22 mm (0.83–0.87 in), with the eyes set slightly lower, the upper rims of the eye sockets being some 8 mm (0.31 in) apart. The interorbital septum was more delicate, with a larger hole in its centre. The bill was about 36–39 mm (1.4–1.5 in) long, less curved than in the hoopoe starling and proportionally a bit deeper, and seems to have had larger nostrils, with the nostril openings in the bone 12–13 mm (0.47–0.51 in) in length. The mandible was about 52–60 mm (2.0–2.4 in) long and 4–5 mm (0.16–0.20 in) deep proximally. The skull had an attachment scar above the temporal fossa. The supraoccipital ridge on the skull was quite strongly developed and a biventer muscle attachment in the parietal region below it was conspicuous. This indicates strong neck and jaw muscles.[6]

According to Günther and Newton, the ulna of the Rodrigues starling was somewhat shorter than that of the hoopoe starling, measuring 37–40 mm (1.5–1.6 in) compared to 32–35 mm (1.3–1.4 in) for the humerus, and the keel on its sternum was a bit lower. It had strong quill knobs on the ulna, indicating the secondary remiges were well developed. One coracoid measured 27.5 mm (1.08 in) in length, and one carpometacarpus was 22.5 mm (0.89 in) long. The leg and feet had the same proportions in both; in the Rodrigues starling the femur measured around 33 mm (1.3 in), the tibiotarsus 52–59 mm (2.0–2.3 in), and the tarsometatarsus 36–41 mm (1.4–1.6 in).[6]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

Domed Rodrigues giant tortoise, by Jossigny, 1770

Little is known about the behaviour of the Rodrigues starling, apart from Tafforet's description, from which various inferences can be made. The robustness of its limbs and the strong jaws with the ability to gape indicates it foraged on the ground. Its diet may have consisted of the various snails and invertebrate of Rodrigues, as well as scavenged items.[2] Rodrigues had large colonies of seabirds and Cylindraspis land tortoises, as well as marine turtles, which would have provided plenty of food for the starling, more so during the breeding seasons. Tafforet reported that the pigeons and parrots on the offshore southern islets came to the mainland to drink water, and this may have been the case for the starling as well. Originally, the Rodrigues starling was perhaps widely distributed on Rodrigues, with seasonal visits to the islets. Tafforet's description indicates that it had a complex song.[5]

Drawing of houses on Rodrigues
Frontispiece to Leguat's 1708 memoir, showing his settlement on Rodrigues, with rats in the lower right

The stouter build and more bent shape of the mandible show that the Rodrigues starling used greater force than the hoopoe starling when searching and perhaps digging for food. It probably also had the ability to remove objects and force entrances when searching for food, by inserting the wedge-shaped bill and opening the mandibles, like other starlings and crows do. This ability also matches well with Tafforet's claim that the birds fed on eggs and dead tortoises.[6] It could have torn dead, presumably juvenile, turtles and tortoises out of their shells. Tafforet did not see any Rodrigues starlings on the mainland, but he stated they could be easily reared by feeding them with meat, which indicates he brought young birds from a breeding population on Île Gombrani.[2] Tafforet was marooned on Rodrigues during the austral summer, a time when some other Rodriges birds are known to breed, so it is likely the starling also bred during this time, when Tafforet procured live individuals.[5]

Many other species endemic to Rodrigues became extinct after humans arrived, and the island's ecosystem is heavily damaged. Before humans arrived, forests covered the island entirely, but very little remains today. The Rodrigues starling lived alongside other recently extinct birds, such as the Rodrigues solitaire, the Rodrigues parrot, Newton's parakeet, the Rodrigues rail, the Rodrigues owl, the Rodrigues night heron, and the Rodrigues pigeon. Extinct reptiles include the domed Rodrigues giant tortoise, the saddle-backed Rodrigues giant tortoise, and the Rodrigues day gecko.[20]


Leguat mentioned that pigeons only bred on islets off Rodrigues, due to predation from rats. This may be the reason why Tafforet only observed the Rodrigues starling on an islet. By Tafforet's visit in 1726, the bird must either have been absent or very rare on mainland Rodrigues. Rats could have arrived in 1601 when the Dutch fleet surveyed Rodrigues. The islets would have been the last refuge for the bird, until the rats colonised it as well. The Rodrigues starling was extinct by the time French scientist Alexandre Guy Pingré visited Rodrigues during the French 1761 Transit of Venus expedition.[2]

The large populations of tortoises and marine turtles on Rodrigues resulted in the export of thousands of animals, and cats were introduced to control the rats, but turned on the native birds and tortoises instead. But by this time, the Rodrigues starling was already extinct from the mainland. Rats are adept at crossing water, and inhabit almost all islets off Rodrigues today. At least five species of Aplonis starlings have gone extinct in islands of the Pacific Ocean, and rats contributed to their demise as well.[5]


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Necropsar rodericanus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.1. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 16 July 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Hume, J. P.; Walters, M. (2012). Extinct Birds. London: A & C Black. pp. 273–274. ISBN 1-4081-5725-X. 
  3. ^ Fuller, E. (2001). Extinct Birds (revised ed.). New York: Comstock. pp. 366–367. ISBN 978-0-8014-3954-4. 
  4. ^ Newton, A. (1875). "Additional Evidence as to the Original Fauna of Rodriguez". Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London: 39–43. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hume, J. P. (2014). "Systematics, morphology, and ecological history of the Mascarene starlings (Aves: Sturnidae) with the description of a new genus and species from Mauritius". Zootaxa 3849 (1): 1–75. doi:10.11646/zootaxa.3849.1.1.  edit
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  7. ^ Hume, J. P.; Steel, L.; André, A. A.; Meunier, A. (2014). "In the footsteps of the bone collectors: Nineteenth-century cave exploration on Rodrigues Island, Indian Ocean". Historical Biology: 1. doi:10.1080/08912963.2014.886203.  edit
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  9. ^ a b Greenway, J. C. (1967). Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. New York: American Committee for International Wild Life Protection 13. pp. 129–132. ISBN 0-486-21869-4. 
  10. ^ Cowles, G. S. (1987). "The fossil record". In Diamond (ed.), A. W. "Studies of Mascarene Island Birds". Cambridge. pp. 90–100. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511735769.004. ISBN 9780511735769.  edit
  11. ^ Hume, J. P. (2005). "Contrasting taphofacies in ocean island settings: the fossil record of Mascarene vertebrates". Proceedings of the International Symposium "Insular Vertebrate Evolution: the Palaeontological Approach". Monografies de la Societat d'Història Natural de les Balears 12: 129–144. 
  12. ^ Forbes, H. O. (1898). "On an apparently new, and supposed to be extinct, species of bird from the Mascarene Islands, provisionally referred to the genus Necropsar". Bulletin of the Liverpool Museums 1: 28–35. 
  13. ^ Rothschild, W. (1907). Extinct Birds. London: Hutchinson & Co. pp. 5–6. 
  14. ^ a b Hachisuka, M. (1953). The Dodo and Kindred Birds, or, The Extinct Birds of the Mascarene Islands. London, UK: H. F. & G. Witherby. 
  15. ^ a b Olson, S. L.; Fleischer, R. C.; Fisher, C. T.; Bermingham, E. (2005). "Expunging the 'Mascarene starling' Necropsar leguati: archives, morphology and molecules topple a myth". Bulletin of The British Ornithologists' Club 125: 31–42. 
  16. ^ Cheke, A. S. (1987). "An ecological history of the Mascarene Islands, with particular reference to extinctions and introductions of land vertebrates". In Diamond (ed.), A. W. "Studies of Mascarene Island Birds". Cambridge. pp. 5–89. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511735769.003. ISBN 978-0521113311.  edit
  17. ^ Amadon, D. (1943). "Genera of starlings and their relationships" (PDF). American Museum Novitates 1247: 1–16. 
  18. ^ Amadon, D. (1956). "Remarks on the starlings, family Sturnidae" (PDF). American Museum Novitates 1803: 1–41. 
  19. ^ Zuccon, D.; Pasquet, E.; Ericson, P. G. P. (2008). "Phylogenetic relationships among Palearctic-Oriental starlings and mynas (genera Sturnus and Acridotheres: Sturnidae)". Zoologica Scripta 37 (5): 469. doi:10.1111/j.1463-6409.2008.00339.x.  edit
  20. ^ Cheke, A. S.; Hume, J. P. (2008). Lost Land of the Dodo: an Ecological History of Mauritius, Réunion & Rodrigues. T. & A. D. Poyser. pp. 49–52. ISBN 978-0-7136-6544-4.