Full Text: In Search of the Imperial Parrot, Part I

You’ve asked, so I’ve transcribed the complete text of Sydney Porter’s “In Search of the Imperial Parrot (I)”, as it first appeared in Avicultural Magazine in October, 1929. Eighty-eight years ago! I hope you enjoy reading (and rereading!) the story as much as I have. Thanks again to Josef Harold Lindholm III, Curator of Birds at Tulsa Zoo, for copying and sending the original Porter articles via snail mail. I’ll share Part II in an upcoming post.


In Search of the Imperial Parrot (I)

by Sydney Porter

A matter of between four and five thousand miles away and a three week’s journey from the shores of England lies the world’s most incredible island. It is one of those places of which, when one enthusiastically describes it to a friend, one is conscious that, though they listen tolerantly, they take all one says with the proverbial grain of salt. Seen from the first time from the sea, one is struck by its sinister and awe-inspiring grandeur. Imagine an island about the same size and shape as the Isle of Man, with all the highest mountains of the British Isles crushed up and put upon it– though several of the peaks there are higher than those of our islands–rising sheer out of the sea, their feet resting in the water and their summits hidden by the clouds, the only place I know of where palm-trees thrive above the mists, striving to add a still greater height to the already great towering volcanic peaks. If you can imagine this and a hundred other things, then you have Dominica, the fairest and yet the least-known of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Its visitors are few, but its hospitality is second to none in the world– perhaps the former is the reason for the latter!


It is perhaps appropriate that this wonderful island should be the home of one of the world’s rarest birds, the Imperial Parrot (Amazona imperialis), which for some years has thought to be nearly extinct; and the chief reason for my visiting the island was to ascertain whether this singular bird is still alive. Fortunately for ornithologists, it is, but unless special care is take its days are numbered.


For many years, I had cherished in my mind a desire, or I might say a vague hope, that one day I might be able to find something definite concerning the fate of either one or more of the rare and supposedly nearly extinct Parrots which inhabit the more remote Wet Indian Islands. I did not think that such a desire would materialize, and it was only by a series of extraordinary coincidences that it eventually did, and with what luck I will relate later on.


When I set sail at the beginning of February, after several months of indifferent health, in search of the sunshine in Jamaica, I had not the slightest intention of ever setting foot in the lovely island of Dominica, but it was in this latter country that I did eventually arrive, and not in the former. I will explain. Our boat, which was bound for Barbados– the jumping off ground for passengers bound for the lesser-known West Indian Island–carried as passengers several residents of the Lesser Antilles, who were returning after a trip to Europe, and as I got to known them I questioned them about the rare Parrots from the respective islands. But few of them knew anything about the birds except the Parrot from St. Vincent, which they regarded more or less as a myth; but two days before landing at Barbados I was introduced to a charming lady who resided on Dominica, and who knew Amazona imperialis well. She said that it had always been very scarce, but now it was excessively rare. It used to be shot and eaten by the natives in fair quantities, and that even now it was occasionally shot and eaten by them (a fact which later on proved to be only too true), and sometimes when a bird was slightly wounded in the wing or leg it was taken by the natives and sold. Such a specimen was brought to this lady’s sister the year before last by a native, from whom she purchased it. I understand that it was wounded in the wing; in fact, the part from the elbow had been shot away. It was kept in a large cage, made out of a packing case, but appeared sullen and morose. It was sold by her later at a good price to an American institution, of which she could not remember the name. I asked this lady whether it were possible to secure examples, but she said that there was no royal road to get to them, and it was only by the rarest luck that the natives got hold of them, for there was no way of snaring them or procuring the young as the birds nest in the highest forest trees which are quite inaccessible, though upon one occasion she heard of a tree being felled which contained a nest of fully-fledged youngsters. So upon this information I decided to alter all my arrangements, and come to the island and try my luck at either securing a specimen, or at least seeing these magnificent birds in a state of freedom. Fortunately I was able to do both.

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Upon landing I was introduced to the lady’s brother, who with true colonial hospitality at once offered to lend me his old home which was situated in the remote part of the island where these birds still exist; in fact, it was the only house in the vicinity, and nearby lived the only hunter who knew and was familiar with the birds in their breeding haunts. Anyone else landing in the island in quest of the bird would have a very remote chance of meeting with the bird unless he had the same good luck that I had. Often people in the island will tell you that bird still exists, but they don’t know where. They will say when questioned: “Oh, away in the forests!” but as the island is covered with this forest this does not imply very much. In fact, there are very few people in the island who have ever seen even a captured one, and I think that within recent years practically no white man has seen one wild except myself. The old hunter took me and after three hours of the roughest climbing I have ever done or hope to do again, brought me to the tree where the birds are.

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As soon as I arrived at my destination after having spent several days in Roseau, the tiny but charming capital of the island, I naturally made inquiries regarding the whereabouts of the Parrots. The natives all knew of the birds, but I was told that I had come at the wrong time of the year, for the birds were already far away breeding in the deepest recesses of the mountain forest, in parts which were inaccessible to human beings. This sounded far from hopeful , but at night the old native hunter already mentioned turned up and told me that he was the only man in the district who really knew all about the “Ciceroo”, which is the native name for the bird. He informed me that if I liked to go for a two or three days’ journey through the forests with him he would show me dozens of the birds, but if I only wanted to see one or two it would be only necessary to make a day’s journey. Now finding that the natives of Dominica are singularly honest and truthful, differing very much in that respect from their cousins in Africa, I had no reason to doubt his word, which in every way proved correct. I decided on the latter alternative, so on the second morning after, we set out. I have undertaken some rough trekking in my time, but this beat everything I have ever done. No wonder Amazona imperialis was thought to be extinct or at least nearly so. The way lay for the most part up and down almost perpendicular cliffs of about 1,000 feet high, and these were covered with the densest tropical vegetation. I think that we used our hands more than our feet: many times I nearly gave up, but just as my lungs seemed bursting and my strength almost gone, we would reach the top and the descent would give me strength for the next climb. Sometimes we had to follow the course of a rushing mountain river, struggling to get from one boulder to another. On and on we pushed, sometimes there was a few minutes’ rest when the guide was hacking out a pathway with his cutlass from the dense undergrowth. My face and hands were cut and bleeding from contact with the sharp razor-grass, and the going was made more difficult by the fact that the heavy red soil stuck to one’s boots and made walking exceptionally trying.

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The great forests were singularly destitute of animal life; large yellow and brown land crabs which hurried up the trees as we passed, and occasional specimens of Bouquet’s Parrot* (Amazona bouqueti) were the only signs of life. At last my guide informed me that we were in the district. Sure enough in a few minutes we heard the loud ringing cries of A. imperialis, and two birds flew out of a huge forest tree, circling around with almost motionless wings, looking very much like small eagles and very dark in color when silhouetted against the sky. A little later on we came across another pair feeding upon a great fruit-bearing forest tree. I cannot describe the thrill as I lay upon my back on the hot steamy mould, gazing up at the birds through my binoculars; I realized that a long-desired wish had at last materialized, and I wondered how few white people had ever seen or perhaps ever would see these magnificent birds, undisturbed in the solitude of their wonderful forest home. Only a keen naturalist will understand my feelings when, after traveling thousands of miles, I beheld these creatures which had long held to be extinct. I felt somehow like Wallace did when he first saw and handled the King Bird of Paradise (Cicinnurus regius) as so well described in his wonderful book The Malay Archipelago. All my fatigue vanished. I did not not feel the cuts and bruises.

The cock of the pair fed on the fruit, continually letting fall half-eaten ones which somewhat resembled a very dark purplish pomegranate. This fruit has a vile taste when eaten in the unripe state in which the birds appear to like it; even if only touched by the tongue it leaves a horribly bitter and astringent taste in the mouth for a long time afterwards. When quite ripe the outer peel splits into five sections and opens out like a star, thus exposing the interior which looks like a small grapefruit with the peel and skin removed; also when quite ripe it loses some of its terribly astringent taste. Though I tried the bird which I later secured with it, and also the Bouquet’s parrots, they all refused to touch it. This was exceedingly strange as it forms the main food of both birds in the wild state.

The hen of the pair I was watching (the guide said that it was the hen, though I could see no difference between the two) ran slowly up and down a bare branch of creeper which hung between the two trees, so that I got a splendid view of her. She struck me as being very dark purple; the head looked small and Vulture-like, and half the tail seemed to have been broken away. This may have been due to the fact that she was nesting.


My guide told me that two months previously he had a pair of these birds, which he had shot. One, which was badly wounded, died in a few days, but the other one, being merely stunned, recovered and he kept it for several weeks, but there being no prospective buyer in the district (I believe I was the only visitor who had stayed for any length of time in that part for some years) and the bird being very fat, my friend cut its throat and had it for the evening meal. I nearly said I wished it had choked him, but if it had done so I would never have seen A. imperialis in its wild state! Some weeks after this trip I was speaking to a native hunter– and he said, “Law or no law, we shall always shoot the ‘Ciceroo’ when we can. We pay a license for a gun and if we go hunting and find no wild pig or agouti and we see a ‘Ciceroo’ we just shoot it because we have no meat.” I mentioned about keeping fowls as a constant supply of meat, but the answer was, “Fowls cost money to buy and we can always sell them, but we can’t sell a ‘Ciceroo’.”


I falter before the task of describing to the reader something of the utter grandeur of the deep, almost inaccessible forest-covered gorges and ravines which form the home of the Imperial Parrot. It requires an artist in words to paint a pen picture that will in the slightest degree convey anything of the magnificence of the mountain ranges of Dominica. I have seen a good many groups of wild and rugged mountain ranges in Europe and elsewhere, but none have ever appeared so impressive as those which form the home of the “Ciceroo”. Nowhere do mountains rise so sheer or are the ravines so deep and precipitous. Sometimes the walls of the gorges rise perpendicularly for thousands of feet, covered by the densest tropical creepers and ferns of the most vivid emerald green. From the distance the island looks like a jagged emerald rising up out of the turquoise sea. The rainfall in some parts is as much as three hundred inches a year and this, combined with an average temperature of about 85 degrees F, gives a wealth of tropical vegetation which can well be imagined. Giant palms and tree-ferns mix with other vegetation in the struggle upwards towards the light. Here and there great forest giants lie prone, their great bulk almost hidden in the rank growth of mosses, etc.  It is here, in some places impossible for man to penetrate, on the Atlantic slopes of the sinister volcanic peak, Morne Diablotin (Mountain of the Devil) that A. imperialis makes its home. Long may it hold its own.

Of course the Imperial Parrot is rightly protected by law, but as a gentleman in the Administration said to me, it is absolutely impossible to enforce the law in such a district. The only laws known in those parts are the laws of Nature. But the bird is protected by Nature in such a way as no other creature in the world is, for I know of no living bird whose numbers are as small as those of A. imperialis and yet has managed to maintain itself as this bird has. Its home is the most remote, the most inaccessible, and the approach the most dangerous that I know of. All this may sound rather ludicrous when the island is only about 15 miles by 30, but the position must be seen to be appreciated.


I believe that this species will not be exterminated for some years to come, that is if great care is taken and no one is allowed to collect an unlimited number of specimens, especially for museums in the United States. I am not speaking disparagingly of American institutions, but there is a tendency to stock the museums in the States with rare specimens, which is only natural, as most of the museums in Europe which have been established for a much longer time are already full. The species in the flesh is far more valuable to the coming generations than dried skins in cabinets, even though the birds live in inaccessible forests.

I regret to say that when they stray away from their natural home the birds are still shot by the native gunners now and then for food. This is a great shame, for I hear that the flesh of these birds is very tough and leathery. I was asked to sample the flesh of one of these birds, but even had I not been a vegetarian, I should have refused. It is a great pity  that they are eaten, for there is an abundance of food on the island, but the natives have no idea of the rarity of the species.

(To be concluded)

*Dominica’s Red-necked amazon (Amazona arausiaca) was once known as the Bouquet’s Parrot



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