That surely reveals the importance of this project: knowing something is the first step towards valuing it. American illustrator Alex Warnick produced 30 lifelike artistic representations of an equal number of local winged beauties, featuring historical information and their respective conservation status compiled by a team of biologists and environmental activists. As a whole, this book provides one of the most beautiful, complete and detailed collection of images about the natural world of Hispaniola —which can contribute to the ongoing protection of our species, as valuing something is the first step towards change.
The most threatened hawk in the American continent —indiscriminately persecuted since colonial times— is considered dangerous due to its sharp beaks and talons, perfect for stealing chickens. But actually, its diet consists mainly of lizards, snakes and rodents, which makes it a helpful friend to us humans. By the early 2000s, the hawk population was reduced to nearly 300 birds tucked away in the limestone hills of the Los Haitises National Park.
Although its size and shape are similar to that of the more familiar pigeons and it may be found in the same forests alongside the ruddy quail-dove, its unique iridescent colors make the white-fronted quail dove impossible to confuse. Its most distinctive feature is its pure white forehead, which lends its name —“coquito” means head in Dominican dialect. It has been reported at elevations from 700-1,000 meters, but it seems to have gone extinct in the Sierra de Neiba and it is seldom seen in the Cordillera Central.
Called xaxabis by the Taínos, parakeets do not learn to imitate human speech —quite ironic, as the bird’s Spanish moniker ,“perico,” gave its name to one of the loudest variations of Dominican merengue, the perico ripiao. In 1950 it went extinct in Puerto Rico, and nowadays, although long ago parakeets formed flocks comprising thousands of birds, it’s quite rare to see a flock with more than 50 birds in the Dominican Republic.
It is likely that their loquacity and cunning gave rise to the popular Dominican expression “dar cotorra” (to give parrot), which means talking in an attempt to persuade someone. Owing to their charisma, many parrots are looted from their nests to be sold as pets; many don’t survive this premature extraction and those who do make it to human homes never mate. That’s why, even though they can live anywhere from the sea level to the mountains and it was quite common to see flocks of 500 birds, today they are vulnerable to extinction.
When a person approaches, it will sometimes walk towards the observer with little fear; that’s where its Spanish name “bobo” (dumb) comes from, as it can be easily captured. It’s not as bobo when it comes to hunting its prey, usually large insects, which means tobacco farmers appreciate them, as they eat the caterpillars that attack its crop leaves. There’s an unfortunate superstition that cuckoo meat can cure asthma, which has reduced its presence in rural environments; fortunately, it has adapted to urban spaces.
Unlike the Hispaniolan lizard-cuckoo, the bay-breasted one is exceedingly shy and often stays in the upper branches of tall trees; this is why there are so few photographs of this beautiful bird. It might have gone extinct in Haiti, and in the Dominican Republic it is limited to just two small populations: one north of the Sierra de Bahoruco and the other northwest of the Cordillera Central, each estimated at fewer than 50 pairs.
Since the pre-Columbian period, night birds have been linked to beliefs about death; that’s how owls became a recurring symbol on Taíno vessels and sculptures. In earnest, the only death they do produce is that of rats and mice: a single owl can consume up to 5,000 rodents in a year. Our endemic owl prefers forested environments at low elevations, where it helps maintain their natural balance —although they are still denounced in the countryside.
At just 20 centimeters in length, the least pauraque is the smallest of the five species of goatsucker or nightjars that inhabit Hispaniola —they are so named because of the false belief that they use their wide mouths to suck milk from goats at night. It was considered extinct on the island until it was rediscovered in the 1970s in several areas in the Dominican Republic, where it prefers dry and semi-dry forests and scrub habitats.
With the loss of moist forests throughout the island, these hummingbirds have moved to highland cacao and coffee plantations. Fortunately, local farmers have a great appreciation for them, and not just because they resemble a precious stone: they see them as beautifully delicate birds beneficial to their crops. Their nests, woven together with spider silk and bits of leaves, twigs, lichen, moss and feathers, are even used to combat ear infections.
In Haiti, where it is the national bird, it’s called kanson wouj (red pants) for its crimson belly. In the Dominican Republic it inhabits mid to high elevations, especially in humid forests and pinelands, where it often perches quietly on a branch, its head lowered between its shoulders. It nests in old hollow trees in mature forests, but as these are cleared and larger trees are cut, their nesting cavities have become scarce.
Fortunately, we can still listen to the broad-billed tody’s tirp, tirp, tirp frequently all over the island: from dry limestone forests to shade coffee plantations and a range of wet and secondary forests, including the National Botanical Garden right in Santo Domingo. Now, never mind its small size, as it is voracious enough to eat almost half its body weight in insects each day —which means this species plays an important role in controlling insect pests.
There are several ways to tell apart a narrow-billed tody from a broad-billed one: the former is even smaller than the latter, and instead of a tirp, tirp, tirp, its call note is a frequent chi-cui. Another distinction is its preference for higher altitudes, extending up to 3,000 meters. As a single leaf can hide it completely from view, it’s quite difficult to spot. Although it’s relatively common, its numbers have dwindled due to the loss of the humid mountain forests it prefers.
In the mid-1990s, scientists in the Cordillera Central identified a peculiar feather fossilized for at least 15 million years in amber. They were lucky to see an Antillean piculet feather so close, as this bird’s small size and its olive colors allow it to hide between the trees and makes it quite a challenge to spot. The piculet can still be found on the hillsides of shade coffee and cacao plantations, although it is considered locally threatened in Haiti due to forest loss there.
The most gifted engineer in Hispaniola has the task of excavating its own nests in tree trunks. It played an important role in Taíno culture: the inriri bird created women by pecking at beings without gender, and its unmistakable silhouette is still evident in the pictographs found along the Cordillera Central. Today locals dedicate scarecrows, instead: the so-called “enemy of the farm” pecks at, and damages, commercial crops such as oranges, avocados and cocoa pods.
Unlike other Tyrants in its family, the Hispaniolan peewee is not a particularly aggressive bird. At 16 centimeters in length, it is a small bird of gray-olive color, which makes it difficult to detect. This pewee will sally regularly from its perch to capture flying insects with a snap of its beak. It then returns, often circling the same branch from where it just perched. After it perches, it typically bobs its tail in a characteristic, entertaining way.
Its scientific name, “dwarf vireo,” is well deserved: at only 10-13 centimeters in length, it’s one of the smallest birds of Hispaniola. In the Dominican Republic, its name is “cigüita Juliana,” owing to its resemblance to the black-whiskered vireo (in Spanish, “julián chiví”). But it has a distinctive feature: its short, flat, wide beak, which led to its classification as a divergent island species. Although it has a widespread historical distribution, its current one is unclear in the wake of human occupation.
Corvids are considered among the most intelligent of all animals, having a surprising capacity to make simple tools that help them forage more efficiently. Some people in the Dominican Republic keep them as pets, in part because they appreciate how the crows learn to imitate human speech, as well as animal sounds. However, they have disappeared from many of their former strongholds due to the destruction of their habitat and excessive hunting.
There are more than 100 artificial nest boxes at the Valle Nuevo National Park for golden swallows. The goal? To keep them from disappearing, which is what happened to their Jamaican counterpart. Cultures around the world have long associated these birds with the arrival of spring —they nest between April and May— but they have suffered due to forest clearing in the high mountains throughout the island and to the predation of their eggs and chicks by introduced mammals such as rats and mongooses.
Discovered in 1927 among the thick forest below the Massif de La Selle in Haiti, it was only seen 44 years later on the Dominican side, in the Sierra de Bahoruco. This bird can still be a challenge to find, due to its shyness and its preference for dark, dense forests, and yet it can sometimes be seen foraging in the open on road trails —fragmentation and loss of its dense forest habitat has turned it into an endangered species.
The national bird of the Dominican Republic has neither striking colors nor a beautiful call note, and yet it is a model of determination: the palmchat can often be seen carrying branches and sticks much longer than itself in order to build a communal nest with several other pairs, a structure than can exceed two meters in width. They generally build them around the crowns of the royal palm trees, but in their absence, these industrious birds resort to other trees or even electricity poles.
The green-tailed warbler is a small, slender and very active bird, which makes frequent jumps, wing and tail movements. Although it has been recorded in broadleaf and pine forests up to nearly 3,000 meters in elevation, it is also found in lower altitudes. Fortunately, it is not listed as a threatened species, so it’s quite an everyday event to hear it quickly respond to our human pshhhhh with its sharp sip sip-sip.
This small bird is living proof of Hispaniola’s capacity for diversity: the distribution of white-winged and green-tailed warblers overlaps in the south-central part of the island, and thus presents a mystery for scientists, since the evolution of closely related species on the same island would require at least 10 times its area. Nevertheless, we might lose this evolutionary treasure: the white-winged warbler is on the conservation red list due to the extensive loss of the montane forests on which it depends.
If there were ever a competition for the most common endemic bird of Hispaniola, the Hispaniolan woodpecker would likely be the black-crowned palm-tanager’s sole rival. Despite its familiarity, it is a remarkably beautiful bird that merits much more than just a passing glance. It also has a great propensity for leadership: in a study of mixed-species flocks, this tanager was usually the “nuclear” species, that is, the one whose movements the other birds follow as they search for food.
Unlike its black-crowned sister, the gray-crowned palm-tanager can only be found on the Tiburon peninsula, in the southwest of Haiti, making it that country’s sole endemic bird. Why do we find such variety in this small area? It could be the result of the Jacmel-Fauché depression, which until about 100,000 years ago was a marine channel formed when sea level rose during interglacial periods, and may have created the separation that led to the evolution of the gray-crowned palm-tanager.
The name of its genus, Calyptophilus, means “one who loves to hide.” This name was surely inspired by its shyness and its tendency to skulk in thick vegetation, making it particularly difficult to observe. This chat-tanager’s near exclusive dependence on one of the most threatened habitats on the island —the high humid montane forests of Hispaniola— makes it particularly vulnerable to extinction, making it urgent to protect and restore these forests, particularly in the Sierra de Bahoruco.
Although its scientific name suggests a fruit-based diet (frugivorus), this tanager feeds mainly on invertebrates such as centipedes, butterflies, ants, spiders and some seeds. It is a shy bird, often difficult to observe without using audio playback of its song, which typically incites a fierce response in defense of its territory. Currently, it resides in the mountains of the Cordillera Central, the Sierra de Neiba and the Sierra de Martín García.
The closest relative of our own spindalis is Puerto Rico’s spindalis portoricensis, which is that island’s national bird. Its common name there is “reina mora” or Moorish queen, which in the Andalusian tradition is understood as a beautiful woman. Ultimately this is something of a misnomer, since in the genus spindalis, it is the male that displays the beautiful contrasting colors —as the Hispaniolan species makes especially evident.
The Hispaniolan oriole skilfully weaves a pendulous basket-shaped nest, often hanging from a palm or banana tree, drawing the admiration of observers. Naturalists have documented instances of oriole nests being parasitized by the shiny cowbird, which lays its eggs in the nests of other species. They then act as unwitting hosts, incubating the eggs and raising the impostor chicks as their own. This brood parasitism has been associated with a decline in oriole populations since the 1930s.
Throughout the year, nomadic crossbill flocks move long distances searching for mature cones, preferring areas of dense, tall pines. Mature pine trees —at least 75 years and older— that produce abundant cones seem to be critical to their success. Industrial logging of pine forests contributed to the large-scale destruction of its habitat in the Dominican Republic until 1967. Fortunately, today the harvest of pines is greatly reduced, but the current frequency of forest fires represents a threat.
The origin of its Spanish name, “canario” (canary) may hark back to its similarity with another finch, the Atlantic Canary (Serinus canaria), endemic of the Canary Islands. However, there’s a bit of reverse colonialism in its wake: instead of having arrived from the American continent to colonize Hispaniola, it seems to have been the other way round —an ancestor of today’s Antillean siskin left the Caribbean to colonize North America.
Natural history artist
Photographer, naturalist, environmental activist and author
Photographer and co-founder of Capital DBG