Entry on the Hyacinthine Macaw or Macrocercus hyacinthinus

in " The Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society Delineated Vol. II (Birds) published in London in 1831 with the sanction of the Council under the superintendence of the Secretary and Vice-Secretary of the Society" followed by an exchange of correspondence - in part acrimonious - between William Swainson and E.T.Bennett in The Magazine of Natural History on this entry in the same year

in " The Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society Delineated Vol. II (Birds) published in London in 1831 with the sanction of the Council under the superintendence of the Secretary and Vice-Secretary of the Society" followed by an exchange of correspondence - in part acrimonious - between William Swainson and E.T.Bennett in The Magazine of Natural History on this entry in the same year

Edward Turner Bennett, the author of the work, was born in London in 1797. In 1822 he promoted the setting up of an entomological club. This was developed in association with the Linnean Society into a zoological club, which was the starting point for the establishment of the Zoological Society of London in 1826, of which he was the first vice-secretary. In 1831 he became Secretary and held this post until his untimely death in 1836 aged 39 years.


Macrocercus hyacinthinus. Vieill.

This species, first described by Latham, and afterwards figured by Shaw in the Leverian Museum and in his Zoological Miscellany, is one of the rarest of the magnificent group to which it belongs. It would seem that Le Vaillant was unable to procure a specimen, for it is not figured in his splendid work on the family ; nor does any author of the present century appear to have observed it, with the exception of M. Spix. In a former work, the Tower Menagerie, misled, as we now conceive, by the authority of the last named zoologist, and by the unusually fine condition of the bird which we had then before us, we were induced to regard the individual there figured as a distinct species. But subsequent observation has led us to abandon this opinion; and to consider the differences there pointed out as dependent only upon a more advanced age and a finer state of plumage. The brilliancy and depth of the colouring vary considerably in all the individuals that we have seen; the curvature of the bill and claws seems to go on increasing with the growth of the bird; and the tooth of the upper jaw, with its corresponding notch in the lower, may possibly undergo a gradual obliteration from the effects of long continued attrition.

This beautiful species appears to form the passage between the true Maccaws, in which the whole of the cheeks is bare of the common plumage, and the Perruche-Aras of Le Vaillant, the genus Psittacara of Mr. Vigors, in which the cheeks are entirely feathered, with the exception of a circumscribed space encircling the eyes. In the Hyacinthine Maccaw the cheeks are only partially feathered, naked spaces being left round each of the eyes, and also at the junction of the upper and lower mandibles, the latter passing round beneath the chin. The uniform colour of the whole bird is a hyacinthine blue, of greater or less intensity in different individuals, and deeper upon the quill-feathers of the wings and tail. The naked spaces round the orbits and at the base of the bill are of a brilliant yellow; and the bill, legs, and claws are nearly jet black.

(Website editor: the London Zoo officials were clearly unable to accept Spix's classification of the Hyacinthine Macaws as a separate species under the name of Anodorhynchus, believing the lack of a notch in the mandible to be due to wear. As Lear drew the Lear's Macaw there around the same time as this publication and Bourjot Saint-Hilaire saw a Glaucous Macaw there in 1836, the Zoo appears to have had all three Anodorhynchus macaws on its premises at the same time without being aware of it. The monochrome engraving accompanying the above text shows two macaws with bare facial patches more like the Lear's and Glaucous Macaws than the Hyacinthine Macaw.

Following the publishing of The Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society delineated in 1831, William Swainson took exception to Lesson and Desmarest, two famous French scientists, being referred to in what he believed to be a disparaging fashion as certain French naturalists in a journal edited by Vigors. He wrote a long critical letter to Loudon's The Magazine of Natural History, which was published in the issue dated March 1831, in order to attack Vigors, towards whom he was implacably hostile, the book and its author. The tone was set by the first paragraph, which is quoted below because of the astonishng invective.

William Swainson was a naturalist and bird illustrator. Born in 1789 in Liverpool he was the son of a collector of customs. After completing elementary education he worked as a junior clerk in the Liverpool customs, then his father obtained him a post in the army commissariat in Malta and Sicily. Before going abroad he drew up at the request of the Liverpool Museum the " Instructions for Collecting and preserving Subjects of Natural History ", which was privately printed in Liverpool in 1808.

He served for eight years from 1807 to 1815 with the army commissariat and amassed a very large collection of zoological specimens. On conclusion of peace at the end of the Napoleonic wars he retired on half-pay as assistant commissary-general. In autumn 1816 he left for Brazil with Henry Koster. They landed at Recife in Pernambuco and became delayed by the local insurrection there. They then travelled, collecting specimens, through Pernambuco to the Rio São Francisco then onto Rio de Janeiro. Returning in 1818 he published a sketch of his journey in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal (1819), very briefly describing their journey without any scientific detail and then endeavoured to sort out his zoological specimens, a task which many at the time thought him incapable of.

He also learned the new technique of lithography, with which he produced Zoological Illustration (3 volumes, 1820-3), the Naturalists Guide (1822) and Exotic Conchology. In 1828 he visited museums in Paris under the guidance of Cuvier and St. Hilaire, meeting the other great French naturalists he claimed to be defending against attacks from Vigors. In the same year he moved to Tittenhagner Green in Hampshire and worked as a full time artist and author.

Over the years he applied for posts with scientific institutions, but never succeeded, which appeared to embitter him. Correspondence suggests his lack of proper formal education, which resulted in much criticism over his poor grammar, spelling and style, was held against him. In 1840 he emigrated to New Zealand despite attempts by several leading scientists, who valued his considerable achievements, to dissuade him. Most of his specimen collection was lost on the way. In 1853 he was engaged by the governments of Van Diemen's Land and Victoria to report on the timber trees of those colonies. He died at his residence in Hutt Valley, New Zealand in 1855 aged 67.

Swainson became a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1816 and of the Royal Society in 1820. He was also a member of numerous foreign academies. Apart from the works above he published many papers as well as Birds of Brazil in five parts between 1834 and 5. He wrote the bird section of Sir John Richardson's Fauna Boreali-Americana and contributed to the 11 volumes of Lardner's Cabinet Encyclopaedia (1834-40) and the three volumes of Jardine's Naturalist's Library (1833-46).

His protagonist, Nicholas Aylward Vigors, was born in 1785. After serving in Wellington's army in the Peninsular War, when he was severely wounded, he left the army in 1811 and went to Oxford, graduating as B.A in 1817 and M.A in 1818
He devoted himself to the study of zoology, being elected Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1819. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1826. He gave his collection to the Zoological Society of London, which he was involved in setting up. He was its first Secretary.
In 1832 he became Member of Parliament for Carlow, but rarely spoke. He wrote some 40 papers, which appeared between 1825 and 1836 and was involved in editing volumes III and IV of the Zoological Journal from 1828 to 1835. He died in 1840 aged 55.

Published in The Magazine of Natural History in March 1831

Art 1. A defence of " certain French naturalists" by William Swainson, Esq. F.R.S. F.L.S &c. &c.

If we were called upon to describe those signs which indicate the decline of science in any age or country, we should at once enumerate the three following:- First, The denial of the greatest and most acknowledged truths by bold and specious reasoners. Secondly, The zealous adoption of some, and the unqualified rejection by others, of systems and theories which neither party understood. Thirdly, The substitution of flowery and sententious oratory for the results of deep and patient research. If to these we added a spirit of dissension and of invective, against all who thought differently from ourselves, we should not overcharge that picture which zoological science, in this country, has exhibited during the last few years.

After attacking Vigors he then turns his attention to the book with the following remarks:-

A foreigner, taking up the book....and seeing it announced as " Published with the sanction of the council, and under the superintendence of the secretary and vice-secretary of the Zoological Society " will naturally suppose that it is a sort of official record of their opinions; that everything contained in it has the " sanction " of the council, and that, as nothing should go forth but what has been maturely weighed, the secretary and vice-secretary, to "make assurance doubly sure," are then charged with its "superintendence". Such an impression, in short, would be given to any Englishman ignorant of the arts of literary puffing; for we know no other term by which to express the absurdity of affixing such an imposing weight of authority to so very trivial a production.

Swainson then uses the entry on the Hyacinthine Macaw to highlight what he believed to be the book's shortcomings.

In the 11th number of the same publication there is an erroneous and a meagre account of the famous Hyacinthine Maccaw (sic), of which the writer states that "no author of the present century appears to have observed it, with the exception of M. Spix." Now it so happened, that at the very time when M. Spix was travelling towards that part of Brazil* where alone this magnificent species is supposed to be found, we had actually returned to Europe with four specimens. Two of these are in different collections, which Mr. Vigors is in the constant habit of visiting and consulting; one being of Mr. Leadbetter the bird-stuffer, the other that of the Linnean Society; the gift to the latter (but not the account we sent of its habits and locality), being recorded in the 14th volume of their Transactions (p.601.). Upon these facts, therefore, we might, with as much show of reason, and in the same style, indulge ourselves in an invective against " striking injustice ", "wilful misrepresentation," &c. &c. But what is the most probable, and the most candid inference? Merely, that the writer of the above passage had omitted to inform himself upon the subject he was treating about.

* The Campos and Catingas of the interior of Bahia, between the forests of Urupie and the banks of the Rio St. Francesco (sic). When we embarked for Europe at Rio de Janeiro, MM Spix and Martius had just quitted that city, on their journey to the above-named province. Although " vague rumours " had existed in Europe about the country of this superb and rare species, we were the first to discover its true locality, and the first to import it into Britain at least from its native wilds.

Edward Bennett, the author of the book, replied almost immediately with the following text published later that year (1831) in The Magazine of Natural History.

Art.V. Observation on the Hyacinthine Maccaw. By E.T.Bennett, Esq. F.L.S


On the subject of the Hyacinthine Maccaw, my account of which in the Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society delineated, is criticised at p.104 of your last Number, allow me to offer a few observations. I freely admit my previous ignorance of the facts stated by Mr. Swainson. I knew not, nor could I be expected to know, that he had sent to the Linnean Society an account of its habits and locality, for that account was not published by the Society; and the same circumstance of non-publication also accounts for my not having been aware that on his return to Europe he had brought with him four specimens of the bird. With respect, as it would seem, to one of these, it is certainly recorded among the " Donations " at the end of the 14th volume of the Linnean Transactions that " a preserved specimen of the Psíttacus augústus of Shaw, from Brazil," was presented to the Society by Mr. Swainson. But as little scientific information is usually to be derived from these lists of donations, I trust I may be excused for not having consulted the one referred to, the entry in which, quoted entire above, adds not in the slightest degree to the knowledge we already possessed concerning the bird in question.

My object, however, on the present occasion, is not to answer a charge which refutes itself, but rather to correct an error into which M. Spix has fallen with respect to this magnificent bird; and with this view, I propose giving a brief history of the species up to the time when his work was published.

The bird was first described in 1790, by Dr. Latham, in his Index Ornithológicus, under the name of Psíttacus hyacínthinus, from a specimen in Parkinson's, otherwise the Leverian Museum. In the Musèum Leveriànum, under the date of 1792, and afterwards in his Zoological Miscellany, Dr. Shaw described and figured it as the Psíttacus augústus,quoting Dr. Latham's synonyme, and preserving it in the English name. Subsequently, the bird was fully characterised, in an interesting account of its habits, under the name of Guacamayo azul, by another observer of the close of the last century, M. d'Azara; in the French translation of whose work, M. Sonnini added a note pointing out the resemblance between D'Azara's bird and that of Dr. Latham. In the second edition of the Nouveau Dictionnaire d'Histoire Naturelle, M.Vieillot considered the former as a distinct species, and named it Macrocércus glaùcus; but in his Galerie des Oiseaux he corrected this error, and united the two birds under the name of Macrocércus hyacínthinus, which the species now bears. In his Conspéctus Psittacòrum, published in 1820, M.Kuhl quotes to the Psíttacus hyacínthinus of Latham no other synonyme but that of Shaw.

This species is figured in M.Spix's work as the Anodorhynchus Maximiliàni, but, as far as I have been able to discover, entirely without description. A second bird, differing from it not only in its comparatively diminutive size, but also in having its cheeks bare, as in the typical maccaws, although not quite to the same extent, is figured and described by the same author as the Aràra hyacínthinus. To the latter, M. Spix refers the Guacamayo bleu (azul) of D'Azara, and states that it has been improperly confounded by Dr. Sonnini and Dr. Latham with the Anodorhynchus Maximiliàni/Augústi. That the Aràra hyacínthinus of Spix is not Dr. Latham's Psíttacus hyacínthinus is clear from the characters given of the latter, which is described to have its chin and orbits only naked, in opposition to the other maccaws, which are characterised as having naked cheeks. The identity of Shaw's bird with that of Dr. Latham is proved by its being figured, with the same characters, and from the same museum, at a time when the specimen was said to be " perhaps the only one known to exist at present in Europe." A comparison of the characters given by D'Azara with those of Dr. Latham and Dr. Shaw, and with the figures of the latter, will at once remove any doubt of the fact that the Guacamayo azul is the same bird; and its size and feathered cheeks immediately distinguish the latter from the Aràra hyacínthinus of Spix. In fact, the Psíttacus hyacínthinus of Dr. Latham, the P. augústus of Shaw, the Guacamayo azul of D'Azara, the Macrocércus glaùcus of Vieillot, the M. hyacínthinus of the same author, and the Anodorhynchus Maximiliàni Spix, are one and the same species. The Aràra hyacínthinus is totally distinct, but forms, by its near approach in colouring, and by the smaller extent of its naked cheeks, an evident link between the hyacinthine and the common maccaws.

These details I had reserved for another occasion; but, as the subject has been mentioned, I may as well publish them at once.

I regret, however, that I cannot subscribe to Mr. Swainson's claim to be considered as " the first to discover the true locality " of the hyacinthine maccaw, inasmuch as a different and much more extensive one has been long previously indicated by another observer, M. D'Azara. Mr. Swainson procured it in " the Campos and Catingas of the interior of Bahia, between the forests of Urupie and the banks of the Rio St. Francesco;" and states this to be " that part of Brazil where alone this magnificent species is supposed to be found." But M. D'Azara had, at least thirty years ago, met with several pairs of this species between the 27th and 29th degrees of latitude; and he had been assured that it was found as far south as 331/2°, nesting not only in the hollows of trees, but also, and that more frequently, in those which it digs for itself on the perpendicular banks of the rivers Parana and Uruguay.

I remain, Sir, yours, &c.


March 9th, 1831

(Website editor: Edward Bennett made a good attempt to sort the descriptions out, but failed because he neither knew nor realised that there were three species of blue macaw, not two. The eventual description by Prince Bonaparte in 1856 of the Lear's Macaw helped considerably although confusion still persisted as Otto Finsch's entries on the Hyacinthine Macaw, the Glaucous Macaw and the Lear's Macaw in Die Papageien, monographisch bearbeitet published 1867-8 clearly shows). With regard to Swainson's claim to have sent a report with his specimen, which was unpublished, the Librarian at the Linnean Society has been unable to locate any report, published or unpublished. As Bennett states the donation was properly minuted as " A preserved specimen of the Psittacus augustus of Shaw, from Brazil. DONOR: William Swainson Esq. " in the 14th volume of the Transactions published in 1825. Joe Cuddy and I believe the specimen could be that of a Lear's Macaw, but as the specimen collection of the Linnean Society was disposed of by auction in November 1863 in what could be described as " job lots ", it will be extremely difficult to track down this particular specimen. However we shall try. Watch this spot!!

P.S The website editor has discovered a diary entry by Swainson dated 9.10.1817 when he was in the " Serra of San Joze " in Bahia. He writes

" I have reason to think the macaws I saw today were of a different species (of the hyacinthe macaw). A sertanejo who visited me says they are of an entirely rich bleu (sic) colour with a cast of green, the bleu and yellow macaw (which I described to him very particularly) is called calinda and the red and bleu arara verdadera. This latter is not seen at present, it's (sic) note is very different from the one I heard, being a single prolonged note or more properly croak. The bleu arara, which is now found in the Tabulara's (sic) comes regularly towards this time every year, sometimes in considerable flocks. In other years (as at present) they are seen in small numbers and are supposed to breed a long way in the Sartoon's (sic)."

It appears that when the local people were asked about the origin of a bird or animal their standard reply was " in the Sartoons. " The " Sartoons " was as Swainson explains elsewhere

" the dry cheerless tracks of table land, where nothing meets the eye, but stunted vegetation and dreary uniformity". 

He is thus describing the sertão.

This entry appears to support our suspicion that the blue macaw he saw and of which a specimen was donated to the Linean Society was a Lear's Macaw.

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 " Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret "

( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)

Horace (65-8 BC)