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Red Rail Picture

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For the place in England, see Red Rail, Herefordshire.

The Red Rail or Red Hen of Mauritius, Aphanapteryx bonasia, is an extinct rail. It was only found on the island of Mauritius. The Red Rail, which today is only known from a large number of bones, some descriptions and a handful of drawings and paintings, was a flightless bird, somewhat larger than a chicken (about 50 cm). Its plumage was reddish brown all over, and the feathers were fluffy and hairlike; the tail was not visible in the living bird and the short wings likewise also nearly disappeared in the plumage. It had a long, slightly curved, brown bill and comparatively (for a rail) long legs. Altogether, it resembled a lean kiwi more than a rail.

The Red Rail is discussed in almost every report about Mauritius from 1602 on; however, the details provided are repetitive and do not shed much light on the bird's life history; rather, they dwell upon the varying ease with which the bird could be caught according to the hunting method and the fact that when roasted it was considered a good substitute for pork. Most of the information on the appearance of the bird comes from the painting by Joris Hoefnagel, done from a bird living in the menagerie of Emperor Rudolph II around 1600. More enigmatically, a bird resembling a Red Rail is figured in Francesco Bassano the Younger's painting Arca di Noè ("Noah's Ark"). As Bassano died before the Dutch colony was established on Mauritius in 1598, the origin of the bird is a mystery. Finally, there are some rather crude depictions of what apparently is this bird in three of the 1620s dodo paintings by Roelant Savery. What can be said is that around 1600, possibly earlier, a small number of Red Rails reached Europe alive. In addition, there are four more or less crude drawings done on Mauritius.

Extinction Depiction by Pieter van den Broecke from the year 1617

The rail was hunted to extinction in the century after its discovery. The dodo was considered rather unpalatable, and usually only killed out of curiosity or boredom, but the Red Rail was a very popular gamebird for the Dutch and French settlers. While it could usually make good its escape when chased, it was easily lured by showing the birds a red cloth, which they approached to attack; a similar behavior was noted in its relative, the Rodrigues Rail. The birds could then be picked up, and their cries when held would draw more individuals to the scene, as the birds, which had evolved in the absence of predators, were curious and not afraid of humans. As it nested on the ground, pigs which ate their eggs and young probably contributed to its extinction. When François Leguat (1708), who had become intimately familiar with the Rodrigues Rail in the preceding years, came to Mauritius in 1693, he remarked that the Red Rail had already become rare; he was the last source to mention the bird. It can be assumed to have been extinct around 1700. Determination of the rail's status and disappearance is complicated because the local name for the dodo, Todaersen (or dodaersen, "fat-arses") was transferred to the Red Rail, which was just as plump-rumped, with the dodo's impending extinction.


Due to the confusion with the dodo mentioned above and discrepancies in the crude drawings, the list of synonyms of the Red Rail is quite long:

  • Apterornis bonasia Selys, 1848
  • Didus broeckii Schlegel, 1848 (after the van den Broecke drawing)
  • Didus herberti Schlegel, 1854 (after the Herbert drawing)
  • Aphanapteryx imperialis Frauenfeld, 1868 (after the Hoefnagel painting)
  • Pezophaps broeckii Schlegel, 1873
  • Didus herbertii Salvadori, 1893
  • Kuina mundyi Hachisuka, 1937 (after the Mundy drawing)

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