Encyclopedia of Islands

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Birds of the Antilles

There are 604 bird species in the Antilles, and 163 of these are endemic (27% endemism), some with very restricted distributions. In the Antilles, there are 36 endemic genera and two endemic families (palmchats [Dulidae] and todies [Todidae]). Within the boundaries of the Antilles, 48 bird species are currently threatened with extinction. 

Fourteen bird species and subspecies have already become extinct.

Because the Antilles lacked predatory mammals, an unusually large number of birds became flightless during prehistoric times, and some birds filled predatory niches. There was at least one large ground-dwelling predatory owl (Ornimegalonyx oteroi), several other large barn owls, and huge birds of prey.

Birds of the Antilles

There were 15 or 16 parrot-like species endemic to the Antilles, all of which are  now extinct. Past climate and sea-level changes during the Pleistocene, as well as the impact of humans, introduced predators (dogs, cats, mongoose), and invasive species have combined to destroy most ground-nesting and flightless species.

The Antilles, especially the Greater Antilles, is an important area for migratory birds. Many North American migrants spend the winter months on these islands. Many individuals return to specific locations each winter. This creates numerous biological challenges, such as competition for limited resources with native species. Some migrants such as black-throated blue warblers have developed winter strategies whereby males and females winter at different elevations and in different habitats. A small percentage of the population of some migrants remains behind each year (e.g., in the case of redstart warblers in Hispaniola and Cuba). There are subspecies of North American migrants that have become endemic breeding forms (e.g., pine warblers, yellow warblers, and white-winged crossbills). One of the more interesting of site-specific North American migrants is the Bicknell’s thrush, which nests on specific mountaintops in northern New England and winters in Hispaniola in specific locations, usually primary montane forests above 1000 m elevation.

These examples reveal the complex mixture of resident, endemic, migratory, and modified migratory species that makes up the avifauna of the Antilles.

The distribution of Hispaniolan birds reflects the way the island was formed. There are two species of palm tanagers, with the black-crowned palm tanager (Phaenicophilus palmarum) being restricted to northern Hispaniola (the old north island). The gray-crowned palm tanager (Phaenicophilus poliocephalus) likely arose from a dispersal of a small group of juvenile P. palmarum to a western piece of the south island in the Pleistocene. The gray-crowned palm tanager is still restricted to southwestern Haiti west of Jacmel (an old separate part of the south island). There are two species of endemic tody on Hispaniola. Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico each have only one species. There are 604 bird species in the Antilles

There is also a species pair of high-mountain chat-tanagers (Calyptophilus) on Hispaniola. The western chat-tanager (C. tertius) is restricted to high mountain areas of the old south island. The eastern chat-tanager (C. frugivorus) is restricted to areas of the old north island in Haiti (including Gonave Island) and to the northern part of the Dominican Republic. The morphology and distribution of the western chat-tanager further reflects the past geographical history of the island. The western species can be divided into a far western subspecies (C. t. tertius) in the Massif de la Hotte of Haiti and an eastern subspecies (C. t. selleanus) in the Massif de la Selle of Haiti and the Sierra de Bahoruco of the Dominican Republic, reflecting the division of the old south island into two separate sub-islands.

The above examples of bird species, subspecies, and distributions that mirror the past geological and biological history of Hispaniola is biogeography at its living best.