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Reunion Swamphen

An artist's depiction of the bird

The Réunion swamphen (Porphyrio caerulescens), also called the Réunion gallinule or "blue bird" (translated from French "oiseau bleu"), is a theoretical extinct rail species native to Réunion, a Mascarene island. Despite solely documented through accounts from the 17th and 18th centuries by island visitors, it was taxonomically named in 1848, referencing Sieur Dubois' 1674 narrative. Extensive literature has debated its possible relations, yet contemporary scholars concur on its affiliation with the Porphyrio genus, though its lack of tangible evidence remains mysterious and puzzling.

Described as entirely blue with a red bill and legs, it was reportedly comparable in size to a Réunion ibis or chicken, suggesting a length of 65–70 cm (26–28 in), possibly resembling the takahē. Despite being easily preyed upon, it was noted as a swift runner and capable flier, albeit with reluctance. Its diet likely comprised plant matter and invertebrates, akin to other swamphens, with nesting habits among grasses and aquatic ferns. Restricted to the Plaine des Cafres plateau, it possibly retreated there towards its end, contrasting with other lowland swamp-dwelling swamphens. While the last confirmed sighting dates back to 1730, speculation suggests survival until 1763, yet excessive hunting and the introduction of cats likely fastened it's extinction.

Numerous land-dwelling rails are flightless, and those inhabiting islands are particularly susceptible to human-induced changes, leading to a higher rate of extinctions within the rail family than any other bird group. All six endemic species of Mascarene rails have vanished, their demise attributed solely to human activities. Overhunting, driven by the Réunion swamphen's status as a prized game bird that was easily captured, stands as the primary factor behind its extinction. However, as proposed by Cheke and Hume, the introduction of cats towards the late 17th century likely compounded the bird's decline once they turned feral and encroached upon its habitat. Presently, cats continue to pose a significant threat to native birds, notably Barau's petrel, as they inhabit all regions of Réunion, even its most remote and elevated peaks. The inadvertent introduction of rats in 1676 further imperiled the eggs and chicks of the swamphen and other avian species on the island. Interestingly, despite this array of threats, the Réunion swamphen and its counterparts seem to have endured the presence of feral pigs. Additionally, the promotion of cattle grazing on the Plaine des Cafres plateau, championed by the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier in the 1750s, may have also contributed to the bird's decline.

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