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The Grand Cayman Bullfinch: local bird now awarded full endemic species status

Environment 31 Jul, 2023 Follow News

Cayman Bullfinch Tonya Wight.

Cayman Bullfinch Yves-Jacques Rey-Millet

Introducing Melopyrrha taylori the Grand Cayman Bullfinch, an exciting addition to the Cayman Islands’ bird list, an endemic, and one of only two species in this monotypic West Indian genus.

This month the American Ornithological Society announced that the species Cuban Bullfinch Melopyrrha nigra, previously recognized as two endemic subspecies on Cuba and Grand Cayman, has been split into two endemic species, the Grand Cayman Bullfinch Melopyrrha taylori on Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands and the Cuban Bullfinch Melopyrrha nigra on Cuba. The decision was a belated response to an ornithological paper submitted in 2014 by four authors from Cuba and two from the Cayman Islands.* The endemic split had already been recognized by other world Ornithological Councils. The Grand Cayman Thrush, the only other modern endemic bird, was last seen in 1938 and is now considered extinct.

In modern times, the bullfinch on the Cayman Islands is of restricted range occurring only on Grand Cayman. Up to the 1980s, it was widespread throughout the island but intense development in the western half of Grand Cayman has since resulted in a species shift eastward and it now occurs almost exclusively east of Newlands. In the 1970s, Gary Morgan identified fossil bones of this species from circa 13,000 BP from caves on Cayman Brac.

The bullfinch was first collected on Grand Cayman for museums on 12 August 1886 by W.B Richardson for ornithologist Charles B Cory. He identified it as Melopyrrha nigra, the same species that occurred on Cuba. In 1886, Charles B Taylor collected bird specimens on Grand Cayman between 14 March-21 April 1896 for Lord Rothschild’s museum at Tring, England and where the bird specimens of the British Museum are now housed. Dr Hartert, the Director at Tring, declared the bullfinch a new species and named it M. taylori in 1896. Later, especially under ornithologist James Bond it reverted to two subspecies.

Both sexes of our bullfinch are morphologically distinct from the Cuban being larger, longer, heavier and with a larger, wider and deeper bill. Colouration differs with the dull black of the Cayman male as opposed to the glossy black with violet sheen of the Cuban. Both species have white on the underwing and on outer primaries showing as a white bar on the closed wing. The Cayman female is bi-coloured, blackish upperparts with brownish-olive grey underparts while the Cuban females is slate-blackish overall. Vocalisations are also distinctly different, with the Cuban song more complex.

Cayman birds build large bulky globular nests, often in a tangle of vines, woven with fibres, grasses, rootlets and twigs and lined with feathers; the entrance at the side. Preferred trees are Silver Thatch and two species of Shake Hand. Both adults build the nest and feed the young; only the female broods, 2-4 dull greenish white eggs with reddish spotting. The nest is also used for roosting post-breeding.

The bullfinch forages predominately on seeds and fruits throughout most habitats; it breeds preferably in dry shrubland and dry woodland, occasionally in forest and buttonwood -mangrove edge. However breeding has not been recorded in mangrove forest or in coastal seagrape hedge.

As a single island endemic of restricted range, the bullfinch is likely to be reclassified on the IUCN endangered species Red List to a Near-Threatened species of Global Concern. It will require monitoring by the DOE to ensure that as development encroaches into its eastern habitats sufficient areas are protected and remain connected to allow continued genetic diversity.

The Cayman Islands have 16 endemic subspecies, of these the Cuban Parrot has two subspecies, one on Grand Cayman and one on Cayman Brac. It is a likely candidate for genetic study to determine if either or both subspecies are sufficiently different from those on Cuba and the Bahamas to warrant separate endemic species designation.

Having an endemic bird is important - giving us a new flagship species to promote Cayman ‘s international biodiversity status and, locally, in education, tourism and the necessity of protecting wildlife habitat.

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