A Foreign Bird as a National Symbol?
Within the manufactured world of nations, economies, and markets, currency is what defines us. The almighty dollar, or shilling, or pound – irrespective of designation – is the unit that influences life on the macro and micro scale. Notes and coins are thoughtfully and expertly designed with ornate workings that would not only properly represent the country but also engender a sense of national pride among the population who would be utilizing the currency on a daily basis.
Here in Trinidad and Tobago, we have some of the most beautiful currency notes in the world. Colourful and adorned with all manners of artwork and security features, our notes are periodically updated to reflect culturally significant facets of our lives. While a country’s currency may define its economy, its natural history and heritage defines the place. Being some of the most biodiverse islands on the planet, the birds of T&T play substantial roles in all manners of national symbols. Firstly, this country is one of only two in the world to have two officially recognized national birds: the Scarlet Ibis and the Rufous-vented Chachalaca – locally known as Cocrico. Furthermore, this pair of national birds is joined on our Coat of Arms by a trio of hummingbirds. With 18 species of these tiny, high-octane, bejewelled nectarivores currently on record, T&T is often erroneously referred to as the “land of the hummingbird”; this designation is sometimes attributed to a translation of the word “iere” which is actually a variation of “cayri” – an Arawak/lokono word for “island”.
Our currency also prominently features birds, with a different species gracing the front face of each designation. It wasn’t always this way, though. Although T&T gained independence and its own currency in 1962, it was only after the second revision in 1977 when the first birds were introduced on the bills. At this point, not every note had a bird either. The $5, $20, and $100 bills featured flowers and plants; namely the chaconia, hibiscus, and coffee, respectively. In 1985 there was another revision, and this time all denominations featured birds on the front side. Included on these notes were both national birds of T&T, a national symbol in the form of a species of hummingbird, a mysterious, brightly coloured bird that would later become an endemic species to T&T, and a most interesting inclusion of a bird that is native to another island on the other side of the world. Later on, the reintroduction of a $50 note would ultimately feature one of the several species of red, white, and black birds found locally.
But back to the foreign species; why, with the plethora of birds sailing across the sky, darting from branch to branch, and paddling in all waterways, was one that could not be found anywhere in T&T chosen to occupy this position? Featured on the highest denominational note, the one wielding the most power, the $100 bill, was a Greater Bird-of-Paradise. This resplendent creature is native to the island of New Guinea and the neighbouring Aru Island chain in the Indian Ocean. Flabbergasting, but true. For us to understand the reasoning, we need to go back in time.
From New Guinea to the New World
The spread of Europeans across the world via colonization resulted in far-flung treasures being brought back to Europe. Some of these included exquisitely patterned feathers; the fashion industry eagerly chomped at the bit, this gave rise to a slew of plume hunters who functioned specifically as instruments of the millinery trade, also known as hat-making. Hats were symbols of status and power, and oftentimes the more outrageous the hat, the more appealing it seemed. Some hats were decorated with feathers, others with the taxidermed corpses of entire animals. This Victorian Era trend resulted in the industrial scale extermination of entire breeding colonies of birds, most notably in the Florida Everglades; but also Black Grouse from Scandinavia, pheasants from China, along with crowned pigeons and birds-of-paradise from New Guinea. Markets in London carried advertisements boasting of the thousands of exotic birds – both live and dead – on sale for whomever was interested.
This practice of decorating clothing with feathers was so ubiquitous that it was even used by the British Army as part of their uniforms until 1889. This was three years after it was noted that an estimated five million birds were being killed each year for their feathers. Many were concerned that this would drive certain species to extinction, as hunter accounts indicated that “the heads and necks of the young birds were hanging out of their nests by the hundreds”; the adults were shot and plucked on site, leaving the carcasses to rot next to eggs and young birds who themselves would slowly perish. Although in the minority at the time, some concerned voices began to permeate the plunder. One man in particular, Sir William Ingram, purchased the island of Little Tobago and intended to use the former cotton plantation as a sanctuary for the Greater Bird-of-Paradise that was being hunted to oblivion in its native range.
To achieve this objective, Sir Ingram enlisted the services of one W. J. C. (Wilfred) Frost, a well-known traveller and trader of exotic animals who made a living supplying zoos and private collectors including some of the wealthiest men on earth at the time. In 1909, Frost assisted in the procurement of – most plausibly via the method of stealing baby birds directly from the nest – a total of 56 Greater Birds-of-Paradise, and arranged for them to be shipped to Little Tobago via England. Naturally, some birds did not survive the journey. A few were kept in England; by September of the same year, 48 Greater Birds-of-Paradise were ready for release on Little Tobago.
Maintaining the alien birds proved to be a daunting task. At the point of release, it was not possible to determine the sex of the birds, as the juvenile plumage of both males and females was identical. It was only when the birds became mature that the males would take on their famous and spectacular plumage, the process of maturation could take around five or six years. While the birds adapted to the fruit on Little Tobago, the island’s lack of a dependable water source meant that human caretakers were tasked with bringing water from mainland Tobago for the birds. Additionally, at least one caretaker would boast of the number of hawks he shot, despite the hawks not once preying on the birds-of-paradise. An ironic twist, given that the purpose of the birds-of-paradise being on the island was a conservation-minded one.
At the turn of the 20th century, however, various conservation organizations were pushing back against the thirst for plumes. By the mid 1900s, the flow of feathers into Europe was in decline. While this decline first began due to a genuine scarcity of birds, it was accelerated by the conservation pushback. In 1918 the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted that granted full protection to more than a thousand species of birds in North America, including both live and dead birds, eggs, nests, and most notably, feathers. While this didn’t expressly protect all the birds on Earth, it was a major step toward changing attitudes in the right direction.
Meanwhile on Little Tobago, the population of Greater Birds-of-Paradise wasn’t off to a prolific start. While there were accounts of increasing numbers of young birds, the various caretakers on the island were unable to find a single nest. Granted that in their native habitat, the nest of a Greater Bird-of-Paradise is an inconspicuous structure in the fork of a large tree – it follows that if the appropriate foundation for this type of nest was not present on Little Tobago, the birds may have adjusted their strategy slightly. Nevertheless, by the time Hurricane Flora barrelled into the island as a Category 3 storm in 1963 the population was reduced to somewhere between 15 and 29 birds. A 10-month census from 1965 into 1966 revealed that the population of Greater Bird-of-Paradise on Little Tobago had further dwindled to no more than 7 birds. Although these incredibly beautiful birds had demonstrated their ability to find food, shelter, and even breed on the miniscule and very dry island of Little Tobago, oceans away from their original home, their time under the warm Caribbean sun was coming to an end. The last recorded sighting of a Greater Bird-of-Paradise on Little Tobago was in February 1981.
Four years after this final sighting, in 1985, a depiction of a Greater Bird-of-Paradise was introduced in the currency of T&T as an adornment to the highest denominational bill. Additionally, a subsequent revision to the currency in 2002 saw an introduction of a new security feature on every bill – a watermark featuring the silhouette of a Greater Bird-of-Paradise. Evidently, there was something incredibly significant about this bird, despite having not been seen on Little Tobago for almost two decades. A later revision in 2006 saw the watermark being changed to reflect the individual birds on each denomination.
A Conscientious Choice for a Suitable Successor
Native flora and fauna form an indelible aspect of the heritage of a place. Within the natural tapestry of Trinidad and Tobago and its surrounding islets, a singular alien species sings a silent song. Notwithstanding its altruistic origins and ultimate demise, questions must be asked and lessons must be gleaned. We are currently deep into the sixth mass extinction event in the planet’s history, and there is no better time to reflect upon our past and use the information to make decisive movements going forward.
The bird on our $100 bill speaks to a history of unethical behaviour and a mindset of dominion over the natural world that sadly characterized much of European exploration and colonization. The forests of New Guinea and the surrounding Aru Islands were plundered just like their Caribbean counterparts. Birds were stolen from under their parents’ breasts and shipped halfway across the world. However, an inspection of the reasons why efforts were made to establish the Greater Bird-of-Paradise on Little Tobago reveals notes of gracious concern for a seriously imperilled species. This may easily be the most important aspect of the entire chain of events; one which today, we should seek to emulate.
The question must be posed, therefore, whether there is some species present in our country today that may be facing a similar fate as the Greater Bird-of-Paradise was at the turn of the 20th century, and whether we are able to apply a similar effort to halt its demise. Of all the near 500 species of birds that have been recorded in T&T since the earliest days of ornithological exploration here, only one has the ominous cloud of extinction looming over it. That species is in fact, only found on Trinidad, and with possibly no more than 300 birds left on the planet, truly teetering at the edge of existence.
The Trinidad Piping-Guan, locally known as the “Pawi” has consequently been officially listed as Critically Endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. There is only one stage between Critically Endangered and Extinct, that being Extinct in the Wild. Without any substantial captive breeding population, this designation would surely be short-lived. Thus, the situation surrounding the beloved Pawi is as dire as it gets. Many concerned citizens have mobilized educational campaigns and other efforts to conserve the species, its main threats being hunting and habitat loss.
Formerly found throughout forested areas on the island, alarms signalling its decline due to overhunting began from as early as 1894. It achieved protected status within a year of the nation’s independence, but this status did little to stem the flow of bullets. The last sighting of a Pawi from east-central Trinidad was in 1983; they disappeared from the legally protected Trinity Hills Game Sanctuary in 1994. By this time the population had plummeted to approximately 100 birds, this grave statistic galvanized some sterling conservation efforts on the island. Today, with greater awareness and an apparent reduction in poaching, the celebrated endemic Trinidad Piping-Guan is now on a slow but deliberate increase within the Northern Range. We must be careful not to celebrate prematurely though, as genetic studies indicate that there is incredibly limited genetic variation within the population which can negatively impact the overall health of the species as well as its ability to properly rebound from such low numbers.
For a species garnering such attention locally and internationally, relatively few Trinbagonians have had the opportunity to see one of these birds. Awareness of the criticality of the situation is imperative to prevent unfortunate occurrences such as accidental killings or triggers pulled in ignorance. We all deserve to know and understand how precious – and precarious – this bird is. The consideration of how the image of the Pawi could be able to reach the maximum number of people has a singular conclusion: currency.
Just imagine, anyone handling a $100 bill would see a Trinidad Piping-Guan! Artwork by Joanne Husain.
The public exaltation of an endemic species facing extinction would be a noble act parallel to that of Sir William Ingram over a century ago. In doing so, we shall continue a legacy of action with the intention of protection and preservation. The replacement of the Greater Bird-of-Paradise by the Trinidad Piping-Guan would speak volumes to national pride, their commonality giving a deserved nod to the shared legacy of conservation action while maintaining a sense of currency in our currency.
Chapman, F.M. (1894). On the birds of the Island of Trinidad. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. 6: 1-54.
Grass, A. A. (2018). The genetics and evolution of the critically endangered Trinidad Piping Guan Pipile pipile, synonym Aburria pipile (Doctoral dissertation). University of Chester, United Kingdom.