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Museum reveals its Conjurer's Bird

02 February 2007

A painting of the mysterious bird of Ulieta, the subject of the best-selling novel The Conjurer's Bird, is being cared for at the Natural History Museum, UK.

Brought to public attention in Martin Davies's popular book, the painting is the only representation of this bird. The Museum never received the original specimen - it was collected during Captain Cook's second expedition to Australia and the Pacific in 1772, displayed by Cook's lead naturalist Sir Joseph Banks for four years, but then inexplicably vanished.

Story of the book

The Conjurer's Bird tells a romantic and mysterious tale of extinct bird researcher John Fitzgerald's search for the actual specimen of the bird from which the painting was made. He is hoping to give the remains to a project that preserves the genetic material of the world's endangered species.

Pacific island of Ulieta

The Ulieta specimen is from the island of Ulieta, now called Ra'iatea, in the Society Islands in the Pacific (the group that includes Tahiti). The Society Islands have suffered devastating ecological alteration from human activities, including many bird extinctions.

Bay thrush?

The conjurer's bird was thought to be a bay thrush, Turdus ulietensis (also known as Turdus badius ). But it is very likely that it was not a thrush at all, although as there is no known surviving specimen this will probably remain a mystery.

The George Forster painting

The Museum looks after the original George Forster's painting of the bird and Museum bird expert Robert Prys-Jones has many requests from the public for information about the bird.

'Martin Davies has produced an excellently-written novel which nevertheless carefully respects the known facts about this enigmatic bird,' says Robert.

'The painting held by the Museum is a poignant reminder of the irreversible damage that human colonization has inflicted on many Pacific Ocean islands.'

The Bird Group  is based at the Natural History Museum at Tring

More information can be found in E. Fuller 2000 Extinct Birds. Oxford: Oxford University Press