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Using Color to Identify Neotropical Parrots in Early Modern European Art: Recognizing Limitations and Avoiding Pitfalls Through Integration of Scientific and Artistic Knowledge

Colorful Neotropical parrots were amongst the first and most frequent exotic animals to be imported by Europeans from the “New World” of the Americas, becoming key figures in what would become known as the Columbian exchange. There has been an ongoing effort to locate and identify images of Neotropical parrots in the visual record of early modern Europe, with the classification of many remaining unsettled in the scholarship. Proper identification of these images can be valuable data for reconstructing historical biogeography and transatlantic trade; especially compelling is the potential of certain “mystery parrots” in the visual record to support the existence of taxa which may have gone extinct due to colonization and trade. However, it is important to recognize the potential pitfalls of trying to assert positive identifications through these centuries-old images. As parrots are amongst the most colorfully diverse taxa of birds on the planet, often, plumage color is a key diagnostic factor in making an identification; and yet, there are a variety of reasons why the colors of any one individual’s image may not be enough to confirm its scientific classification. Reading colors as recorded in the visual record must therefore be approached with caution and with an interdisciplinary knowledge of both the science and art of color. This paper offers a list of scientific and artistic variables which should be considered when reading color clues to identify Neotropical parrots in early modern European art, including explanations and illustrated examples of these factors, which scholars from across fields interested in engaging in such "historical birding" can consult.