Tag Archives: Carolina Parakeet

America’s lost parakeet remains poignant symbol of need to protect our birds

A century ago this week, a caged bird died in Cincinnati, Ohio. However, this was not simply a case of an untimely death of a beloved family pet. Instead, that bird represented the last of its kind.

The bird belonged to the Psittacidae, a family of tropical birds that includes macaws, parrots, caiques, amazons and parrotlets. The bird, a male named Incas, was the last captive Carolina parakeet (the only species of parrot native to the eastern United States) in existence when he died at the Cincinnati Zoo on Feb. 21, 1918, in the same aviary where Martha, the last passenger pigeon, had died four years earlier.

 

The demise of Incas came about a year after the death of his mate, who had been named Lady Jane by their zookeepers. In a time before the forces of social media and round-the-clock mass media, the death of Incas likely went unnoticed by other than a few people.

Carolina parakeets, John James Audubon

 

If few noticed the passing of Incas at the time, surely today we can mourn the loss of one of the most abundant birds to ever roam the continent. Few people even realize that North America was once home to its own species of parakeet. A few individuals — all that remained of once massive flocks of colorful, noisy native parakeets — made it into the 20th century. Despite the death of Incas in 1918, the Carolina parakeet as a species was not officially declared extinct until 1939. It was a classic example of going out with a whimper, not a bang, when the entire population of the Carolina parakeet crashed suddenly and for reasons still not fully understood.

For instance, large flocks of these birds still flew free until the final years of the 1800s, but in the first decade of the 1900s, these flocks disappeared. The only other native parrot — the thick-billed parrot of the American southwest — no longer flies north of the Mexican border. An attempt to re-introduce this parrot to Arizona in the 1980s ended in disappointing failure. Of course, thick-billed parrots still fly free south of the border.

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It would be wonderful to have native parrots still flying free. The extinct Carolina parakeet ranged throughout the eastern United States, including the states of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. These parrots strayed on occasion as far north as Wisconsin and New York and ranged as far west as Colorado. Florida provided a stronghold for this colorful species, which also made its last stand in the Sunshine State. The last flock of thirteen wild birds was documented in Florida in 1904.

These birds have attracted attention since the arrival of the first Europeans. English explorer George Peckham mentioned the presence of Carolina parakeets in an account he wrote of his 1583 expedition in Florida. In the 1700s, English naturalist Mark Catesby described the species for science in a two-volume work titled “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.”

The parrots were evidently numerous, often encountered in large flocks. Few early naturalists attempted to properly study them, resulting in a sad dearth of knowledge. Much of what we do know is quite intriguing. The diet of these parakeets made them toxic, as early naturalist and artist John James Audubon observed when cats sickened and died after dining on fresh parakeets. One of the parakeet’s favorite foods — cockleburs —imparted the toxicity into the flesh of the birds.

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Alexander Wilson

An unusual empathy and loyalty may have contributed to the downfall of the species. Early naturalist Alexander Wilson wrote of an 1808 encounter with a large flock of these parakeets. After noting how the bird covered almost every twig in a tree, Wilson raised a gun and shot several of the birds. Some of the shot birds were only wounded. “The whole flock swept repeatedly around their prostrate companions, and again settled on a low tree, within twenty yards of the spot where I stood,” Wilson wrote. “At each successive discharge, although showers of them fell, yet the affection of the survivors seemed rather to increase.”

The same tendency to rally to the side of fallen companions made Carolina parakeets easy targets for people capturing them in the late 1800s for the exotic pet trade. This flocking together and unwillingness to abandon wounded members made the birds easy targets when farmers shot them. It certainly didn’t help matters that the parakeets were also hunted for their brightly colored feathers, which were used to adorn women’s hats. It remains unclear what exactly annihilated a once abundant bird, although it was likely a combination of all of the aforementioned factors.

Changes to the landscape encouraged the parakeets to shift their diet from weed seeds to cultivated fruit, which won them the ire of farmers. Logging of extensive forests may have impacted their numbers, too. Experts have even theorized that the parakeets fell victim to some sort of epidemic spread by domestic fowl.

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Painting by Alexander Wilson of a Carolina Parakeet.

If only the dawning of a more environmentally aware age had arrived slightly sooner, the Carolina parakeet might have been saved along with species like the bald eagle and whooping crane. This native parakeet, if it had endured, might today be considered an ordinary backyard bird jostling for space at your feeders with birds like blue jays and purple finches.

Incas and his fellow Carolina parakeets may be gone, but they’ve not been forgotten. Their story is a reminder of why it remains crucial to protect all birds. Let that devotion to preservation be the legacy of America’s lost parakeets.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although protections came too late to help the Carolina Parakeet, laws like the Endangered Species Act did save birds like the Bald Eagle from possible extinction.

 

 

Monk Parakeets tend to choose unexpected locations to call home

 

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A painting of the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet by early naturalist Alexander Wilson.

What do birders miss when they look back on some of the avian potential lost before Americans became more protective of their wildlife? Obviously, we lament the loss of birds like the ivory-billed woodpecker or the great auk. Losses of bird life in the Hawaiian islands have been staggering. We also lost tiny birds — dusky seaside sparrow and Bachman’s warbler — that would have gone unnoticed by most people.

I’m confident we mourn the loss of some of the most abundant birds to ever roam the continent. One such bird was the now-extinct Carolina parakeet. Many people don’t realize that North America was once home to its own species of parakeet. A few individuals — all that remained of once massive flocks of colorful, noisy native parakeets — made it into the 20th century. The last specimen died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Feb. 21, 1918. Although not declared officially extinct until 1939, the population of the Carolina parakeets crashed suddenly and for reasons still not fully understood.

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Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this flock of Carolina Parakeets.

For instance, large flocks of these birds still flew free until the final years of the 1800s, but in the first decade of the 1900s, these flocks disappeared. The survivor at the zoo was named Incas, and this male Carolina parakeet died a year after his mate, who had been named Lady Jane by the zoo’s staff.

The only other native parrot — the thick-billed parrot of the American southwest — no longer flies north of the Mexican border. An attempt to re-introduce this parrot to Arizona in the 1980s ended in disappointing failure.

To look for parrots in the United States, one usually needs to travel to Florida. The Sunshine State has become a place to find exotic wildlife, from pythons to caymans, as well as a multitude of unusual birds that have escaped from captivity and now find the warm climate of Florida suitable for a feral existence.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      This pair of Monk Parakeets has been making a home at an electrical substation in Newland, N.C.

When it comes to parrots, however, there is one species, perhaps tougher than its kin, that has expanded its range across the country. Called the monk parakeet (or quaker parakeet in the pet trade) this bird is not a native species, but it has proved tenacious in making itself at home in such far-flung locations as Delaware and Michigan, as well as Connecticut and Rhode Island. These green beauties have even made themselves at home in New York City. The monk parakeet has also established colonies in Canada’s British Columbia.

Closer to home, these parakeets have also established colonies in Virginia and North Carolina, although I cannot confirm any such attempts in Tennessee. I recently got to see my first monk parakeets in the wild after learning on the Facebook page Carolina Birders that a pair of these parakeets has been found in Newland, North Carolina. Being only about a 20-minute drive from Roan Mountain, Tennessee, it was not difficult for me to make two trips to Newland to look for these two birds, which are residing at an electrical sub-station. I failed to find them on my first trip on a rainy, windy day. When the weather improved, I tried again on Feb. 19 and was successful. I saw the parakeets seated on their nest, perched on wires and visiting a feeder at a home near the sub-station.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        This pair of monk parakeets have built a nest in an electrical substation in Newland, North Carolina. The feral population of these parakeets in North America stems from wild birds brought from Argentina for sale as pet birds in the 1960s.

 

The origin of feral monk parakeets in the United States dates back to the 1960s when birds brought from their native Argentina for sale in the pet trade escaped and subsequently thrived in various locations in the country. In researching this bird, I discovered that in North Carolina there are known colonies in Wilmington and Charlotte. Perhaps the pair in Newland are individuals expanding from those colonies. Monk parakeets are most abundant in Florida, but these birds have been found in numerous states, from Texas and Ohio to New Jersey and Delaware. These parakeets have also established feral populations in Europe in Belgium, Spain and Great Britain.

The origin of “monk” for this bird’s name is believed to stem from the gray-colored swath of feathers found on the bird’s breast, throat and forehead. The rest of the bird’s plumage is a bright green in color. The monk parakeet also has an orange bill. The birds are comparable in size to a mourning dove.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        These two Monk Parakeets now call Newland, N.C., home.

Monk parakeets differ from most other parrots, which are almost exclusively cavity-nesting birds. Monk parakeets form nesting colonies and use twigs and branches to build large, bulky nests. Even a single pair of monk parakeets can build a substantial nest. A colony of these nesting birds usually builds a nest featuring several compartments. The pair of parakeets in Newland have already build a large nest among the transformers of an electrical sub-station. The industrious birds create some large stick structures, and nests weighing 90 pounds have been found.

In the wild, these sociable birds form large flocks. In captivity, the monk parakeet can be taught an extensive vocabulary of words. The monk parakeet can live 20 to 30 years, with captive birds usually living longer than wild ones.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        The pair of Monk Parakeets have built a bulky nest of twigs and sticks at the Newland electrical substation,

I was thrilled to see this pair of monk parakeets, but it also made me somewhat wistful for what might have been. It would be wonderful to have native parrots still flying free. The extinct Carolina parakeet ranged throughout the eastern United States, including the states of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. If only the dawning of a more environmentally aware age had arrived slightly sooner, the Carolina parakeet might have been saved along with species like the California condor and whooping crane. This native parakeet, if it had endured, might today be considered an ordinary backyard bird.

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John and Karen Hollingsworth                                  USFWS personnel inspect a Quaker, or Monk, Parakeet shipment from Uruguay. Monk parakeets have habit of showing up in unexpected places

To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.