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Old 05-26-2005, 01:38 AM   #1
Karen Hulvey
The Carolina Parakeet - Our Only Native Parrot

The Demise of the Carolina Parakeet

Conuropsis carolinensis, the Carolina Parakeet, was indeed a beautiful bird. William Strachey was an early naturalist in the Southeastern wilds of North America and described the parakeet as “a fowle most swift of wing, their wings and breast are a greenish colour with forked tayles, their heads some crimson, some yellow, some orange towny, very beautiful…”. A German immigrant to Missouri, in his writings of 1877, likened the winter sighting of a flock of several hundred Carolina Parakeets in a Sycamore tree to the nostalgic image of a Christmas tree, with their yellow heads shining like candles. But it was this same color and brilliance that made the flocks of parakeets almost invisible in lush green foliage of its preferred habitat of deciduous timbered streams, swamps and cane breaks of the eastern United States.

The Carolina Parakeet was relatively common from New York to the deep South, and even ranged as far west as Colorado. It did not migrate, and exhibited an incredible range of food sources. The Carolina Parakeet, with its thick powerful beak, was primarily a seed-eater including those of pine, maple, elm and cypress. It also consumed mulberries, paw-paw, wild grapes and leaf buds, but the cocklebur was by far its favorite. They were also very dependent on salt, and were often seen in natural salt deposits such as at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky. Early explorers also noticed their tolerance of extreme weather conditions. The bird’s wide variety of food sources and its hardiness account for its non-migrating lifestyle.

The Carolina Parakeet is thought to have nested in hollow trees. Often they nested in large groups inside the trees, where some were even forced to cling to the outside of the opening, hanging to the tree with their feet and beaks as they slept.

There are many mysteries about the reproductive cycle of the Carolina Parakeet, presumably due to both its complexity and the fact that much of it was concealed in a tree hollow. We do know that they nested in colonies and that their eggs were plain white. But whether they nested in summer of spring, the exact number of eggs laid, their courtship patterns and longevity—all are still unknown.

Some experts believe that though the Carolina Parakeet exhibited flexible feeding habits, it was very inflexible in its breeding pattern. There is speculation that it depended on native cane breaks to trigger courtship and breeding. Since the seed production of cane was a non-annual event, their dependence on it for breeding stimulation limited reproduction. This “inflexibility” in breeding patterns is referred to by scientists as species “specific perturbation.”

When settlers cleared river bottoms of native bamboo, reproduction of the Carolina Parakeet was greatly reduced. This proximal cause of the eventual extinction of the Carolina Parakeet was set in motion by the overarching, “ultimate causes” such as logging for fuel wood, and habitat destruction caused by land-clearing for agriculture. John James Audubon wrote in 1844, “…there are one half the number that existed 15 years ago.”

There were other factors which aided the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet, one of the most interesting being the “white man’s flies,’’ or honeybees. Brought by Europeans to America for honey production and pollination, honeybees quickly escaped into the wild. Indians noticed the presence of honeybees preceding the arrival of the white man. Since honeybees also utilized hollow trees, they often displaced nesting Carolina Parakeets, thus contributing to their decline.

Also a factor in their demise was hunting for the millinery trade. Carolina Parakeets were shot in large numbers in the mid 19th century to supply feathers to decorate women’s hats and dresses. It has been estimated that this trade produced five million birds for market in 1886.

Live capture, another practice which greatly reduced Carolina Parakeet populations, was a large contributing factor in their decline. The Carolina Parakeet was not only beautiful but made a wonderful caged bird. Though it did not sing or mimic, it did learn its name and made a very pleasant and entertaining pet. As their numbers declined, they were even more in demand for “curiosity” specimens and were sold to the general public as well as the scientific community.

What saddens me is the fact that this extinction was so unnecessary. The caged birds often bred successfully but little care was taken of their offspring and only a few of them survived. And there was clearly no cooperation among owners of the parakeets. Today this would not happen. Not only would the birds' reproduction be carefully supported but, through accurate and widely shared record-keeping, individuals would be carefully identified and shared among owners to avoid the perils of interbreeding.

William Sullivant, in 1862, watched a flock of twenty-five to thirty birds fly over Columbus. This was one of the last recorded sightings of this now extinct bird.

The last wild parakeet was killed in Florida in 1913 but a few survived in zoos and private collections. George Laycock tells us, "The last known pair were called Incas and Lady Jane. They lived in the Cincinnati Zoo for some 35 years. In the late summer of 1917, Lady Jane passed away, leaving her mate listless and mournful. Alone and the last of his kind, Incas quietly 'died of grief' on February 21, 1918."
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