The Carolina Parakeet

 

(This 705th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 3, 2004.)

 

In about 1825 naturalist and artist John James Audubon collected and painted seven Carolina parakeets feeding in one of their favorite plants, a cocklebur. A parakeet, he said, "alights upon it, plucks the bur from the stem with its bill, takes it from the latter with one foot, in which it turns it over until the joint is properly placed to meet the attacks of the bill, when it bursts it open, takes out the fruit, and allows the shell to drop."

 

Audubon also wrote of these handsome grackle-sized green, yellow and orange birds: "The woods are the habitation best fitted for them, and there the richness of their plumage, their beautiful mode of flight, and even their screams, afford welcome intimation that our darkest forests and most sequestered swamps are not destitute of their charms."

 

At that time Audubon and others found this a common species throughout the southeastern United States. For example, Alexander Wilson, Audubon's contemporary, found "great numbers" of them feeding at a salt lick near the Kentucky River.

 

Some Carolina parakeets may even have made it to Erie County. In 1889 a Buffalo attorney, David F. Day, who had good credentials as an amateur botanist and ornithologist, reported that he had once seen thirteen parakeets light on the old city buildings at the corner of Franklin and Eagle Streets and that he knew of many being captured in West Seneca. Audubon too reported that "they could be procured...sometimes as far northeast as Lake Ontario."

 

But a hundred years after Audubon painted his Carolina parakeets, this species, our only native parrot, was extinct. In fact later in life even Audubon noted their rapid decline.

 

Early in the twentieth century the final wild parakeet was killed 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."

 

We have limited knowledge about why this species disappeared. Some have claimed that they feasted on farmers' crops but few complaints about this kind of behavior survive and farmers often spoke in their favor for controlling those invasive cockleburs.

 

It has also been said that the introduction of honeybees to North America contributed to the parrot's demise because escaped bees took over nesting cavities they formerly used.

 

More likely, the birds were simply an attractive and remarkably easy target for hunters and collectors. Their flocking behavior was suicidal. When birds were shot from a group, the others returned to their dead and wounded companions. Wilson described one such episode: "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. At each successive discharge, though showers of them fell, yet the affection of the survivors seemed rather to increase."

 

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. This is another of the positive roles played by modern zoos and circuses.

 

I occasionally see an escaped parrot while birding and a neighbor's pet parrot occasionally screams from a tall ash tree in his yard when it gets loose. There are also a few colonies of monk parakeets in the New York City area. They are the offspring of parrots originally imported from Argentina as cage birds that somehow found their way to the wild. Unfortunately, in Argentina this species is notorious for its orchard depredations and, since they pose this agricultural threat, they are carefully monitored by our New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

 

Those parrots are, of course, all aliens. Our native parakeet is, like the passenger pigeon and the heath hen, gone forever.-- Gerry Rising