Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

The Tragic Story of America’s Only Native Parrot, Now Extinct for 100 Years

Animals
The Tragic Story of America’s Only Native Parrot, Now Extinct for 100 Years

John J. Audubon / Birds of America

By Kevin R. Burgio

It was winter in upstate New York in 1780 in a rural town called Schoharie, home to the deeply religious Palatine Germans. Suddenly, a flock of gregarious red and green birds flew into town, seemingly upon a whirlwind.


The townspeople thought the end of the world was upon them. Though the robin-sized birds left quickly, their appearance was forever imprinted on local lore. As author Benjamin Smith Barton wrote, "The more ignorant Dutch settlers were exceedingly alarmed. They imagined, in dreadful consternation, that it portended nothing less calamitous than the destruction of the world."

You and I know that the birds weren't a precursor of mankind's demise—but in a way, there was impending doom ahead. These birds were Carolina parakeets, America's only native parrot. Exactly 100 years ago this February, the last captive Carolina parakeet died, alone in a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo, the same zoo where the last captive passenger pigeon, named Martha, died four years earlier. The last "official" wild Carolina parakeet was spotted in Florida just two years later.

Why did these birds go extinct? It remains a mystery. Given that parrots today are at greater risk for extinction than other major bird groups, is there anything scientists can learn from the Carolina parakeet?

Unraveling Parakeet Mysteries

Over the past six years, I've been collecting information about where the Carolina parakeet was observed over the last 450 years.

The extinct Carolina parakeet, mounted on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

I spent hours upon hours reading historical documents, travel diaries and other writings, ranging from the 16th century all the way into the 1940s. I've often become lost in the stories surrounding these parrot observations—from the first accounts of Europeans exploring the New World, to the harrowing tales of settlers traveling the Oregon Trail in the 1800s, to grizzled egg hunters scouring the swamps of Florida in the early 1900s.

I also dug through natural history museum collections, looking at what many would just see as just some old, dusty, creepy dead birds. But I see them differently: beautiful in their own way, each with a story to tell.

My goal was to unravel some of the lasting mysteries about the Carolina parakeet—like where it lived. Historically, people used to determine a species range by plotting the most extreme observations of that species on a map, drawing a polygon around them and called it a day. Because of this, people long thought Carolina parakeets lived from upstate New York all the way to Colorado and down to the Texas coast.

But birds are often seen in areas where they don't normally go. For instance, the range of the snowy owl—like Hedwig of "Harry Potter" fame—doesn't really extend all the way to Bermuda, though one was once spotted there.

The historic distribution of the extinct Carolina parakeet. The green area represents new understanding of where the eastern subspecies lived. The blue is where the western subspecies lived. The red line is based on a range map for the species published in 1891. Ecology and Evolution (2017), CC BY

What's more, scientists don't know what really drove these parakeets to extinction. Some thought it was habitat loss. Some thought it was hunting and trapping. Some thought disease. A few even thought it was competition with nonnative honey bees for tree cavities, where the parakeets would roost and nest.

Thanks to the data I compiled as well as cutting-edge machine learning approaches to analyze those data, my colleagues and I were able to reconstruct the Carolina parakeets' likely range and climate niche. It turned out to be much smaller than previously believed. Generally, their range extended from Nebraska east to Ohio, south to Louisiana and Texas. The eastern subspecies lived mostly along the southeastern coast from Alabama, through Florida and up to Virginia.

We were also able to confirm the longstanding hypothesis that the parakeets in the northwest part of their range migrated southeasterly in the winter, to avoid the blistering cold of the Midwest.

Why It Matters

In a world that faces extinction on a scale not seen in the past 65 million years, some of you may wonder: Aren't there more important things to study?

While this may seem rather minor, some scientists consider the Carolina parakeet one of the top candidates for "de-extinction." That's a process in which DNA is harvested from specimens and used to "resurrect" extinct species, not unlike "Jurassic Park" (but way less action and decidedly less Jeff Goldblum).

If someone were to spend millions of dollars doing all of the genetic and breeding work to bring back this species, or any other, how will they figure out where to release these birds? Given the effects of climate change, it's no longer a given that scientists could release birds exactly where they used to be and expect them to flourish.

Whether or not de-extinction is a worthwhile use of conservation effort and money is another question, best answered by someone other than me. But this is just an example of one potential use of this type of research.

In many ways, the history of the Carolina parakeet's decline parallels the history of American growth over the course of the 19th century. All that prosperity came with many terrible costs. As the U.S. expanded and remade the landscape to suit its needs, many native species lost out.

Today, parrots face a serious threat of extinction. Parrot diversity tends to be highest in areas around the world that are rapidly developing, much like the U.S. during the 19th century. So whatever lessons the Carolina parakeet can teach us may be crucial moving forward.

I continue to study Carolina parakeets, and other recently extinct species, in the effort to hear and relate these lessons. As cliche as it is to say, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

In an ad released by Republican Voters Against Trump, former coronavirus task force member Olivia Troye roasted the president for his response. Republican Voters Against Trump / YouTube

Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Climate Group

Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A field of sunflowers near the Mehrum coal-fired power station, wind turbines and high-voltage lines in the Peine district of Germany on Aug. 3, 2020. Julian Stratenschulte / picture alliance via Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.

Read More Show Less
Monarch butterflies in Mexico's Oyamel forest in Michoacan, Mexico after migrating from Canada. Luis Acosta / AFP / Getty Images

By D. André Green II

One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.

Read More Show Less
The 30th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony on Sept. 17 introduced ten new Ig Nobel Prize winners, each intended to make people "laugh then think." Improbable Research / YouTube

The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch