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.
I spent hours upon hours reading historical documents, travel diaries and other writings, ranging from the 16th century all the way into the 1940s.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.
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.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Two White House Staffers Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Admin to Disband Coronavirus Task Force - EcoWatch ›
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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.
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks ... ›
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.
- German Business Leaders Call for Climate Action With COVID-19 ... ›
- Climate Activists Protest Germany's New Datteln 4 Coal Power Plant ... ›
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.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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.