Gone, but not forgotten: Carolina parakeet
The vibrant Carolina parakeet, an indigenous American parrot, became a victim of high fashion and farmers’ wrath during the 19th century and was declared extinct in 1939.
For centuries, what is now the USA was home to a species of parrot called the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), a colourful, vocal bird that was widespread in many of North America’s forests and swamps, from the Ohio valley to the Gulf of Mexico.
These social, gregarious birds were about 30cm in length and thrived in forests along rivers, using large hollow trees for roosting and nesting sites. A single nest often housed up to as many as 30 birds. Their constant chatter as they flew meant flocks – sometimes numbering up to 1,000 birds – could be heard from miles away.
However, the approach of these cheerful-sounding flocks was not often welcomed by people – thanks chiefly to the birds’ choice of diet. Its preference for seeds and fruits resulted in the destruction of crops, and meant the bird was soon regarded as an agricultural pest and disliked by farmers. As a result, the birds were often shot on sight – something that had a disastrous effect on nearby parakeets, as well as the individual, as the victim’s distress call would bring many other birds to its aid. Entire flocks ended up being shot as they rallied around a single wounded bird.
The situation got even worse for the species in the 1800s, when it became all the rage for women to trim their hats with the brightest feathers they could find. Needless to say, the parakeet’s emerald green, bright yellow and blood-orange plumage was eagerly sought. Trappers also began catching them for the exotic pet trade and, to add further to the bird’s woes, their forest habitat continued to be lost as the industrial age took hold. Numbers started declining rapidly and by 1860 the Carolina parakeet was rarely seen outside Florida.
The last reported killing took place in 1904 in Okeechobee County in Florida and, in 1917 and 1918, the last two known Carolina parakeets died in captivity in Cincinnati Zoo. The species was declared extinct in 1939.
Since then, rumours of their survival have persisted, with the most hopeful being the sighting and filming of three parakeets between 1937 and 1955 in the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia. However, the American Ornithologists’ Union concluded that feral parakeets had likely been filmed instead. All that’s left of the Carolina parakeet in Florida today is a sculpture memorial to the bird, situated in Kissimmee Prairie Preserve Street Park in Okeechobee.