Carolina Parakeet

This extinct parrot species was the only native (endemic) parrot to occur in the United States. Its numbers declined throughout the nineteenth century, and it went extinct in the early 1920s from habitat loss and human persecution—hunting. This colorful parakeet inhabited the bottomland forests and cypress swamps of the southeastern United States and riparian woods along the rivers of the Great Plains. It ranged across the eastern half of the United States, north to Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and New York, south through the Gulf Coast states to Texas, and as far west as Kansas,

Nebraska, and even eastern Colorado. Like most other parrot species, this bird was highly social, feeding in large flocks and nesting and roosting in large old-growth trees. As vast expanses of the United States were cleared for agriculture and settlements, the Carolina parakeet populations declined till the cypress swamps of Florida became their last stronghold. In 1918, "Incas," the last Carolina parakeet in captivity, died at the Cincinnati Zoo, and Charles Doe, then curator of birds at the University of Florida, saw the last birds in the wild at Lake Okeechobee's cypress swamps in 1926 (Forshaw, 1989). Unconfirmed sightings of parakeets persisted until the late 1930s, but more likely, these birds were escaped cage parrots.

Taxonomy

This parakeet is one of the 332 species in the Psittacidae family of parrots. Although most parrot species live in tropical habitats, the Carolina parakeet was one of the few temperate parrot species. The closest relatives of this monotypic (single) parakeet genus, Conuropsis, are the Aratinga parakeet species of Mexico and Central and South America. Two subspecies of C. carolinensis were recognized: carolinensis, which was confined to the southeastern United States from Florida north to southern Virginia; and ludovicianus, which was formally distributed throughout the Mississippi and Missouri drainage system in the eastern United States.

Description

The Carolina parakeet was a bird of medium size, measuring 13 inches (30 cm) in length. It had the characteristically strong, convex beak and "yoked-toed" or zygodactylous foot (two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward) adaptations of parrots. These characteristics allow parrots to use their beaks as nutcrackers and eat the hardest of nuts and seeds while also using their feet as "hands" to grasp and hold food. The adult Carolina parakeet was largely green in color with a yellow head and scarlet to orange patches on the cheek and forehead. The sexes were similar, while young birds were duller in color and lacked the prominent yellow head color and associated patches of orange. Adult plumage appeared in the second year of a juvenile's life. They had long, gradated tails and long, pointed wings. When they flew, patches of yellow from the tips of their wing feathers were visible. The Carolina parakeet was quite striking, as can be seen in John James Audubon's famous painting of a family of parakeets in Louisiana.

Distribution

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this species was widespread and common throughout much of the eastern United States. It favored heavily forested river valleys; old bottomland forests of beech, oak, and sycamore; and cypress swamps. Greenway (1967) noted that its range contracted to the west and southeast as forests were felled for agriculture and human settlements. In the twentieth century, it was restricted to large uninhabited cypress swamps of Florida.

Habits

Much of what is known of the habits of the Carolina parakeet comes from anecdotal information contained in accounts of early setters on the Great Plains and from ornithologist John James Audubon (Audubon, 1840-1844), who was among the first of the early naturalists to describe this parakeet and its habits. He wrote: "[O]ur parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number, and in some districts, where twenty-five years ago they were plentiful, scarcely any are now to be seen I should

History Along The Mississippi

think that along the Mississippi there is now half the number that existed fifteen years ago."

The Carolina parakeet was a powerful flyer and foraged widely for food. When it was abundant, feeding flocks of 200 to 300 birds were a common sight on the Great Plains. It was most active in the early morning and early evening hours. During the middle of the day, flocks rested in large, shady trees. Such behavioral activity is typical of parrots worldwide. It was able to tolerate the cold winters in parts of its range. Like most parakeet species, this bird was highly vocal, and its characteristic flight call was described as a "loud, screeching "qui... qui.. . qui.. . qui.. . qui—ii" (Forshaw, 1989). Parrot vocalizations help maintain flock cohesion while flocks feed over large areas, and they aid in the recognition of family members in large flocks.

The bird's diet consisted of blossoms, seeds, and fruits of grasses and trees. A favorite food was the seed of the cocklebur (Xanthium stru-marium), a hardy weed species that was abundant in the plains habitat and marginal forest areas. It also fed on the fruits of hackberry, mulberry, beech, oak, sycamore, and cypress trees; the seeds of pine and maple trees; and the seeds of burgrass and thistle. This parakeet species traveled great distances foraging for food, and its movements may have been nomadic. Budgerigar parakeets in Australia exhibit similar behavior today, traveling large distances in search of food and water. As its natural food sources became scarce when land was cleared for agriculture, this parakeet switched its diet to cultivated crops. It raided grain stores and decimated fruit orchards of apples, pears, cherries, and grapes. By becoming an agricultural crop pest, the parakeet exacerbated its decline, and large numbers were shot by farmers.

The Carolina parakeet was also known to visit saline soil deposits, often along river banks. There they extracted salts and minerals from the soil deposits. Such behavior is still seen today in the large macaw and Amazon parrot populations of South America. Scientists theorized that such mineral feeding helps the birds to remove plant toxins from their bodies and provides birds with the minerals needed in their diet. The seeds of cock-lebur, a favorite Carolina parakeet food, are known to concentrate plant toxins.

The nesting habits of the Carolina parakeet were poorly understood. It remains unclear whether the species nested in spring or summer, but one can speculate that the timing of the nesting cycle was tied to food availability; hence, when widespread, populations may have bred at different times of the year. The parakeet nested in the hollow cavities of large trees, some of which were prob ably excavated by larger species of woodpeckers, and possibly in riverbank holes excavated by kingfishers. The breeding of most parrot populations today is limited by the availability of suitable nest cavities, and the Carolina parakeet most probably suffered the same fate. If old and dead trees were the more likely trees to be logged, parakeet populations faced increasing pressure to find suitable nest sites. Parrot species are categorized by ecologists as "k-selected species." The characteristics of such species are to be long-lived, to produce few offspring with high parental care, and to have delayed sexual maturity. Therefore, these populations may not show signs of an immediate decline caused by poor breeding and juvenile recruitment, since the adults have high survival rates and live so long.

Like most parrots, the Carolina parakeet laid round, white eggs at the bottom of its nest, and the chicks hatched in an altricial state (helpless, blind, with wisps of downy feathers covering their bodies). Very unusual among parrots, however, was the reported communal nesting behavior of the Carolina parakeet (Audubon, 1840-1844), whereby several females laid their eggs into the same nest. The monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) of South America is also a communal breeder and occurs in grassland and forest habitats. Each female Carolina parakeet is thought to have laid a clutch of two eggs. The species did breed in captivity in zoos, but in insufficient numbers to produce a sustainable captive population. In captivity, the species had the distinction of being inattentive parents, and chicks often died from neglect—an all too common problem stemming from captivity and poor husbandry knowledge. In the wild, young Carolina parakeets were still fed and cared for by the adults after they had left the nest ("fledged").

Relationship with Humans

Although the ultimate cause(s) for the Carolina parakeet's decline will remain unknown, we do know that the parakeet's population numbers declined with the colonization of the eastern United States and the spread of human settlements and agriculture. We also understand some of the proximate causes (habitat loss, hunting, and capture for pet trade) that played a key role in the parakeet's extinction.

Habitat loss and degradation probably was the most significant factor affecting the overall conservation status of this species. The loss of natural feeding areas and roost and nest cavities in large trees would decrease adult survivorship and the recruitment of juveniles into the population. The loss of new individuals entering populations also causes a loss of genetic diversity, and, subsequently, as populations became smaller, inbreeding and the fixation of deleterious genes may have had serious effects. Daniel McKinley (1980) recognized competition from the pioneers' introduction of honeybees as an additional proximate cause for the parakeet's decline. He postulated that the spread of European honeybees in the parakeet's range had driven it away from the tree hollows that it had used for roosting and nesting. Parakeets had to compete with honeybees for this limited resource, which became even scarcer because of clearing and logging. This hypothesis has some scientific merit, inasmuch as another endangered parrot, the Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), is encountering a similar threat in its remaining tropical forest habitat today. This parrot's nest sites are actively managed to protect honeybees from taking over the parrot's remaining, traditional nest cavities in old trees. Such interspecies competition can only further stress populations experiencing habitat loss.

The hunting of Carolina parakeets for food, as agricultural pests, for capture to supply the live pet market and for the millinery trade, and by collectors when the bird became rare all contributed greatly to the species' extinction. Such a proximate cause can be the force that drives an already declining population over the edge to extinction. This gregarious and social bird was an easy target for hunters, who could remove large numbers of birds at a single time. One particular behavioral habit made the species increasingly vulnerable to hunters. Like other parrot species, the parakeet showed a defensive behavior, mobbing or flocking to the area where several of its cohorts lay injured and calling with distress calls. Although advantageous if the predator is a hawk, drawing attention to the hawk and removing the predator's element of surprise, it is clearly disadvantageous if the predator is a man with a gun. This defensive behavior caused birds to remain in the area after the first shot was fired, and hunters could continue to shoot at roosting and flocking birds. Such slaughters of Carolina parakeets were routine and resulted in great losses of birds with little effort. Audubon (1840-1844) describes this situation vividly: "[T]he husbandman approaches them with perfect ease, and commits great slaughter among them. All the survivors rise, shriek, fly round about for a few minutes, and again alight on the very place of most imminent danger. The gun is kept at work; eight or ten, or even twenty are killed at every discharge. The living birds, as if conscious of the death of their companions, sweep over their bodies, screaming as loud as ever, but still return to the stack to be shot at, until so few remain alive, that the farmer does not consider it worth his while to spend more of his ammunition. I have seen several hundreds destroyed in this manner in the course of a few hours, and have procured a basketful of these birds at a few shots, in order to make choice of good specimens for drawing."

The conservation threats that Carolina parakeets experienced are the same severe threats facing the world's parrot species today. Parrot species are still faced with the loss and degradation of their habitat, as well as overexploitation to supply the live bird market. Birdlife International estimates that 86 (26 percent) of the 332 extant parrot species are at "risk of extinction," and 36 species are "near-threatened" (del Hoyo et al., 1997). These figures do not include cockatoo species, which are placed in a separate family, and of which seven species are at risk of extinction and four considered near-threatened. It would be fitting if the Carolina parakeet's extinction could act as a warning to offset the global threat of parrot extinction.

—Rosemarie Gnam

See also: Birds; Extinction, Direct Causes of, Preservation of Species

Bibliography

Audubon, John James. 1840-1844. The Birds of America. New York: J. J. Audubon; Cokinos, Christopher. 2000. Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam; del Hoyo, Joseph, Andrew Elliott, and Jordi Sargatal, eds. 1997. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 4. Barcelona: Lynx; Forshaw, Joseph. 1989. Parrots of the World, 3d [rev.] ed. Willoughby, Australia: Lansdowne; Greenway, James. 1967. Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. New York: Dover; McKinley, Daniel. 1980. "The Balance of Decimating Factors and Recruitment in Extinction of the Carolina Parakeet, Part I." Indiana Audubon Quarterly 58, no. 1: 8-18 (February); 50-61 (May); 103-114 (August); McKinley, Daniel. 1985. The Carolina Parakeet in Florida. Florida Ornithological Society, Special Publication No. 2. Lake Placid, FL: Florida Ornithological Society; Sparks, John, and Tony Soper. 1990. Parrots: A Natural History. New York: Facts on File.

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