By Melody Bell Wilkes
A Walk in the Woods
When we think of animals that have gone extinct in North Carolina, colossal animals come to mind such as giant sloths, mastodons, Wooly mammoths, saber toothed tigers, camels and huge turtles. These prehistoric creatures are portrayed in many museum diorama scenes depicting the lost age of the dinosaur.
Yet, there is another North Carolina creature that measured a mere 12 inches from head to tail and weighed a scant 10 ounces that has joined the ranks of extinct animals. In the past 100 years, we lost the only native parrot in the United States, the Carolina Parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis.
The Carolina Parakeet was a common bird until the end of the 19th century. It was found in the southeastern region of the United States ranging from eastern Texas through Florida and as far north as Maryland, New York and Wisconsin. The birds lived in a wide range of habitats but typically preferred tall cypress trees, buttonwoods and moss covered sycamore trees along rivers and swamps.
The parakeet was very colorful in lime green plumage with a bright yellow head tinted with tangerine orange around its eyes and forehead. Indians referred to the parakeets as “puzzi la nee” which meant “head of yellow.”
Carolina Parakeets were highly social birds. They lived in pairs or small groups and flew in fast-moving flocks, darting in and out of trees making raucous calls. Their diet consisted of seeds from grasses, maple, elm, pine, and especially cocklebur which was a vigorous weed proving to be a pest to the settler farmers. At foraging grounds, flocks of 200-300 birds could be seen during the early morning or evening hours when they were the most active. After two or three hours of eating, they would fly to a nearby watering hole to get fresh water to drink. At rest, they would communally roost in the hollow of deciduous trees. Birds that could not fit in the hollow would hang on the outside of the tree.
Carolina Parakeets are monogamous, mating with only one partner for life. The female looks similar to the male. At nesting time, they would lay two white eggs at the bottom of a tree cavity or build flimsy nests on the branches of cypress trees.
The demise of the Carolina Parakeet came when colonial settlement began to spread and most of its natural habitat was cleared for farming. The parakeet started to rely on eating the farmer’s crop for food. Seeds of apples, pecan, mulberry, peach, grains and dogwood were consumed. Foraging in grain fields and orchards caused considerable damage to farmers.
Carolina Parakeets were very devoted to each other. If a member of the flock was injured or killed, the other parakeets would gather around in an apparent attempt to assist it. The farmer had a great advantage of shooting them relentlessly as the ones that had been shot were congregated over by the remaining parakeets until little or nothing of the flock remained.
John James Audubon noted their decline in 1832 and wrote, “The Parakeets are destroyed in great numbers, for whilst busily engaged in plucking off the fruits or tearing the grain from the stacks, the 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 10, or even 20, 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.”
As well as being shot as an agricultural pest, the Carolina Parakeet was collected in large numbers as a cage bird and widely shot for sport. Another interesting theory about its decline involves the introduction of the European honeybee by settlers. These bees tended to build their hives in the holes of trees where the parakeets would normally roost or nest further reducing the number of available sites for parakeets. The last recorded sighting of a Carolina Parakeet in the wild was in the 1930s.
Only taxidermy specimens in museums remain of this once prolific and only native parrot of the United States that roamed our woodlands. The museum specimens serve as representatives, of a not so distant past, who succumbed to deforestation of riverine forest and persecution. A silent sentinel that stands to remind us, how we can improve our approach to coexist with wildlife before allowing species to go extinct.
Melody Bell Wilkes is the owner of A Walk in the Woods, an environmental education company that provides child friendly outreach wildlife programs to schools, birthday parties, and the general public. For more information call 704-436-9048 or visit http://www.awalkinthewoods.us