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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Zoo History: The Last Parakeet

"I say that such persons as have discovered and travelled those parts, doe testifie that they have found in those countryes... parrots"
- Sir Humphrey Gilbert, 1583

They probably didn’t know it, but the visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918 were among the last humans on earth to see one of the most beautiful birds in North America.  It was certainly a relatively small bird, only about a foot long, but it certainly would have made an impression on anyone who saw it.  For one thing, it was one of the most colorful birds native to the United States, with its bright green body and a golden face, darkening into orange on the face.  Like the other members of its order, it was a chatty bird, constantly making sounds (some sources say it could be heard two miles away), and it was an active one as well. 

It was Conuropsis carolinensis, the Carolina parakeet, now regrettably gone from this world.

Despite the name, the Carolina parakeet wasn’t just a denizen of the Deep South (though being a parrot, it seems more believable to picture it in humid bayous).  It roamed up and down the east coast up to New York, and sometimes as far west as the Dakotas.  It must have been an impressive sight, watching large flocks of loud, beautiful birds descend on fields or swoop through the forest, feeding on fruits and nuts and seeds. 

Unfortunately, the parakeet had a lot going against it when Europeans entered the scene.  For one thing, it shifted its culinary attentions to agricultural crops, which typically has never endeared a species to farmers.  Also, it was loud, highly visible, and very conspicuous, the kind of target that attracted the attention of anyone with a gun.  The beautiful colors of the bird made them desirable as pets, and many were trapped to become cage birds.  Its natural curiosity and intelligence also posed a threat, as it came into contact with domestic fowl and the diseases they carried. 

At any rate, the species declined rapidly, with the last confirmed (more on this later) specimen seen in 1910.  Soon, all that was officially left of the species was a pair at the Cincinnati Zoo.  “Lady Jane”, the female, died in 1917.  On February 21, 1918, her mate, “Incas” followed her.  With his passing, the species was lost.  In 1939, the species was declared extinct.

Like many extinct species, such as the Tasmanian tiger, rumors of survivors floated about for decades.  Unfortunately, none of these sightings proved conclusive, with all of the submitted pictures or footage depicting feral parakeets, or being too poor of quality to be identified.  Perhaps Incas wasn’t the very last bird – maybe a lone survivor or two held out for a little longer.  Regardless, the species is now almost certainly lost.  So little was known about the parakeet – one fact that I found tantalizing yet unconfirmed was that the bird’s meat was poisonous.  John J. Audubon said that cats that ate parakeets shortly died, perhaps as a result of the birds’ feeding on toxic cocklebur seeds.

One of the saddest aspects of the extinction of the Carolina parakeet is that – like many other recent extinctions – it was preventable.  First of all, there’s the obvious fact that, had there been the will, the species could have been saved in the wild.  Farmers could have tolerated some losses.  Public sentiment could be brought against practice shooting.  Efforts could have been made to protect wild parakeets from the diseases of chickens. 

What’s also true is that more of an effort could have been made to save the species in captivity.  By all accounts, parakeets bred well in captivity – when the effort was made to do so.  I wonder how many other now-extinct species – the quagga, the thylacine, the great auk, even the dodo – could have been saved if captive breeding programs like those we have today could have been implemented back when those species were alive.  Sure, they didn’t have artificial insemination, or our understanding of population genetics back then, but that wasn’t the problem.  What they really lacked was the will.

Being younger than 96, I myself have never seen a live Carolina parakeet.  I have, however, seen museum specimens, as I have for a host of other now-extinct animals.  I wonder sometimes how many of the species we have in zoos today will make their last stand there; that 100 years from now, we won’t talk about how the last orangutan, the last black rhino, breathed its last breath at this zoo or that one.  A monument to Incas and Lady Jane now stands on the grounds of the Cincinnati Zoo, where the Carolina parakeet lived its last.  It is a small building, resembling a Japanese pagoda, that is one of the zoo’s old aviaries.  The parakeets share their mausoleum with another once-plentiful North American bird that was destroyed by man and went extinct at the Cincinnati Zoo – the passenger pigeon.

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