Imagine a parrot, with its bright floral plumage, perched on a limb. Others are sure to be near, squawking and flying in colorful droves.
Where are you?
Some place tropical? Equatorial even?
Believe it or not, the Carolina Parakeet inhabited many parts of the Eastern United States–from the deep South into the North, as far as New York and Wisconsin.
They preferred woodlands and old growth forests that blanketed the edges of rivers. Being the only parrot native to the U.S. region, they were uniquely adapted to survive cold winters. They were gregarious and flocked together feeding off of cockleburs, thistles, and fruits. They were brightly colored with a green body and a head of yellow and red. They were . . .
They were . . .
I had no idea that these birds ever existed until I came across an unusual passage in a local history text. The chapter entitled “Early Settlement-1797-1820” briefly alludes to these eccentric birds:
“Traveling was not all bad; some who made the journey into Middle Tennessee were fascinated by the Cumberland parrots that inhabited the unbroken forest. They were green in color, had red bills, and were somewhat larger than pigeons.”
-excerpt from Thomas Gray Webb’s A Bicentennial History of Dekalb County, Tennessee
That is all that was said, but I was intrigued by the description. I could not place a bird in my mind that could possibly fit the description and I had never heard of a parrot native to Tennessee. After some digging, I found that the term Cumberland Parrot referred to the Carolina Parakeet, or Carolina Parrot as some call it. This led me to the famous illustration by John J. Audubon, as seen above.
By the early twentieth century the Carolina Parakeet’s population dwindled into extinction. The last wild bird was killed in 1904 in Okeechobee County, Florida. And the final two captive Carolina Parakeet’s died at the Cincinnati Zoo, within a year of each other in 1918.
The extinction of these birds has been attributed to many varying factors. Certainly, habitat loss played its part, as farms and human development took over the once wooded river banks that these birds depended on.
The active practice of poaching also took its toll on the numbers. These birds were prized for their feathers and as domesticated pets. Additionally, many farmers saw these birds as pests that decimated their crops and killed them indiscriminately. They were easy targets due to the fact that flocks would return to the dead and wounded.
Much of the Carolina Parakeet’s biology and extinction remains a mystery though. There was very little complete in terms of the study of these birds. In the end, it’s thought that the Carolina Parakeet succumbed to poultry disease, as the ever-growing demand for chickens grew in an ever-industrializing country.
Often I think of extinction as simply a misfortune of the past, something unlikely to really change the outcome of the present. But when I think about the Carolina Parakeet roosting among the trees that stand along the banks of the Little Tennessee River–near the place where I grew up– I wonder how different my sense of place would have been had I woken to the squawking of parrots, along with the calls of the Blue Jays and the woodpeckers.