Extinction and Our Sense of Place

“Plate 26-Carolina Parrot” from John J. Audubon’s Birds of America (link)

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.

Reasearch Links:

The Last Carolina Parakeet

Carolina Parakeet: Removal of a “Menace”

Birds of North America: Carolina Parakeet




A Fledgling Observed

Carolina Wren Fledgling
Moments after leaving the nest a Carolina Wren fledgling hides beside a garbage can.

In late summer, most bird pairs have already laid their eggs and fostered their nestlings to a size that is capable of flight, a mass of feathers weighing no more than half an ounce. If you are lucky you may see these birds leaping about a nest in anticipation for food from the parent birds. But at this size, the parent birds are away from the nest slowly weaning their chicks off of the provided meals, making patient calls, waiting for their young to join them in a shrubby place safe from predators. The parent birds make chirps of encouragement saying “Jump! Fly! Get out of that nest. Supper is waiting for you down here!”

If you are patient you might witness the first flight of these young birds. Do not be disappointed when the flight is awkward and fluttery, not truly graceful like the birds you are used to seeing. Think of a baby’s first steps. How many times will they fall before they can finally walk?

At only weeks old, fledglings must leave the only home they’ve ever known, coaxed by the calls of their parents. This can take quite some time. Be prepared to sit quietly as the young birds inch their way out of the nest and one-by-one work up the courage to jump. Immediately, they will seek some kind of shelter, whether it be underneath a garbage can, an untrimmed bush, or the trunk of a tree. From there each fledgling will have to rendezvous with its mother and father, where it will learn more about surviving on its own.

It should be noted that if a nest of eggs is laid, and that nest successfully hatches, and those nestlings successfully fledge, those fledglings are still susceptible to numerous dangers in their first year of life. With respect to Eastern Bluebirds, only 50% of fledglings make it to the end of year one. The four chicks you watched make their first flight, two will die. Reasons for the death of these successful fledges can range from predators (a natural cause) to lack of suitable habitat (usually a human cause).

Being both lucky and patient I was able to observe fledgling wrens take flight this year. I sat for an hour and a half watching three wrens leap from their nest and flutter madly toward safety. They took refuge under a trash can and again had to work up the courage to flutter towards mom and dad strategically calling from an overgrown spot with many places to hide.

There was one young bird that was particularly timid. This little fledge was the last to leave the nest and the last to leave the safety from beneath the garbage can. It took its time, hesitant to leave any one spot that was remotely comfortable or seemingly secure. This one made me sit and watch for much longer than I intended, but it finally made it to its parents who were hidden within a thicket of saplings and trumpet creeper growing along a fence.

It was an amazing experience to observe the dynamics between the parents and each fledge. It was all somehow familiar and extraordinary at the same time, to watch birds act like humans or perhaps see human characteristics in the action of birds. (We are the ones who use idioms such as “leave the nest” or “nest together” or “birds of a feather,” it’s not the other way around.)

Nature will persist regardless of your decision to observe. Taking time to sit and look is up to you. And though it was incredible to witness fledges take flight, I am reminded of the stark statistics that challenge the success of each fledgling. A few weeks later I saw one of the fledges head first in a cat’s mouth. I tried to retrieve the fluttering bird, but the cat got the best of me. Nature will be nature in the end and I can concede to that. What I hate to consider though are the unseen ends of fledglings lost due to lack of habitat and the unnatural human touches that inhibit nature’s ability to thrive. These are the birds we should consider carefully when contemplating our relationship to the environments we inhabit.