Audubon’s Extinct Birds Of America


The Carolina parrot, now usually known as the Carolina parakeet or Carolina conure, was a small green neotropical parrot that was native to the eastern, Midwest, and Great Plains of the United States.

It had mostly green plumage that was lighter on the underparts with yellow edges on the outer primaries and bottom of the thighs. The head and shoulders were yellow with an orange forehead and face that extended behind the eyes and upper cheeks. The eyes were dark with a white skin surround, the beak was pale, and the legs and feet were light brown. Males and females had identical plumage, but the male was slightly larger.

Carolina parrots lived in large, noisy flocks of up to 300 birds in wetland forests along rivers and swamps. It ate the seeds of forest trees such as sycamore, cypress, beech, elm, and pine, as well as thistles and sandspurs. It also ate the toxic seeds of the cocklebur, a coarse flowering plant, which is usually causes animals who consume it to get sick and eventually die.

However, Carolina parrots had adapted to safely consume cocklebur. Although the plant did not harm it, the toxins accumulated in the bird’s body, so its flesh was probably poisonous.

Audubon noted that cats apparently died after eating Carolina parrots.

Genetic studies on stuffed Carolina parrots have shown that their extinction happened quickly with no signs of the inbreeding prevalent in species that undergo a gradual decline.

Several theories have been suggested to explain the species’ extinction. Deforestation, competition with honeybees for nesting spaces, the pet trade, and a mysterious poultry disease have all been put forward as reasons for the bird’s demise.

However, Carolina parrots were regarded as pests particularly due to their fondness for stripping orchards bare of their fruit. And the most likely explanation is that they were shot out of existence. Audubon himself observed the slaughter of many of the birds:

Do not imagine, reader, that all these outrages are borne without severe retaliation on the part of the planters. So far from this, 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 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 figures by which this species is represented in the plate now under your consideration.

The last captive Carolina parrot died in 1918 in Cincinnati Zoo in the same cage as Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who had died 4 years earlier.

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