The Outdoor Journal Exploring the Carolina Parakeet
Lewis and Clark saw them at the mouth of the Kansas River near present day Kansas City. Audubon observed and shot them along the Ohio River in the early 1800’s. Of all the species that the 19th century ornithologist shot, studied and painted, the Carolina Parrakeet was the only one he worried about.
You and I will never see this bright green grackle-sized gregarious bird in the wild or even a zoo, since the last one died in captivity in 1904. Bright green with a yellow head and orange cheeks, the Carolina Parakeet inhabited deciduous forests and forest edges in the eastern United States as far north as the Great Lakes region, as well as wooded river bottoms of the Great Plains as far west as Nebraska. It was the only parrot to inhabit the continent north of Mexico. It nested in tree cavities and ate the fruits and seeds of many trees and other plants, such as thistles and cockleburs, as shown in John James Audubon’s famous painting. The old forests with their massive sycamores and cottonwoods, some partially hollow, are largely gone now. The Carolina Parakeet having preceded them.
“Outside of the breeding season the parakeet formed large, noisy flocks that fed on cultivated fruit, tore apart apples to get at the seeds, and other grain crops. It was therefore considered a serious agricultural pest and was slaughtered in huge numbers by wrathful farmers. This killing, combined with forest destruction throughout the bird’s range, and hunting for its bright feathers to be used in the millinery trade, caused the Carolina Parakeet to begin declining in the 1800s.” One of the reason’s Audubon was concerned for the species was how it behaved when the flocks were shot into while they were feeding. “All the survivors shriek, fly around for a few minutes and again alight on the very place of most danger. … I have seen hundreds destroyed in a few hours, and have procured a basket full of these birds with a few shots.” The bird was rarely reported outside Florida after 1860, was last seen in the wild in 1905 and was considered extinct by the 1920s.
Audubon shot several himself and pronounced the younger parrots were “ tolerable table fare”. We’ll have to take his word for it.