The Extinct Carolina Parakeet
By Thagard Colvin, Wildlife Biologist
The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinesis), possibly the most colorful bird in North America, used to be a permanent resident of the coastal plains of Alabama and probably was common to abundant. Ornithologist Thomas Imhof wrote that the Carolina parakeet bred and nested in Alabama.
Now an extinct species, it was the only parakeet (or parrot) native to the eastern United States. It inhabited regions from the Ohio Valley to the Gulf of Mexico and forested regions of the great plains as far west as Nebraska and the Dakotas. These native parakeets also were reported to have inhabited southern Florida westward to central Texas.
The Carolina parakeet was a small parrot about 12 inches long that weighed about 10 ounces. According to Imhof, it resembled the morning dove (Zenaida macroura) in shape, size and long tail. This native parrot was splendidly colorful as its body was bright green crowned with a yellow head and an orange face and bill. A small patch of yellow was on its wings.
The Carolina parakeet was a noisy bird due to its constant chattering, so its presence was very noticeable. The bird’s alarm cry and distress call could be heard for up to two miles. The distress call of a Carolina parakeet would cause the whole flock to rally to the distressed bird. As a result, entire flocks were shot as the birds rallied around a wounded bird.
The Carolina parakeet was a very social bird, flying and feeding in large flocks. It made its home in upland forests, forest edges, wooded river bottoms, forest openings and agricultural fields. This parrot was blessed with a typical “parrot beak” that was adept at cracking seed, nuts, grain and fruit. Even though no extensive food habit studies were conducted on the species, it was commonly known to eat a wide variety of wild fruit, seed and nuts. Several literature sources revealed that these wild parrots were voracious eaters of the seed of sandspurs (Cechrus sp.) and the cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium). No other animal has been known to consume cocklebur seed as it contains a toxic glucoside.
As European Settlers spread into the home range of the Carolina parakeet, these new inhabitants brought in domesticated fruits, vegetables and feed grain crops. The native parrot quickly learned to utilize these new agricultural crops and soon the Carolina parakeet flocks became notorious for destroying orchard fruit, cornfields and cereal grain crops.
In his book, Alabama Birds, Imhof wrote that no competent ornithologist was known to have examined a nest of the Carolina parakeet. Some reports say the bird nested in hollow trees, while others contended it built a twig nest similar to that of a morning dove, and that the nests were in colonies built in cypress and sycamore trees. Unfortunately, we will never know the full story of their nesting habits.
The last known and confirmed sighting of a Carolina parakeet in Alabama, as reported by Noel F.R. Snyder and Keith Russell in The Birds of North America No.667, was in 1838. Snyder, in his 2004 book The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird, also reported that a Lieutenant C.H. Pointer sighted 80 Carolina parakeets in 1935 in Alabama along the Perdido River in Baldwin or Escambia County. These sightings were never confirmed by an ornithologist.
Unconfirmed sightings of this wild parrot were reported in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina into the 1930s. The actual date when the Carolina parakeet became extinct in its natural range is unknown but some ornithologists believe a few individuals survived until the late 1940s or early 1950s in Florida and South Carolina.
There are several possibilities that may explain the eventual demise of this species. We know that large areas of habitat were logged and converted to agricultural fields. Some observers believe that honeybees, imported from the Old World, were evicting the Carolina parakeets from hollow tree nesting cavities. Large numbers of Carolina parakeets were shot for food, fun and their feathers. The colorful feathers were highly sought after by the millinery trade for women’s hats. In addition, farmers shot the parakeet to protect their fruit and nut orchards and vegetable and grain fields.
Several ornithologists don’t believe these factors precipitated the rapid extinction of the last populations. For instance, one of the last healthy populations of Carolina parakeets, located in the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida, vanished even though adequate habitat remained and the birds were not persecuted by shooting or trapping.
Snyder and Russell hypothesized that exotic poultry diseases could have extirpated the remaining Carolina parakeet population, which had survived habitat loss, shooting and other decimating factors.
Yard chickens, running loose around barnyards, fields and nearby woods would have come in close ground contact with the New World parakeet as they fed on sandspurs, cockleburs, grain and fruit. Snyder and Russell sum it up with this statement: “In our judgment, disease is the threat that appears most consistent with available information on final disappearance of the species in central Florida, although earlier declines in the region had likely been produced in part by other stresses such as shooting and capture for the pet trade.”
So why did the Carolina Parakeet become extinct? Just as with the passenger pigeon, we will never know all of the precise contributing factors.