"Wilson's American Ornithology
with notes by Jardine"
By Alexander Wilson
Of one hundred and sixty-eight kinds of Parrots enumerated by European writers as inhabiting the various regions of the globe, this is the only species found native within the territory of the United States....The species now under consideration is also known to inhabit the interior of Louisiana, and the shores of the Mississippi and Ohio, and their tributary waters, even beyond the Illinois River, to the neighborhood of Lake Michigan, in lat. 42 deg. North; and, contrary to the generally received opinion, is chiefly resident in all these places. Eastward, however, of the great range of the Allegheny, it is seldom seen farther north than the state of Maryland, though straggling parties have been occasionally observed among the valleys of the Juniata; and according to some, even twenty-five miles to the north-west of Albany, in the state of New York.
There are certain peculiar features of country to which these birds are particularly and strongly attached; these are, low, rich, alluvial bottoms, along the borders of creeks, covered with a gigantic growth of sycamore-trees, or button wood; deep, and almost impenetrable swamps, where the vast and towering cypress lifts its still more majestic head; and those singular salines, or as they are usually called, licks, so generally interspersed over that country, and which are regularly and eagerly visited by the paroquets....That food which the Paroquet prefers to all others, is the seeds of the cockle bur, a plant rarely found in the lower parts of Pennsylvania or New York; but which unfortunately grows in too great abundance along the shores of the Ohio and Mississippi; so much so as to render the wool of those sheep that pasture where it most abounds, scarcely worth the cleaning, covering them with one solid mass of burs, wrought up and embedded into the fleece, to the great annoyance of this valuable animal. The seeds of the cypress-tree and hackberry, as well as beech nuts, are also great favorites with these birds...I have my doubts whether their depredations in the orchard be not as much the result of wanton play and mischief, as regard for the seeds of the fruit, which they are supposed to be in pursuit of. I have known a flock of these birds alight on an apple-tree, and have myself seen them twist off the fruit, one by one, strowing it in every direction around the tree, without observing that any of the depredators descended to pick them up. To a Paroquet, which I wounded and kept for some considerable time, I very often offered apples, which it unformly rejected; but burs or beech nuts, never. To another very beautiful one, which I brought from New Orleans, and which is now sitting in the room beside me, I have frequently offered this fruit, and also the seeds separately, which I never knew it to taste. Their local attachments, also, prove that food, more than climate, determines their choice of country. For even in the states of Ohio, Kentucky, and the Mississippi Territory, unless in the neighborhood of such places as have been described, it is rare to see them. The inhabitants of Lexington, as many of them assured me, scarcely ever observe them in that qurater. In passing from that place to Nashville, a distance of two hundred miles, I neither heard nor saw any, but at a place called Madison's Lick. In passing on, I next met with them on the banks and rich flats of the Tennessee River: after this, I saw no more till I reached Bayou St. Pierre, a distance of several hundred miles...
In descending the River Ohio, by myself, in the month of February, I met with the first flock of Paroquets at the mouth of the Little Scioto. I had been informed, by an old and respectable inhabitant of Marietta, that they were sometimes, though rarely, seen there. I observed flocks of them, afterwards, at the mouth of the Great and Little Miami, and in the neighborhood of numerous creeks that discharge themselves into the Ohio. At Big Bone Lick, thirty miles above the mouth of Kentucky River, I saw them in great numbers. They came screaming through the woods in the morning, about an hour after sunrise, to drink the salt water, of which they, as well as the Pigeons, are remarkably fond. When they alighted on the ground, it appeared at a distance as if covered with a carpet of the richest green, orange, and yellow: they afterwards settled, in one body, on a neighboring tree, which stood detached from any other, covering almost every twig of it, and the sun, shining strongly on their gay and glossy plumage, produced a very beautiful and splendid appearance. Here I had an opportunity of observing some very particular traits of their character: Having shot down a number, some of which were only wounded, the whole flock swept repeatedly around their prostrate companions, and again settled on a low tree, within twenty yards of the spot where I stood.
At each successive discharge. though showers of them fell, yet the affection of the survivors seemed rather to increase; for, after a few circuits around the place, they again alighted near me, looking down on their slaughtered companions with such manifest symptoms of sympathy and concern, as entirely disarmed me. I could not but take notice of the remarkable contrast between their elegant manner of flight, and their lame and crawling gait among the branches. They fly very much like the Wild Pigeon, in close, compact bodies, and with great rapidity, making a loud and outrageous screaming, not unlike that of the Redheaded Woodpecker. Their flight is sometimes in a direct line; but most usually circuitous, making a great variety of elegant and easy serpentine meanders, as if for pleasure. They are particularly attached to the large sycamores, in the hollow of the trunks and branches of which they generally roost, thirty or forty, and sometimes more, entering at the same hole. Here they cling close to the sides of the tree, holding fast by the claws and also by the bills. They appear to be fond of steep, and often retire to their holes during the day, probably to take their regular siesta. They are extremely sociable, and fond of each other, often scratching each other's heads and necks, and always, at night, nestling as close as possible to each other, preferring, at that time, a perpendicular position, supported by their bill and claws. In the fall, when their favorite cockle burs are ripe, they swarm along the coast or high grounds of the Mississippi, above New Orleans, for a great extent. At such times, they are killed and eaten by many of the inhabitants; though, I confess, I think their flesh very indifferent. I have several times dined on it from necessity, in the woods; but found it merely passable, with all the sauce of a keen appetite to recommend it.
A very general opinion prevails that the brains and intestines of the Carolina Paroquet are a sure and fatal poison to cats. I had determined, when at Big Bone, to put this to the test of experiment; and for that purpose collected the brains and bowels of more than a dozen of them. But after close search, Mistress Puss was not to be found, being engaged, perhaps, on more agreeable business. I left the medicine with Mr. Colquhoun's agent to administer it at the first opportunity, and write me the result; but I have never yet heard from him. A respectable lady near the town of Natchez,and on whose word I can rely, assured me, that she herself had made the experiment, and that, whatever might be the cause, the cat had actually died either on that or the succeeding day. A French planter near Bayou Fourche pretended to account to me for this effect by positively asserting that the seeds of the cockle burs, on which the Paroquets so eagerly feed, were deleterious to cats ; and thus their death was produced b eating the intestines of the bird. These matters might easily have been ascertained on the spot, which, however, a combination of trifling circumstances prevented me from doing. I several times carried a dose of the first description in my pocket till it became insufferable, without meeting with a suitable patient on whom, like other professional gentlemen, I might conveniently make a fair experiment.
I was equally unsuccessful in my endeavors to discover the time of incubation or manner of building among these birds. All agreed that they breed in hollow trees; and several affirmed to me that they had seen their nests. Some said they carried in no materials; others, that they did. Some made the eggs white; others, speckled. One man assured me that he cut down a large beech-tree, which was hollow, and in which he found the broken fragments of upwards of twenty Paroquet's eggs, which were of a greenish yellow color. The nests, though destroyed in their texture by the falling of the tree, appeared, he said, to be formed of small twigs glued to each other, and to the side of the tree, in the manner of the Chimney Swallow. He added, that if it were the proper season, he could point out to me the weed from which they procured the gluey matter.
From all these contradictory accounts nothing certain can be deduced, except that they build in companies, in hollow trees. That they commence incubation late in summer, or very early in spring, I think highly probable, from the numerous dissections I made in the months of March, April, May, and June; and the great variety which I found in the color of the plumage of the head and neck of both sexes, during the two former of these months, convinces me that the young birds do not receive their full colors until the early part of the succeeding summer.*
*Mr. Audubon's information on their manner of breeding is as follows:-- "Their nest, or the place in which they deposit their eggs, is simply the bottom of such cavities in trees as those to which tbey usually retire at night. Many females deposit their eggs together. I am of opinion that the number of eggs which each individual lays is two, although I have not been able absolutely to assure myself of this. They are nearly, round, of a rich greenish white. The young are at first covered with soft down, such as is seen on young Owls."
It may be remarked that most of the Parrots, whose nidification we are acquainted with, build in hollow trees, or holed banks. Few make a nest for themselves, but lay the eggs on the bare wood or earth; and when the nest is built outward, as by other birds, it is of a slight and loose structure. The eggs are always white. - Ed.
While Parrots and Paroquets, from foreign countries, abound in almost every street of our large cities, and become such great favorites, no attention seems to have been paid to our own, which, in elegance of figure, and beauty of plumage, is certainly superior to many of them. It wants, indeed, that disposition for perpetual screaming and chattering that renders some of the former pests, not only to their keepers, but to the whole neighborhood in which they reside. It is alike docile and sociable; soon becomes perfectly familiar; and, until equal pains be taken in its instruction, it is unfair to conclude it incapable of equal improvement in the language of man. As so little has hitherto been known of the disposition and manners of this species, the reader will not, I hope, be displeased at my detailing some of these, in the history of a particular favorite, my sole companion in many a lonesome day's march, and of which the figure in the plate is a faithful resemblance.
Anxious to try the effects of education on one of those which I procured at Big Bone Lick, and which was but slightly wounded in the wing, I fixed up a place for it in the stern of my boat, and presented it with some cockle burs, which it freely fed on in less than an hour after being on board. The intermediate time between eating and sleeping was occupied in gnawing the sticks that formed its place of confinement in order to make a practicable breach; which it repeatedly effected. When I abandoned the river, and traveled by land, I wrapped it up closely in a silk handkerchief, tying it tightly around, and carried it in my pocket. When I stopped for refreshment, I unbound my prisoner, and gave it its allowance, which it generally despatched with great dexterity, unhusking the seeds from the bur in a twinkling; in doing which, it always employed its left foot to hold the bur, as did several others that I kept for some time. I began to think that this might be peculiar to the whole tribe, and that the whole were, if I may use the expression, left-footed; but, by shooting a number afterwards while engaged in eating
mulberries, I found sometimes the left, sometimes the right, foot stained with the fruit, the other always clean; from which, and the constant practice of those I kept, it appears, that like the human species in the use of their hands, they do not prefer one or the other indiscriminately, but are either left or right-footed. But to return to my prisoner: In recommitting it to "durance vile" we generally had a quarrel; during which it frequently paid me in kind for the wound I had inflicted, and for depriving it of liberty, by cutting and almost disabling several of my fingers with its sharp and powerful bill.
The path through the wilderness between Nashville and Natchez is in some places bad beyond description. There are dangerous creeks to swim, miles of morass to struggle through, rendered almost as gloomy as night by a prodigious growth of timber, and an underwood of canes and other evergreens; while the descent into these sluggish streams is often ten or fifteen feet perpendicular, into a bed of deep clay. In some of the worst of these places, where I had, as it were, to fight my way through, the Paroquet frequently escaped from my pocket, obliging me to dismount and pursue it through the worst of the morass before I could regain it. On these occasions, I was several times tempted to abandon it; but I persisted in bringing it along. When at night I encamped in the woods, I placed it on the baggage beside me, where it usually sat with great composure, dozing and gazing at the fire till morning. In this manner I carried it upwards of a thousand miles, in my pocket where it was exposed all day to the jolting of the horse, but regularly liberated at meal times and in the evening, at which it always expressed great satisfaction. In passing through the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, the Indians, wherever I stopped to feed, collected around me, men, women, and children, laughing, and seeming wonderfully amused with the novelty of my companion. The Chickasaws called it in their language "Kelinky ;" but when they heard me call it Poll, they soon repeated the name; and, wherever I chanced to stop among these people, we soon became familiar with each other through the medium of Poll.
On arriving at Mr. Dunbar's, below Natchez, I procured a cage, and placed it under the piazza, where, by its call, it soon attracted the passing flocks ; such is the attachment they have for each other. Numerous parties frequently alighted on the trees immediately above, keeping up a constant conversation with the prisoner. One of these I wounded slightly in the wing, and the pleasure Poll expressed on meeting with this new companion was really amusing. She crept close up to it as it hung on the side of the cage; chattered to it in a low tone of voice, as if sympathizing in its misfortune; scratched about its head and neck with her bill; and both at night nestled as close as possible to each other, sometimes Poll's head being thrust among the plumage of the other. On the death of this companion, she appeared restless and inconsolable for several days. On reaching New Orleans, I placed a looking-glass beside the place where she usually sat, and the instant she perceived her image, all her former fondness seemed to return, so that she could scarcely absent herself from it a moment. It was evident that she was completely deceived. Always when evening drew on, and often during the day, she laid her head close to that of the image in the glass. and began to doze with great composure and satisfaction. In this short space she had learned to know her name; to answer, and come when called on; to climb up my clothes, sit on my shoulder and eat from my mouth. I took her with me to sea, determined to persevere in her education; but destined to another fate, poor Poll, having one morning, about day break, wrought her way through the cage, while I was asleep, instantly flew overboard, and perished in the Gulf of Mexico.