CANDLES ON A
By Jill Hedgecock
In his 1877 autobiography, a German immigrant, Gert Goebel, likened the sight of a flock of Carolina parakeets to a Christmas tree - the yellow and orange heads of the birds illuminating the branches like candles. Alas, I shall never witness such an event for the bird has long been extinct. Today, few Americans have probably heard of the only native parrot of eastern North America. Yet, the species was once so numerous that they formed a blanket of green over fields of cockle-burs - the bird’s favorite food. Dozens of these feathered creatures once emerged from hollow tree trunks like bats from a cave at dusk. Their numbers plummeted in the early 1900s. And then there were two.
Incas and Lady Jane were the last two Carolina parakeets kept in captivity. They resided in the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio for over thirty years. Incas and Lady Jane were devoted lovers who spent time preening and mating and Lady Jane produced numerous eggs which she was reported to toss outside their nest. No documentation exists that the zoo keepers tried to salvage the eggs, according to Christopher Cokinos in his book, Hope is the Thing with Feathers. After the death of Lady Jane in late summer 1917 (precise date not reported), Incas was said to be “a listless and mournful figure.” He died on February 21, 1918. And then there were none.
Early American settlers must have considered it unthinkable that the prolific paroquets, as they were called then, might someday disappear, especially those farmers who thought extinction of this species would be for the betterment of the land. The pioneer’s mission in life was to tame Nature, not embrace her wildness. These people represented the culture of that era, so I understand their zeal to bring order to the forest and to protect the food that would sustain them till the next harvest. These poor men were, after all, only trying to eke out a living. Yet, I still find it hard to imagine anyone would consider this colorful foot-long green bird a nuisance.
Adorned with a yellow head and a splash of orange-red about the face like a blushing school girl, this vibrant bird once meandered along deciduous timbered streams and boggy wetlands. Dutch pioneers in 1780 considered the strange aberration of green squawking flocks of Carolina parakeets to be a certain sign of the end of the world. How ironic that humans flourished and only the birds experienced extinction.
In the blink of geological time, a span of only ninety years, these bright-colored birds - whose presence in cave art attests to the fact that its existence spanned back to prehistoric times - disappeared. Where flocks of two hundred or more had once been noted across a large portion of the eastern United States, now none can be found. No one refutes that the Carolina parakeet disappeared from the planet in the early 1900s, although the precise date of the removal of the last individual from the wild is unknown. But can anyone say why? Not really. Common theories include the loss of swampland habitat due to clearing of lands and the farmers’ persecution of the plumed birds as pests. The birds themselves were behaviorally unequipped to deal with the onslaught. A farmer needed only to kill one bird and the other devoted members of the flock would congregate around their fallen companion, making slaughter of the entire group an easy task.
The pet trade must also be implicated. As the birds became scarce, collectors grew more rigorous in expanding collections. Strong gregarious tendencies were so innate to this bird that wild parakeets visited captive brethren and attempted to preen comrades through cage bars. Thus, making capture of their wild counterparts easier. John James Audubon, the noted ornithologist, no doubt encouraged taking birds into captivity by reporting that the birds could easily be tamed by repeated submersion in water – a barbaric suggestion I can’t quite envision.
Millinery for hats bore some of the blame. Whole carcasses of Carolina Parakeets were draped across women’s head coverings in the name of fashion. Designers were even reported to dye the green and yellow plumage black, covering up the natural beauty of the bird in the name of style.
Incidental human actions also took their toll. When bees took up residence in the hollow trees that the parakeets once used for nesting, the birds, understandably, failed to take up residence in these cavities and lay eggs.
Man’s lust for the beak of the ivory-billed woodpecker may have played a role, as well. The cavity-nesting parakeets may have utilized woodpecker hollows for breeding. With the demise of the woodpecker – or so we thought - so, too, went the source of their ready-made nests. And while I can’t help but hope that the recent rediscovery of the woodpecker sets a precedent for uncovering an isolated pair of Carolina parakeets, this seems unlikely. Where ivorybilled woodpeckers are shy and secretive, Carolina parakeets are loud and social. For these birds to linger undiscovered in the backwoods of the southern United States would be nothing short of a miracle.
The diminishing population did not go unnoticed, but it did go unheeded. Decline in number of parakeets were documented by John James Audubon in 1844. He wrote that “there are only half the number that existed fifteen years ago”. Another ornithologist, Robert Ridgeway predicted the extinction of the species. He owned at least one pair of parakeets that successfully bred and hatched four healthy hatchlings. Did he document diet or proper nesting conditions? No. Did he attempt to coordinate with other owners to establish a captive breeding program? No. What did he do? He gave away one of the nestlings as a pet. A lone bird now without opportunity to breed.
And poor Incas who surely died of a broken heart in the Cincinnati zoo - even his tragic story did not end with his death. The care taken with this last specimen underscores the apathy of humans toward this novel creature. Incas’ body had been promised to the Smithsonian, but never arrived. We shall never know his final fate. Incas may reside untagged amid other Carolina parakeet specimens at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. However, confirmation of this is impossible. Where is Incas? How does one lose the last individual of an entire species?
When I think about this delightful green bird with the bright red face, I can’t help but wonder about my own species. We humans should wear the blush upon our cheeks. While collectors rallied to shoot all remaining birds to hoard in museum collections, aviculturists failed to study their captive counterparts. And so generations have been robbed of the opportunity to view this frolicking, colorful, wondrous species. A few stuffed specimens scattered in various museums, black and white photographs, and words on a page are all that remain. And with the reported arson of the viewing area of the ivory-billed woodpecker, I can’t say I have much hope that humans have changed.
Yet, despite these few arsonists, I can’t help but hope that we have learned a valuable lesson. Someday, perhaps, we will make restitution to the only native parakeet in the United States. And so a vision of cloning the species from DNA gleaned from museum specimens dances in my head. This image grows and expands until I envision myself standing amidst a deciduous-timbered stream in a remote forest in the southeastern United States. Across the flowing water, I watch a sea of yellow/orange heads illuminating a single pine like candles on a Christmas tree.