Extinction IS Forever!
By Sally Blanchard
I remember many years ago I was talking to a man named Bill; an Air Force officer who worked with my then husband. I had always loved birds and had become very involved with learning as much as I could about them. For some reason, I was discussing my views on the environment and extinction and I brought up the Passenger Pigeon. I explained that at one time there were so many that their flocks could darken the sky and then there were none — they were extinct. Bill looked at me incredulously and explained that was impossible; they had all just migrated to South America or something. He was usually relatively pompous about his opinions whether he knew what he was talking about or not. I could not believe that as a college educated man, Bill knew nothing about the natural world he lived in. Extinct means there are no more; they no longer exist in a living state and as the famous quote says, “Extinction is Forever.” I began to give programs about extinct and endangered birds and when I became passionate about parrots, I gave programs on extinct and endangered parrots.
When I started doing research on parrots, it was presumed that dozens of them would become extinct by the year 2000. While it is true that many have become more endangered due to habitat destruction, overhunting, and the international pet trade, many have held their own with a few increasing in population. Most species of the endangered Caribbean Amazons have been brought back from the edge of extinction because of the tireless work of conservation groups and native populations. Unfortunately, hurricanes continue to threaten the populations of these parrots. Other parrot species have suffered severe setbacks and their populations continue to dwindle. Even the Double Yellow-headed Amazon that is so common in aviculture is suffering a serious decline in the wild. There was only one bird observed in the wild for years, but now the Spix macaw has been added to the list of extinct parrots but they still exist in captivity especially in the Middle East. Is there any hope that they can actually be reintroduced in the wild. The Golden conure, Lears, Blue-throated, and Red-fronted macaw populations have also declined to dangerous lows.
Our Own National Parrot?
I think that it is incredibly sad that I have never seen a live Carolina Parakeet. There are few, if any, people living today who have actually seen one. I have seen several of them on tree branches — stuffed and in the Smithsonian. One of my main goals, when I got a chance to return to the Smithsonian a few years ago, was to take some photos of the mounted Carolina Parakeets that I saw when I was there before. Unfortunately, they weren’t on display anymore — not only were the Carolina parakeets not on display, there were no birds on display. What a disappointment!
The book The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird is a fascinating natural history by Noel F. R. Snyder. This book suggests that one factor in the extinction of the Carolina parakeet was an infectious disease rather than the more obvious possible cause of over-hunting, habitat destruction, and trapping for the pet trade. of course, those factors still played a part in the bird's extinction. Although much literature states that the last Carolina parakeet, Inca, died in captivity in 1914, the truth is that there were many credible sightings of the birds into the 1930s. Some people even claimed to have seen the parrot as late as 1944 — the year I was born. These sightings were undocumented and, therefore, not considered to be valid. Of course, the hope is always that somewhere, somehow extinct birds will be found alive in some remote, unexplored area. Unfortunately, the study of natural history too often tells the “history” of a vanished species.
Over the last several hundred years that man has been exploring his world, his presence in new lands have been disastrous for nature and the environment. When humans came to new places, they brought their domesticated animals and stowaway vermin. The intentional and unintentional introduction of non-native species such as hogs, cattle, sheep, and rats created havoc with the balance of nature in the new lands. Native peoples have always hunted the food sources in their environment but with explorers came new people, more sophisticated weapons, and most often a disregard for the indigenous traditions that had allowed animals and humans to survive together.
From the beginning of time explorers to new lands always brought their own animals and plants and took some of the animals and plants on their long way home. Some, such as the Great Auk of the North Atlantic, were used for food for the long voyage and others were samples of their new scientific discoveries. If they arrived alive, many of these discoveries went into botanical and zoological collections, but this was also was most likely the beginning of the pet trade. They were rarely bred successfully back then. Early explorers and conquerors brought Amazons and Macaws back from South and Central America for the people with money to afford them. Long before that, travelers to Africa and the Orient brought back African Grey Parrots and Ring-neck parakeets as pets for the nobility of Europe and the Mediterranean. The Alexandrine parakeet was named after Alexander the Great.
When mankind went from nomadic hunter-gatherers to living in settlements, agriculture was born. Increasing population means increased agriculture. Wildlands taken for grazing animals and raising crops equals loss of habitat for native animals and plants. Parrots who have lived on the land far longer than most humans are persecuted because these crops are so attractive to them as a source of food. It has been a major goal of conservations groups to convince the indigenous populations to keep enough land wild to support wildlife populations. Unfortunately, with the slash and burn technique used to conquer and tame the rainforests of the world for grazing and planting, wildlife has been the big loser and will continue to be.
In the islands of the Caribbean, hurricanes have played a significant role in the decrease in parrot populations. As we know from recent Hurricane seasons, these islands have been in the path of many devastating hurricanes over the years.
Looking at the list of extinct parrots, there are two aspects that will probably come to mind. The first is that with only a few exceptions, the extinct parrots came from islands. Islands are most often their own microcosms. When islands are geographically close to each other, some parrot species have evolved into several subspecies. If islands are far from other land masses, the parrots can be quite unique. Island ecosystems can be very fragile and the habitat for many indigenous species of plants and animals can be destroyed by human settlements.
The other curious aspect is that many of the island species are listed as hypothetical. Perhaps early ornithologists saw a parrot and eager to gain fame for their new discovery, they marked it as a new species. With no other records, it has to be presumed that the bird was either not a true endemic species or it is now extinct. In most cases, we will never really know.
There are several parrots teetering on the brink — the Lears, Red-front, and Blue-throat Macaws, the Echo Parakeet, the Puerto Rican Amazon and others whose populations are in serious decline. There is hope with some of these species because of the dedicated ornithologists and conservationists working throughout the world to help the threatened and endangered birds of the parrot family. They need our support for parrots to continue to exist, if not thrive in the wild.