Mathew Lowe, Collections Manager, writes:
I was in a high street shop a few months ago and in the kitchenware section my eyes were drawn to a familiar sight. Depicted on mugs and tea towels in a lively scene were the bright-eyed squawking faces of a familiar parakeet.
“Nice aren’t they? The parrots…” said the nearby sales assistant.
“Yes,” I replied “they’re Audubon’s illustrations of the extinct Carolina Parakeet. How come you’re selling these?”
Not sure was the reply – they’re just pretty. Cue the Ian Malcolm monologue in Jurassic Park – “Before you even knew what you had, you patented it, packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it…”
Now, there’s no reason why the sales assistant should have ever heard of this bird, I only know of it because of the wonderful specimens we hold in the museum. But, as with every other species we have made extinct in recent times, we really should make more of an effort to remember them.
The painting daubed on mugs and fridge magnets was indeed by John James Audubon (1785 –1851) an ornithologist, explorer, accomplished artist and (with all of those skills!) author of what is now one of the most expensive books in the world, “The Birds of America”.
On his travels Audubon shot birds, taxidermied them, and posed them for his illustrations. Now, as unpalatable as that sounds to us today, in an age before photography it does at least make sense if you’re trying to illustrate birds. In recompense, Audubon’s work became a foundation of ornithological conservation in the US; in fact the Audubon Society is the equivalent of our own RSPB.
The Carolina Parakeet was one of only two parrots to live in the United States. The other, the Thick-billed Parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha) has also been pushed out of its range in the South-West but survives in Mexico. Originally the Carolina Parakeet ranged in wetland forests from Florida all the way up to New York, but as European settlements expanded and the forests were replaced with farmland, its numbers and distribution began to decline. As early as 1831 Audubon himself noted:
“At the present day, very few are to be found higher than Cincinnati, nor is it until you reach the mouth of the Ohio that Parakeets are met with in considerable numbers. I should think that along the Mississippi there is not now half the number that existed fifteen years ago. “
This was a sociable bird that lived in flocks of over 200, constantly calling to each other and communally roosting. Their gregarious nature, coupled with the fact that they had a preference for fruit from orchards, was their eventual downfall. Audubon again gives us the clues as to what inevitably happened.
“[T]he Parakeets are destroyed in great numbers, for whilst busily engaged in plucking off the fruits or tearing the grain from the stacks, the husbandman approaches them with perfect ease, and commits great slaughter among them. All the survivors rise, shriek, fly round about for a few minutes, and again alight on the very place of most imminent danger. The gun is kept at work; eight or ten, or even twenty, are killed at every discharge. The living birds, as if conscious of the death of their companions, sweep over their bodies, screaming as loud as ever, but still return to the stack to be shot at, until so few remain alive, that the farmer does not consider it worth his while to spend more of his ammunition. “
Over time the range of the Carolina Parakeet diminished until a few remained in the swamps of central Florida. There it slowly disappeared from sight and sound, the last known wild bird being shot in 1904. Some may have lingered on into the 1920’s but this cannot be verified.
The last known living bird was called Incas and was kept at Cincinnati Zoo. In a twist of fate it was kept in the same cage as Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who had died on the 1st September 1914. Incas passed away, taking his species with him, on the 21st February 1918 – exactly 100 years before this blog post you’re reading was posted.
The Museum of Zoology has a number of skins from the Carolina Parakeet; all but one collected in the 1830’s and sold to bird collectors in the UK as study skins. But one specimen in particular stands out, and not because it’s a taxidermied mount. The mounted Carolina Parakeet is a particularly characterful specimen – you can’t help but anthropomorphise its cheeky expression, you feel that this is a bird you would have got-on with. But it belies a sad truth; this specimen was collected in 1883 in central Florida, the last stronghold.
So stop and think about this bird for a while, especially as it’s now passed out of living memory. We owe it more than just slapping it on kitchen apparel.