Scientific name: Conuropsis carolinensis Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Aves Order: Psittaciformes Family: Psittacidae
When did it become extinct? The last Carolina parakeet is thought to have died in 1918. Where did it live? This parakeet was a wide-ranging inhabitant of the United States. The two subspecies of this bird ranged from central Texas to Colorado and southern Wisconsin, across to the District of Columbia and the western side of the Appalachian Mountains, and throughout the drainage basin of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
Few animals have fascinated humanity for as long as the parrots and their relatives. Indigenous people in the tropics and people from Western societies alike covet these birds,
not only for their beautiful appearance, but also for their playfulness and the ability of some species to mimic the human voice. The inherent beauty and charm of these birds makes it hard to understand why humans would willingly seek to wipe them out, but this is exactly what has happened on a number of occasions.
One of the most tragic examples of how humans have actively exterminated one of these interesting birds is the tale of the Carolina parakeet, a beautiful bird and the only native parrot of the United States. Around 30 cm long and 250 g in weight, this colorful bird was very common in the eastern deciduous forests of the United States, and especially in the dense woodland skirting the many great rivers of this region. The birds normally lived in small groups, although larger flocks would gather in the presence of abundant food, and it was not unusual to see 200 to 300 birds in a brilliant, raucous gathering. Like so many other parrots, the Carolina parakeet was a monogamous, long-lived species that brooded two white eggs in the cavities of deciduous trees. During most of the day, the Carolina parakeet would roost in the highest branches, and it was only in the morning and evening that the small flocks would take to the wing in search of food and water. Like other parrots, it could use its strong bill to crack open seeds and nuts to get at their nutritious contents.
The productive lands of North America suited the Carolina parakeet, and for hundreds of thousands of years, this bird brought a riot of color to the deciduous forests of this continent. Even when the first humans to colonize North America encroached on the woodlands of the Carolina parakeet, it continued to thrive. The turning point in the survival of this species came with the arrival of Europeans. The ways of the Europeans were very different to the ways of the American Indians, and they cleared large areas of forest to make way for agriculture. The Carolina parakeet was not only dependent on the forests for roosting and nesting places, but also for food. Initially, the loss of habitat did not affect the parakeet too badly as it adapted to feed on the seeds of the European's crops, including apple, peach, mulberry, pecan, grape, dogwood, and various grains. This adaptability brought the parakeet into conflict with farmers, who saw the colorful bird as no more than a troublesome pest. The slaughter of the Carolina parakeet began, and from that point on, it was doomed. Farmers would seek out the small flocks and kill one or two birds to trigger an interesting behavior that was to seal the parakeet's fate: Hearing the gunshots, the birds would take to the wing but would quickly return to their fallen flock mates, hovering and swooping over the lifeless bodies. The significance of this behavior is unknown, but it was probably a way of intimidating and confusing predators in the hope that the downed bird was only injured, thus giving it time to escape. This was probably a very successful strategy against predatory mammals and birds, but a man armed with a gun was a very different opponent. As the rest of the flock attended the bodies of the fallen, the hunter was able to pick off more of the unfortunate birds, and it was not unusual for an entire flock to be wiped out in this way.
The years passed, and the Carolina parakeet lost more and more habitat and suffered the continued persecution of ignorant humans. To make matters worse, thousands of the birds were captured for the pet trade, and thousands more were killed to supply the hat trade with colorful feathers for the latest in fashionable ladies' head wear. The senseless slaughter and collection continued, and by the 1880s, it was very clear that the Carolina parakeet was very rare. In 1913, the last Carolina parakeet in the wild, a female, was collected near Orlando in Florida, and only four years later, the last captive individual, a male by the name of Inca, died in Cincinnati Zoo only six months after the death of his lifelong partner, Lady Jane. They had lived together in captivity for 32 years. The sad and needless extinction of this interesting bird mirrors the demise of the passenger pigeon, and ironically, both species met their end in a small cage in the same zoo, poignant reminders of human ignorance, greed, and disregard for the other species with which we share this planet.
♦ Sightings of the Carolina parakeet were reported in the 1920s and 1930s, but it is very likely that these were misidentifications of other species that had escaped from captivity.
♦ Parrots, as a group, are among the most threatened of all birds. There are around 350 species of these fascinating animals, and no less than 130 of these are considered to be threatened or endangered. Unless humans can control the systematic and pathological destruction of the world's most biodiverse areas, the future looks very bleak for these birds as well as countless other species.
♦ Habitat destruction is not the only threat facing these birds. Thousand of parrots are collected from the wild every year to feed the ever-growing pet trade—a multi-million-dollar industry. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, around 2 million birds are imported into the European Union every year, many illegally, and hundreds of thousands of these are parrots.
Further Reading: Poole, A., and F. Gill, eds. The Birds of North America 667. Philadelphia: Birds of North America, 2002.
Scientific name: Ectopistes migratorius Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Aves
Order: Columbiformes Family: Columbidae
When did it become extinct? The last known passenger pigeon died on September 1,
1914, in Cincinnati Zoo. Where did it live? The passenger pigeon was a native of North America, but during their winter migrations, the birds headed south, with some reaching as far as Mexico and Cuba.
In the late nineteenth century, anybody who suggested that the passenger pigeon was in danger of imminent extinction would have been branded a fool. The passenger pigeon existed in such colossal numbers that it is astonishing that it is no longer with us. The species was so numerous that there are many accounts of the bird itself and the enormous flocks in which it collected. Estimates for the total number of passenger pigeons in North America go as high as 9 billion individuals. If these estimates are anywhere near the true number, then the passenger pigeon was undoubtedly one of the most numerous bird species that has ever lived. This enormous population was not evenly spread, but was concentrated in gigantic flocks so large that observers could not see the end of them and so dense that they blocked out the sun. Some records report flocks more than 1.6 km wide and 500 km long—a fluttering expanse of hundreds of millions of passenger pigeons. We can only imagine what one of these flocks looked like, but we can be sure that it was quite a spectacle.
Apart from its propensity for forming huge flocks, the passenger pigeon was quite similar in appearance to a domestic pigeon, although it was considerably more graceful, with a slender body and long tail. Most pigeons are built for speed, but the passenger pigeon was a real racer. Its tapering wings, powerful breast muscles, and slender body gave it a real turn of speed. There is anecdotal evidence that these birds could reach speeds of 160 km per hour, although they usually flew at 100 km per hour. The aerial abilities of the passenger pigeon came in very handy as it was a migratory species. As the summer arrived in the northern latitudes, the birds would leave their wintering grounds in southern North America and head for the lush forests of the United States and Canada, although their aggregations appeared to be particularly dense on the eastern seaboard. They came to these immense forests (only remnants of which remain today) to raise young on a diet of tree seeds (mast), forming huge nesting colonies in the tall trees. As with most pigeons, the nest of the passenger pigeon was a rudimentary affair of twigs that served as a platform for a single egg. The parent birds nourished their hatchling on crop milk, the cheeselike substance secreted from the animals' crops that is unique to pigeons.
This cycle of migration had probably been going on for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years, but all was about to come to an end as Europeans first arrived in the Americas. Their arrival signaled the end for the passenger pigeon, and many more species besides. Europeans, in their attempts to settle these new lands, brought with them new ways and means of growing food. The forests were hacked down to make way for these crops, and the passenger pigeons were quick to exploit this new source of food. Settlers first killed the passenger pigeons to protect their crops, but they soon realized that these birds were a massive source of nutritious food, and the slaughter began in earnest. The adult birds were normally preyed on when they were nesting. Trappers equipped with nets constructed smoky fires beneath the nesting trees to force the adults into taking flight. Trees with lots of nests were cut down, enabling trappers to get their hands on the young pigeons. The slaughter was senseless and wasteful, with often only the feathers of the birds being taken to be used as stuffing. Of course, the birds were valued as cheap food, and millions of birds were taken by train to the big cities on the East Coast of the United States. It has been said that during the end of the eighteenth century and for much of the nineteenth century, servants and slaves in these big cities may have eaten precious little animal protein apart from passenger pigeon meat. For several decades, passenger pigeons ready for the oven could be bought for as little as three pennies.
By 1896, only 250,000 passenger pigeons remained, grouped together in a single flock, and in the spring of that year, a group of well-organized hunters set out to find them. Find them they did, and they killed all but 5,000 of them. Only three years later, the last birds in the wild were shot. Once the most numerous bird on the whole planet, the passenger pigeon had been wiped out in a little more than 100 years.
♦ It is thought that the passenger pigeon's breeding and nesting success was dependent on there being huge numbers of individuals. Habitat destruction and hunting led to the collapse of the populations past this threshold. With their flocks in tatters and continual nesting disruption, it was not long before the population fell below recoverable levels. Scientists have also suggested that the dwindling populations of passenger pigeons could have been forced over the edge by an introduced viral infection known as Newcastle disease.
♦ The nesting colonies of passenger pigeons were huge, covering an area of up to 2,200 km2, which is considerably bigger than the area of Jacksonville in Florida.
♦ Passenger pigeons were used to feed pigs and were processed to make oil and fertilizer. Although the adult birds were eaten in their millions, the young pigeons, known as squabs, were said to be delicious.
♦ The term stoolpigeon originates from the practice used by hunters to kill large numbers of passenger pigeons. A single bird was captured and its eyes were sewn shut with thread before it was attached to a circular stool that could be held aloft on the end of a stick. The stool would be dropped and the pigeon would flutter its wings as it attempted to land. Other pigeons flying overhead would see one of their number apparently alighting, and they, too, would land in the hope of finding food, allowing the hunters to snare them with nets.
♦ Large numbers of skins and preserved specimens of passenger pigeons found their way into private collections, with at least 1,500 preserved specimens held around the world.
♦ It has been suggested that before Europeans arrived and settled in North America, the populations of the passenger pigeon were held in check by Amerindian hunting. As the tribes of these people dwindled, so did their influence on the animals and plants of the eastern United States, and populations of animals like the passenger pigeon experienced explosive growth.
♦ The hunting of the passenger pigeon was so intense that in 1878, a single hunter shipped more than 3 million birds to the big cities of the eastern United States. Nets and traps caught vast numbers of birds, and a variety of shotguns were used by professional hunters, marksmen, and trapshooters.
Further Reading: "A Passing in Cincinnati—September 1, 1914." In Historical Vignettes 1776-1976, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1976; Halliday, T. "The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius and Its Relevance to Contemporary Conservation." Biological Conservation 17 (1980): 157-62.
^ Extinction Insight: The Lottery of Fossilization
Many extinct animals are only known from bones, yet it is an often overlooked fact that the odds are stacked squarely against the remains of an animal surviving at all. It has been estimated that only one animal in billions will become a fossil. Of the billions of animals that have ever lived, only a tiny fraction have left durable remains. The dinosaurs, although considerably older than the animals mentioned in this book, are a perfect example of just how rare fossilization is. The dinosaurs are a very well studied group of fossil animals, yet in the 183 years since the first dinosaur was described, 330 species have been named. We'll never know for sure how many species of dinosaur have walked the earth, but it must have been many, many times more than 330.
Thie rarity of fossilization is not surprising when you consider the fate of an animal after it has died. If an animal dies in the wild, its carcass is rapidly dismembered; some bones may be cracked open, and what remains will be at the mercy of the elements. On the surface, they'll be subjected to the slightly acidic bite of rainwater, the erosive power of the wind, and the fierce rays of the sun. Being underground may afford some protection, but acidic solutions percolate through the soil, and there are countless bacteria to digest the nutrients left in the bone. In the vast majority of cases, the bones of the long-dead animal are worn away to dust and nothing remains to show it once lived. Preservation also depends on where the animal lived. If it was a denizen of warm, humid forests, the chances of preservation are even slimmer. Forests abound with scavenging animals and bacteria, and if the bones manage to find their way into the ground, the acids produced by decomposing plant matter rapidly dissolve them away to nothing.
In the rare event of a bone surviving, or even more remotely, an entire skeleton surviving the rigors of scavengers, the elements, and bacteria, something rather unique must happen. The remains must be buried quickly after an animal dies, perhaps by a freak landslide or a fall of volcanic ash, in sticky asphalt, or in a bog. With the remains well buried and protected, the process of fossilization can begin. Water percolating through the sediment or soil in which the bone lies carries silica and other materials into the pores in the bones, strengthening them and giving them the appearance of stone. Many of the animals in this book did not die long enough ago for their bones to have become completely mineralized, while others died in the wrong place for fossilization to occur. A perfect example of the latter are the remains that have been found in the dry caves of the Nullarbor Plain, Australia (see the "Extinction Insight" on the Nullarbor Plain Caves in chapter 6). The animals that died in these natural pitfall traps never got buried, and their bones lay on the floor of the cave for tens of thousands of years before being seen by human eyes for the first time. The remains of these extinct Australian animals were still just bone, albeit very delicate, as no water had ever percolated through them to leave any strengthening minerals. Similarly, the remains of so-called Flores man, recovered from Ling Bua Cave in Indonesia, had not undergone any mineralization and were on the verge of decomposing altogether.
When we think of the remains of long-dead animals, we normally think of digging around in rock to find fragments of the living animal. Although this is often the case, animal remains are preserved in other ways, some of which are astounding. In some places in Siberia and Alaska, whole animals, such as mammoths, were frozen so quickly and later buried that they are almost perfectly preserved in flesh and bone, and today they provide us with the best glimpse we have of what these ice age animals were like. In very dry places, a dead animal can become mummified. Some ground sloths have been preserved in this way, and even though the vast majority of their soft tissues have been eaten by insects and other small animals, fragments of skin and hair, thousands of years old, remain. Some animals met their end in peat bogs, and these deep beds of slowly decomposing plant matter are excellent for preservation of animal bones and even soft tissues. Tar pits, like peat bogs, keep oxygen away from the remains of dead animals, and the bones that come to lie in these pools of ooze are remarkably well preserved.
The fossil record may be very fragmentary, but it is continually being added to. With every passing day, new fossils are revealed as the action of water, wind, and ice erodes the surface of the earth.
The Lottery of Fossilization—The paleontologist Grayon E. Meade proudly poses with some of the numerous scimitar cat remains discovered in Freisenhahn Cave, Texas, during the summer of 1949. These cats' remains were buried by sediment and the cave was sealed by natural processes. They lay undisturbed for thousands of years until paleontologists discovered them during excavations. (Texas Natural Science Center)
Earth's secrets are revealed to us slowly, and as scientists continually explore the far corners of our planet, searching for the remains of animals, they will add to our knowledge of what the earth was like and how it is changing. With every passing year, new species are added to the list of animals that were. Who knows what remarkable creatures will be found buried in sediment or frozen in permafrost in the future? The remains of some unknown animals will come to light only to be eroded away by the very forces that revealed them, and the only evidence of their existence will be lost forever.
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