The only tragic story of a native parrot in America that has been extinct for over 100 years
“Carolina Parakeet” by John James Audubon. Wikimedia Commons It was winter in 1780 in a rural town called Schoharie, home of the highly religious German Palatines in northern New York. Suddenly, a flock of red and green birds jumped into the town, looking like a whirlwind. The townspeople thought the end of the world was above them. The Robin-sized bird soon left, but its appearance was forever imprinted on local folklore. The author, Benjamin Smith Barton, wrote: In a terrifying astonishment, they imagined that it was as dire as the destruction of the world. You and I know that birds were not a precursor to human death – but in a sense there was an imminent ruin. These birds were the only native parrots in the United States, the Carolina parakeet. In February 1918, the last captive Carolina parakeet died alone in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. The Cincinnati Zoo is the same zoo where the last captive passenger pigeon named Martha died four years ago. The last “official” wild Carolina parakeet was discovered in Florida just two years later. Why are these birds extinct? It remains a mystery. Given that parrots today are at higher risk of extinction than other major bird groups, is there anything scientists can learn from the Carolina parakeet? Unraveling the Parakeet Mystery For the past six years, I’ve been collecting information about where Carolina parakeets have been observed over the last 450 years. An extinct Carolina parakeet on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY I have been reading historical documents, travel diaries and other writings for hours from the 16th century to the 1940s. From the first European exploration of the New World to the tragic story of a settler who traveled the Oregon Trail in the 1800s, to the Grizzly Egg Hunter washing the Florida swamps, the story surrounding the observation of these parrots is lost. Often. Early 1900s. We also delved into the collections of the Natural History Museum to find out what many consider to be old, dusty, eerie dead birds. But I see them differently. Beautiful in their own way, each telling a story. My goal was to unravel some of the lasting mysteries about the Carolina parakeet, like where the Carolina parakeet lived. Historically, people have used to determine the extent of a species by plotting the most extreme observations of that species on a map, drawing polygons around them, and calling it a day. I did. For this reason, people have long believed that the Carolina parakeet inhabits northern New York, Colorado, and the Texas coast. However, birds are often found in places where they don’t usually go. For example, the habitat of snowy owls, such as Hedwig, famous for “Harry Potter,” was once discovered in Bermuda, but has not actually extended to Bermuda. Historical distribution of extinct Carolina parakeets. The green area represents a new understanding of where the eastern subspecies lived. Blue is where the western variants lived. The red line is based on the species range map published in 1891. EcologyandEvolution (2017), CC BY In addition, scientists do not know why these parakeets were actually extinct. Some thought it was a loss of habitat. Some thought it was hunting and traps. Some thought illnesses. Some even thought it was a race against foreign bees over the hollows of trees where parakeets roost and nest. Thanks to the data I edited and the state-of-the-art machine learning approach to analyze those data, my colleagues and I were able to reconstruct the potential range and climate niche of the Carolina parakeet. It was. It turned out to be much smaller than previously believed. In general, their range extended from eastern Nebraska to Ohio and from the south to Louisiana and Texas. Eastern subspecies lived mainly along the southeastern coast from Alabama through Florida to Virginia. We were also able to confirm the long-standing hypothesis that parakeets in the northwestern part of the area moved southeast in winter to avoid the intense cold of the Midwest. Important Reasons You may be wondering in an endangered world on a scale not seen in the last 65 million years. Need to study something more important? This may seem pretty minor, but some scientists consider the Carolina parakeet to be one of the leading candidates for “extinction.” This is a process that, unlike “Jurassic Park,” is used to take DNA from a specimen and “revive” an extinct species (although it has far less action and clearly less Jeff Goldblum. Masu). If someone spends millions of dollars on all genetic and breeding work to regain this and other species, how do they find out where to release these birds? Given the effects of climate change, it’s no longer natural that scientists can expect to release birds exactly where they once were and to prosper. Whether extinction is a conservation effort and a worthwhile use of money is another question, best answered by someone other than me. However, this is just one example of one potential use for this type of research. In many respects, the history of Carolina parakeet decline is parallel to the history of American growth in the 19th century. All its prosperity came with many terrifying costs. Many native species have been lost as the United States expanded and recreated the landscape to meet its needs. Today, parrots face a serious threat of extinction. Parrot diversity tends to be highest in rapidly developing regions of the world, such as the United States in the 19th century. Therefore, any lesson that Carolina parakeets can teach us may be important for moving forward. I continue to study Carolina parakeets and other recently extinct species to hear and relate these lessons. Even though it’s a cliché, those who can’t remember the past are accused of repeating it. This article has been republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site aimed at sharing ideas from academic experts. Read more: Is there another wave of bird extinction soon in the Americas? Endangered Species Protection: Six important reading ultra-black feathers can absorb almost any photon of the light that hits them. Kevin R. Brugio was funded by the National Science Foundation.