|Subspecies|| C. c. carolinensis|
C. c. ludovicaina
The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) was once the only species of parrot native to the eastern United States. Considered a serious agricultural pest, Carolina parakeets were severely controlled during much of the 19th century; disease and the millinery and pet trades completed the bird's extinction by the mid-1920's.
The Carolina parakeet was a small bird, about the size of a mourning dove; it was 12 inches long and weighed about 10 ounces. The pointed tail took up half the total length. Both sexes were colored a brilliant green throughout, with the males bearing an orange forehead and cheeks, and a yellow head and neck. A bluish tint existed on the bend of the wings, readily-seen when folded; the blue coloration was more predominant with the Louisiana subspecies.
Range and habitat
Carolina parakeets were found through much of the eastern United States as far north as the Great Lakes region, though they generally were predominant east of the Appalachian Mountains south of Virginia and along the Gulf coast. They were also spotted in flocks west of the Mississippi River in Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Colorado.
Their typical habitat was varied: wooded areas near rivers and wetlands, upland forests, and cleared farmland. Nesting and reproduction is unknown, as no trained naturalist did a survey; it is speculated that the birds sought nests in cavities in cypress and sycamore trees previously used by woodpeckers.
Like all parrots, Carolina parakeets subsisted on seeds, which included elm, pine, maple, oak acorns, and others. Apparently, it was the only North American animal of any kind which fed upon the cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium), a plant which contains a toxic glucoside.
When the American continent had lands cleared for farming, the Carolina parakeet switched to a new diet rather easily, much to the dismay of farmers. Of their voraciousness, Audubon wrote:
- "The Parrot does not satisfy himself with cockle-burs, but eats or destroys almost every kind of fruit indiscriminately, and on this account is always an unwelcome visiter to the planter, the farmer, or the gardener. The stacks of grain put up in the field are resorted to by flocks of these birds, which frequently cover them so entirely, that they present to the eye the same effect as if a brilliantly coloured carpet had been thrown over them. They cling around the whole stack, pull out the straws, and destroy twice as much of the grain as would suffice to satisfy their hunger. They assail the pear and apple-trees, when the fruit is yet very small and far from being ripe, and this merely for the sake of the seeds. As on the stalks of corn, they alight on the apple-trees of our orchards, or the pear-trees in the gardens, in great numbers; and, as if through mere mischief, pluck off the fruits, open them up to the core, and, disappointed at the sight of the seeds, which are yet soft and of a milky consistence, drop the apple or pear, and pluck another, passing from branch to branch, until the trees which were before so promising, are left completely stripped, like the ship water-logged and abandoned by its crew, floating on the yet agitated waves, after the tempest has ceased. They visit the mulberries, pecan-nuts, grapes, and even the seeds of the dog-wood, before they are ripe, and on all commit similar depredations. The maize alone never attracts their notice."
This in turn would bring out planters with shotguns, who discovered a behavioral problem which contributed much towards their extinction. When one bird was killed, the remainder would fly away for a few moments, then return to the same spot to continue feeding. In this fashion a farmer could manage to kill off an entire flock in a matter of hours.
- "...the 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. I have seen several hundreds destroyed in this manner in the course of a few hours, and have procured a basketful of these birds at a few shots, in order to make choice of good specimens for drawing the figures by which this species is represented in the plate now under your consideration."
The birds noticeably declined in the mid-1800's due to the shotgun and the clearing of forested areas. Able to be tamed and mimic words, the pet trade made inroads into its numbers as did a new trade: the millinery industry. So many parakeets were killed so that their colorful plumage could be a part of women's fashion that their remaining numbers fell to the point of no return. The last captive bird, a male named "Incas", died on February 21, 1918. Sporadic, unconfirmed sightings of single birds and small flock occurred throughout the 1920's. In 1939, the bird was officially declared extinct.