When explorers and settlers first came to Carolina, they were struck by the natural beauty of the coast and the variety of flora and fauna native to the region. One species that caught attention for its beauty (the trait that hastened its demise) was the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis).
The exotic birds had bright green bodies and brilliant orange and golden heads. They were prized both as pets and as stuffed hat decorations in the nineteenth century. The friendly birds were easy to tame but also easy target practice. Their worst trait was a love of orchards and fruits, which made them enemies to the planters of the Lowcountry. Sadly, these parakeets were hunted with such fervor that they became extinct by the early twentieth century, and while they were not the only species to be hunted to extirpation (local extinction), they were one of the few to suffer total loss. Today all that survives of the beautiful birds are historic descriptions, a few taxidermy specimens, colorful historic illustrations, and a few eggs that leave the hope of someday being able to revive the beautiful birds.
Early colonists spotted the Carolina parakeet as far north as Virginia and southward to the Florida swamps, and later explorers observed flocks inland in Wisconsin and near the Gulf of Mexico. The earliest description comes from William Strachey, who observed the birds in Virginia in 1612:
parikitoes I have seen many in the Winter and knowne divers killed, yet be they a Fowle most swift of wing, their winges and Breasts are of a greenish coulor with forked Tayles, their heads som Crymsen, some yellow, some orange-tawny, very beautyfull.
The brightly colored birds had twelve-inch-long bodies, with pointed wings and tails. They were plentiful in early America, and Jesuits in Florida wrote in 1661 that “the little paroquets are so numerous that we have seen some of our Iroqouis return from those countries with scarves and belts which they had made from these birds by a process of interweaving.”
South Carolina naturalist Mark Catesby provided the first scientific account of the birds in the 1750s. He described their long, forked tail plumes, colors, and disposition. His colored illustrations of a Carolina parakeet in a cypress branch show a vibrant green body with aquamarine wingtips, a bright yellow neck, and a brilliant orange head. The little bird appears alert and friendly. Curiously, Catesby observed, “their guts are certain and speedy poison to cats. This is the only one of the parrot kind in Carolina: some of them breed in the country; but most of them retire more South.” The Carolina parakeet was indeed the only parrot native to the southeastern United States.
Eighteenth-century ornithologist Alexander Wilson described the vibrant color displays when the birds appeared in flocks: “they alighted on the ground, it appeared at a distance as if covered by a carpet of richest green, orange, and yellow: they afterwards steeled, in one body, on a neighboring tree, covering almost every twig of it, and the sun, shining strongly on their gay and glossy plumage, produced a very beautiful and splendid appearance.” Another observer wrote, “we have seen no bird of the size, with plumage so brilliant. They impart a singular magnificence to the forest prospect, as they are seen darting through the foliage and among the white branches of the sycamore.”
The birds flew quickly and always travelled in large numbers, calling to each other almost constantly. They nested in sycamore and cypress trees in the swamps and the forests of South Carolina and, while not highly migratory, they were hardy birds that were tolerant of winter cold snaps. They had strong beaks that aided them in building nests and gathering food, but they moved awkwardly on the ground on their small feet. The birds enjoyed sandy beaches and riverbeds and were observed in both salt and fresh water. Carolina parakeets were noisy and social and were most active in the early morning, preferring to nap in the hot midday during the summer months. An observer in the 1790s said that they were easily domesticated and became friendly in two days, while others found them to be “loud and mischievous, like some other pretty creatures” that “seem to delight in screaming.” Famous ornithologist James Audubon said they were “incapable of articulating words, however much care and attention may be bestowed upon their education; and their screams are so disagreeable as to render them at best very indifferent companions.”
The parakeets ate cockleburs from cypress and hackberry trees, beech nuts, and leaf chutes. Farmers were only too happy with the birds’ appetite for troublesome burs, which snagged horses’ tails and damaged sheep’s wool, but the parakeets were also especially fond of fruit and grains. They would destroy every apple on a tree, eating only the seeds and leaving the fruit to spoil, which is why the Native Americans and colonists alike destroyed them in large numbers. Audubon described their destruction to crops and orchards in detail: “as if through mere mischief, they 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. 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.”
In 1835 James Hall called them “birds of beautiful plumage but very bad character” because of their squawking and fruit predilection. Besides killing them to protect their crops, people also shot them for sport or to make them into meat pies. Settlers targeted other native species for damaging their crops or destroying their livestock, leading to the extirpation of the black bear, wolves, and wildcats. Deer and beaver numbers were drastically reduced because their pelts were in demand in England. However, thanks to conservation efforts of the twentieth century, these species were more fortunate than the Carolina parakeet and can be found in the Lowcountry again after near extinction.
Carolina parakeet numbers dwindled for several reasons, including their love of orchard fruit, their tendency to flock around an injured friend (leaving them prey to easy shooting), and the rising commercial desire for their beautiful plumage for hats and garment trim in the Victorian era. The birds were sometimes kept as pets but not actively bred in captivity, and to make matters worse, early ornithologists killed specimens for study rather than attempting to conserve and cultivate living birds. As early as 1832, Audubon reported that “our parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number, and in some districts, where twenty-five years ago they were plentiful, scarcely any are now to be seen.”
By the mid-nineteenth century, the parakeet had been extirpated in South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, and was becoming endangered elsewhere. The birds were trapped to meet a brief demand for them as pets in the North and in Europe. The last flocks disappeared rapidly and mysteriously in the early twentieth century. Some experts believe they may have caught an avian disease from domesticated poultry, while others blame the extinction solely on overhunting. The last known wild specimen was shot in the Okeechobee swamps of Florida in 1904, and Incas, the last captive parakeet, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918 (sadly, in the same cage where the last surviving passenger pigeon died in 1914).
In the late twentieth century, great strides were made in land conservation to ensure that surviving native bird, plant, and animal species of South Carolina are able to survive and thrive into the future. One example of success is the ACE Basin (Ashepoo, Combahee, Edisto River) conservation project, which has preserved over 200,000 acres of natural habitat south of Charleston County that are home to native species and a refuge for migrating birds every winter season.
Although conservation came too late for the Carolina parakeet, scientific advances of recent decades have caused some bird enthusiasts to keep a glimmer of hope that the birds might someday be revived. The Post and Courier reported in 2003 that the Smithsonian Institute and the Charleston Museum have clutches of eggs that might contain enough DNA to allow for further study and possible cloning in the future. It may sound like Jurassic Park, but the possibilities for the future are endless, and perhaps the Carolina parakeet will someday grace the Lowcountry skies again.