Collisions and Extinctions

On February 21, 1918, a male Carolina Parakeet named Incas died in the Cincinnati Zoo. He was the last known member of his species.

In his book “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” –arguably the most thorough and emotionally compelling account of bird extinctions ever written—author Christopher Cokinos writes of the sad and maddening saga of the Carolina Parakeet. Sad because mindless, pointless, and destructive human behavior drove the extinction, and maddening because there was ample time and opportunity to have kept it from happening.

The degree to which various factors, woven together, drove Conuropsis carolinensis to extinction are not entirely clear, but it is clear that this stunning, vibrant bird—like many other extinct species–could not survive its collision with mankind.

While the Carolina Parakeet was the only member of the parrot family endemic to the United States mainland (the thick-billed parrot, which has been reintroduced, was never widespread), the way in which collisions with humans drive extinction is as contemporary as today’s paper. As I was writing this, a video of a spotted leopard wandering in a closed Indian mall went viral. (In this case, there was a happy ending.) Human beings are learning to recognize that other species are worthy of protection and respect–and although this post is a story of the worst of human disregard for other animals, we are, as a species, slowly learning to coexist. It will not be enough for some species–but there is hope for others.

Carolina Parakeet (Jacques Barraband, public domain)

Reading about the disappearance of the Carolina Parakeet is profoundly sad—and a critical lesson in how culture and technology shape the world. Practices considered acceptable during the bird’s decline seem astonishing from the perspective of 2019, reflecting a degree of mindless cruelty and indifference shocking even by the standards of the Trump era.

Lest we point only to ourselves—Westerners—for the relentless shooting of flocks, clearing of timber, and wholesale disregard for these and other creatures, Cokinos reminds us that the moa, a flightless bird of New Zealand, of which there were nine species, was hunted to extinction by the Maoris about 600 years ago. An article in Science titled “Why did the Moa go Extinct,” cites evolutionary biologists Trevor Worthy and Morten Allentoft.

“The inescapable conclusion is these birds were not senescent, not in the old age of their lineage and about to exit from the world,” said Worthy. “Rather they were robust, healthy populations when humans encountered and terminated them.” Allentoft commented: “We like to think of indigenous people as living in harmony with nature, but this is rarely the case. Humans everywhere will take what they need to survive. That’s how it works.”

Contemporary human beings, however, do not need to drive species to extinction to survive. That we do so by indifference is that much more unforgivable.

The wholesale level of ignorance and indifference chronicled by Cokinos resulted in mindless cruelty. Even renowned avian artist John James Audubon–whom one would presume had some feeling for birds—advised owners of newly captured parakeets to calm them by plunging the birds repeatedly in water, Cokinos writes.

In addition to the direct human killing of the birds for “sport,” plumage, and from ire at their occasional eating of crops, the introduction of honeybees also likely contributed to their demise. The birds were able to adapt to many human-related impacts, but the rapid spread of honeybees, who took over tree cavities favored by the parakeets, was accompanied by an observed decline in their numbers.

Carolina Parakeets feeding on Cocklebur (John James Audubon, public domain)

Parakeets–and all Psittacines (the parrot family)–are social beings–and their social connectivity can go to great lengths. Flocking is a survival behavior that evolved over millions of years. One need only watch a hawk go after a flock of birds to see this adaptation in action. Although the parakeets were able to adapt to many environmental challenges, “bullets generally work faster than behavioral adaptations,” writes Cokinos.

The otherwise adaptive flocking tendency proved deadly when confronted with guns. An explorer named John K. Townsend described a slaughter he witnessed in 1834: “They seemed entirely unsuspicious of danger, and after being fired at only huddled closer together, as if to obtain protection from each other, and as their companions are falling around them, they curve down their necks and look at them fluttering upon the ground, as though perfectly at a loss to account for so unusual an occurrence.”

In a chapter titled “Guns and Parrots” from his book “Wild Echoes,” author Charles Bergman quotes Audubon: “The gun is kept busy, with eight, ten or even twenty being killed at each discharge. As if conscious of the deaths of their companions, the living birds sweep over the bodies, screaming loudly as ever… I have seen several hundred destroyed in this manner in a few hours.”

That this was considered “sport” may strike us as obscene–but that was the ethos of the time, and there was little outcry over the practice.

Although some accounts contend that the Carolina Parakeet inflicted a toll on crops, Cokinos notes that he could find no record in the traditional agricultural sources such as the farmer’s almanac that cited Carolina Parakeets as responsible for crop depredations. Contemporary ornithologist Daniel McKinley, who published a series of monographs on the Carolina Parakeet from 1959-1985, is quoted as saying “even if the parakeet did not do much damage, it could be blamed for all of it.”

Carolina Parakeets also suffered for the plumage trade, where they joined a long list of birds in gracing women’s hats. They were also shot for food.

Scientists, too contributed to their demise. As the birds edged nearer to extinction, ornithologists continued to shoot them so they would have specimens once they were gone. Another form of destruction involved egg collection. It was not until the advent of field guides and binoculars in the twentieth century that ornithologists generally stopped shooting birds for study. While reading of ornithologists shooting endangered parakeets (and other vanishing birds) is maddening, Cokinos notes that scientific collecting killed far fewer birds than hunting or shooting by farmers. But it was another contributor to extinction.

Once the population dropped below a certain point, the absence of genetic diversity must have contributed to accelerated decline. And because the parakeets, like other, parrots, are highly social, they may have needed a minimal flock size to trigger breeding.

While Incas was the last known Carolina Parakeet, we will never know precisely when the last bird died. Cokinos quotes the memoir of Missourian Gert Goebel, who wrote: “Until the later (18)30s, great flocks of parakeets came into our region every fall and remained till the following spring… As the settlements increased and the forests were more and more cleared away, these birds ceased to come.” Cokinos describes scattered sightings that occurred from the late 1800s through 1912 or 1913.

Even after their extirpation from the wild, there were opportunities to save the species—had there been any concerted, intelligent effort to do so. In addition to being killed for sport, plumage, collection and by farmers, Carolina Parakeets were also kept as pets and by zoos. Despite knowledge of the bird’s disappearance from the wild, and their willingness to breed in captivity, “owners exhibited a startling lack of rigor for essential concerns, such as determining the best diet for the bird or creating social conditions conducive to reproduction,” according to Cokinos. He quotes Daniel McKinley about the failure to keep the species going through captive breeding. “They had their chance. Their records show a series of disappointments and a heartbreaking waste of eggs and of young birds and old…

Edward Maruska, director emeritus of the Cincinnati Zoo, where the last known Carolina Parakeet once lived, told Cokinos that the species could not only have been kept going in captivity but quite possibly re-introduced into the wild.

The death of Incas was reported in the February 22, 1918 Cincinnati Times-Star, and Cokinos quotes the story, which attributed the death in part to Incas’ grief over the loss of his mate.

Far-Famed Last Parakeet of Its Kind is Mourned at Zoo: Grief Was a Contributing Cause: A student of bird-life, acting as coroner in the case of Incas, the Carolina Parakeet, said to be the last of his race, might enter a verdict of ‘died of old age.’ But General Manager Sol A. Stephan of the Zoo whose study of birds goes further than mere physical structure, development, and decay, knows the bird died of grief. Incas, coveted by many zoological gardens, died Thursday night surrounded by his genuinely sorrowing friends, Col. Stephan and the keepers. Late last summer, Lady Jane, the mate of Incas for 32 years, passed away, and after that, the ancient survivor was a listless and mournful figure indeed.

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