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.

Nighthawks in the City and the Coming of Spring

The other night I stepped outside for a minute and was immediately mesmerized, a quiet smile suffusing my heart. The nighthawks were calling as they soared over the rail yard across from my house in Baltimore.

Nighthawks, also known as goatsuckers, are in the Caprimiguldae or nightjar family, according to the American Bird Conservancy. They are remarkable birds that feed on the wing by opening their mouths and scooping up flying insects. Hearing them on a chilly February night lightens the heart, as they are among the true harbingers of Spring. Although the voice of a single Common Nighthawk (the species most frequently found in Maryland) is a simple nasal “peent” (and when diving, a booming mechanical sound), they migrate in flocks, and when a flock is calling the blending of voices creates a compelling, dissonant harmony.

Common Nighthawk in Flight (photo by Jacob W. Frank, NPS , Wikimedia Commons)

I listen as they glide above the rail yard, between a busy interstate and a neighborhood of row homes. Is this not a miracle—that creatures so wild can grant us their voice, despite the concrete, cars, and noise nearby? They ask nothing in return–only that they are left alone–and they remind us that despite our conceits we share this planet with other beings.

Although classified as a bird of least concern, Common Nighthawks are in steep decline, with an estimated 61 percent drop in population since the mid-1960s, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO). They are long-distance migrants, forming large flocks as they fly 1600 to more than 4000 miles each way–among the longest migratory routes of any North American bird. According to CLO, Common Nighthawks migrate overland through Mexico and Central America, with many passing over Florida and Cuba before crossing the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering grounds in southern South America. Along the way, they stop in woodlands, coastal dunes, river valleys, farmlands, and marshes. Habitat loss, pesticides, and collisions with cars while the birds forage over highways at night are factors in their decline.

Nighthawks lay their eggs on gravel beaches, rocky outcrops, open ground, and forest floors, according to COL, and in cities, on flat gravel roofs. They do not build nests, relying instead on camouflage. When nesting on gravel roofs the eggs and nestlings may suffer predation from crows and birds of prey. A recent study in Conservation Physiology also found that increasing temperatures as a result of climate change are associated with high stress levels in nighthawk chicks.

New Hampshire Audubon has urged homeowners and others with flat roofs to create gravel nesting patches for urban nighthawks. The program, called “Project Nighthawk,” provides specific information on creating these patches. A link to their detailed handbook is here.

The common name goatsucker is based on ancient superstition, according to David Sibley, the renowned author-illustrator. Aristotle wrote about the alleged goat-sucking habits of these birds, and in 77 AD, Pliny penned this: “They be night-thieves, for all the day long they see not. Their manner is to come into the shepherds’ coats and goat pens, and to the goats’ udders presently they go and suck the milk at their teats. And look what udder is so milked, it giveth no more milk, but misliketh and falleth away afterward, and the goats become blind withal.

As Sibley notes, it is unclear if many people actually believed this, and the superstition faded centuries ago, despite the persistence of the nickname. We know with certainty that nighthawks eat only flying insects and have nothing to do with goats.

Despite their nocturnal habits and eerily wild calls, Common Nighthawks have adapted to cityscapes. A story in Audubon was titled “The Common Nighthawk is the Cool City Bird You’ve Been Missing.” In my highly urban Baltimore neighborhood, the birds pass through in flocks in late winter or early Spring, and late Summer or early Fall, apparently drawn to flying insects swarming the lights illuminating the rail yard. But they do not linger—their plaintive calls livening the night before moving on. Although nighthawks can be seen during the day, I have seen them here only after dark in silhouette as they glide above the lights.

Common Nighthawk (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, Wikimedia Commons)

As I write this they have already passed on—-and I may not hear them here again until late summer when they are on their return migration. But knowing that they have returned once again provides some assurance that–for now, at least—wild things persist as they have despite the heedless activities of man.