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.

Engineers Human and Otherwise, and Walls of Extinction

Last week I hiked out at Black Marsh, a remarkable suburban ecosystem a few miles north of Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay. On my way back to the parking lot, I heard a loud splash and was delighted to see a beaver near his impressive lodge.

He was joined a minute later by his mate, and they swam around, bumped noses, splashed, and generally made themselves known. Other than humans, beavers are arguably nature’s most striking engineers, and at Black Marsh, as in other aquatic ecosystems, are integral to the health of the marsh community.

An engineer splashes and glides past his lodge at Black Marsh in Baltimore County in early February 2019

Unlike beavers, human engineers often alter the environment in ways that harm all other living things. When Trump first pitched his anti-immigrant wall along the Mexican border, there were a number of articles highlighting how walls fragment and divide critical ecosystems. But these discussions have faded–although the peril posed by walls in sensitive habitats has not. This blog is a tap on the shoulder as we think about the wall going forward. Below is a sampling of what has been written about walls and ecosystems.

In a December 6, 2018 article for Scientific American, Margaret Wilder began simply–“Nature is fluid–walls are not.” She points out that in July 2018, more than 2500 scientists signed a letter opposing the waiver of federal and state environmental laws to build the wall. The letter states that “the wall threatens some of the continent’s most biologically diverse regions…”

Humans benefit from ecosystems not only for their intrinsic beauty and capacity to connect us to something larger than ourselves and the human-engineered environment, but because they also provide recreational and employment opportunities for people living in biologically diverse environments.

Jaguars are among the large mammals that could be driven to extinction by Trump’s proposed border wall (photo by C. Burnett, Wikimedia Commons)

In November 2018, more than 170 conservation groups sent a letter highlighting the vast destruction of wildlife and ecosystems that would be caused by the wall. After commenting on the major conservation areas that would be sundered by the wall–the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and National Butterfly Center, Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area–and declaring their “steadfast opposition to the damage a border wall across these and other parts of Texas would cause to birds, other wildlife and their habitats,” the authors point out the major negative economic impact it would render.

These nature preserves provide essential economic activity in Texas. According to a 2011 Texas A&M University study, nature tourism—primarily birding—contributes $463 million annually to the local economy. Located near several birding hotspots, the Alamo Inn B&B, for example, hosts more than 1,200 visitors a year. “Ninety-five percent of our guests are birders,” says innkeeper and guide Keith Hackland, who adds that his bird-watching visitors so far have come from 40 different countries and every U.S. state.

While the wall debate has lately focused solely on the way in which it symbolizes human division and intolerance, the disastrous impact that it would have on wildlife is being ignored. Human activities invariably have consequences on other living things—but in this case, the consequences would be immediate and far-reaching. It may be possible to undo much of the harm to humans that Trump’s misguided anti-immigrant policies have already had. But the building of miles of a tall, impenetrable barrier would cause irreversible harm to myriad non-human species and pose a real risk of driving many to extinction. In an article titled “Border Wall Will Deliver a Huge Blow to Biodiversity,” Sukanya Charuchandra, writing in The Scientist, reports that “more than 1500 species of flora and fauna will be at risk of extinction if a continuous U.S.-Mexico border wall is built.” The article quotes Jennifer Miller, a scientist at Defenders of Wildlife: “Debates about the border wall typically focus on immigration, economics, and national security, but the harm to Americans’ natural heritage is an outcome rarely discussed.”

Mexican Grey Wolf pup (Wikimedia Commons, author unknown)

An extended wall along the U.S.-Mexican border would adversely affect numerous threatened and endangered species, including jaguars, Mexican grey wolves, and some dwindling species of butterflies, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity titled “A Wall in the Wild: The Disastrous Impacts of Trump’s Border Wall on Wildlife.” Wilder notes that a wall would block large mammals from water, food, and mates, and that “25 species, among them the Peninsular bighorn sheep and the desert pupfish, will find their living habitats degraded and destroyed on over 2 million acres within 50 miles of the border. Based on actual findings from the nearly 800 miles of border fence that already exist, we know that it isolates in Mexico some birds who can’t fly over it, including the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and many others. At a minimum, alternative designs should be seriously considered to include “virtual” walls of sensors and wildlife crossings.

The Ferruginous pygmy owl would be seriously impacted by Trump’s proposed border wall (photo by Dominic Sherony, Wikimedia Commons)

In an article titled “Up Against the Wall,” the National Wildlife Federation lays out the damage the wall would cause and features a striking photograph of javelinas blocked by an existing border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border near the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona.

During World War II—decades before the Endangered Species Act was envisioned– there was an opportunity to save one of the most magnificent and legendary birds of North America. But despite the efforts of the National Audubon Society and a young graduate student from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology named James Tanner, the last remaining site known to have a significant population of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers was sold to a logging company that then used German prisoners of war to clear cut the tract, driving the birds to extinction. An article from Audubon titled “The Long Goodbye” notes that the lumber was used to build boxes used to ship tea to British soldiers.

Ivory Billed Woodpecker (John James Audubon, public domain)

One could argue that when the last vestiges of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker were driven to extinction in 1941 we didn’t know better–and while that argument provides no comfort it holds some truth. Now, however, there is no excuse. We do know better. And yet the pleas of conservationists who can help us find a better way to enhance border security without desecrating Creation are–ironically–voices in the Wilderness.