Thursday, May 5, 2011

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis)


Few animals have fascinated humanity for as long as the parrots and their relatives. Indigenous people in the tropics and people from Western societies alike covet these birds, not only for their beautiful appearance, but also for their playfulness and the ability of some species to mimic the human voice. The inherent beauty and charm of these birds makes it hard to understand why humans would willingly seek to wipe them out, but this is exactly what has happened on a number of occasions.

One of the most tragic examples of how humans have actively exterminated one of these interesting birds is the tale of the Carolina parakeet, a beautiful bird and the only native parrot of the United States. Around 30 cm long and 250 g in weight, this colorful bird was very common in the eastern deciduous forests of the United States, and especially in the dense woodland skirting the many great rivers of this region. The birds normally lived in small groups, although larger flocks would gather in the presence of abundant food, and it was not unusual to see 200 to 300 birds in a brilliant, raucous gathering. Like so many other parrots, the Carolina parakeet was a monogamous, long-lived species that brooded two white eggs in the cavities of deciduous trees. During most of the day, the Carolina parakeet would roost in the highest branches, and it was only in the morning and evening that the small flocks would take to the wing in search of food and water. Like other parrots, it could use its strong bill to crack open seeds and nuts to get at their nutritious contents.

The productive lands of North America suited the Carolina parakeet, and for hundreds of thousands of years, this bird brought a riot of color to the deciduous forests of this continent. Even when the fi  rst humans to colonize North America encroached on the woodlands of the Carolina parakeet, it continued to thrive. The turning point in the survival of this species came with the arrival of Europeans. The ways of the Europeans were very different to the ways of the American Indians, and they cleared large areas of forest to make way for agriculture. for roosting and nesting places, but also for food. Initially, the loss of habitat did not aff  ect the parakeet too badly as it adapted to feed on the seeds of the European’s crops, including apple, peach, mulberry, pecan, grape, dogwood, and various grains. This adaptability brought the parakeet into conflict with farmers, who saw the colorful bird as no more than a troublesome pest. The slaughter of the Carolina parakeet began, and from that point on, it was doomed. Farmers would seek out the small flocks and kill one or two birds to trigger an interesting behavior that was to seal the parakeet’s fate: Hearing the gunshots, the birds would take to the wing but would quickly return to their fallen flock mates, hovering and swooping over the lifeless bodies. The significance of this behavior is unknown, but it was probably a way of intimidating and confusing predators in the hope that the downed bird was only injured, thus giving it time to escape. This was probably a very successful strategy against predatory mammals and birds, but a man armed with a gun was a very different opponent. As the rest of the flock attended the bodies of the fallen, the hunter was able to pick off   more of the unfortunate birds, and it was not unusual for an entire flock to be wiped out in this way.

The years passed, and the Carolina parakeet lost more and more habitat and suffered the continued persecution of ignorant humans. To make matters worse, thousands of the birds were captured for the pet trade, and thousands more were killed to supply the hat trade with colorful feathers for the latest in fashionable ladies’ head wear. The senseless slaughter and collection continued, and by the 1880s, it was very clear that the Carolina parakeet was very rare. In 1913, the last Carolina parakeet in the wild, a female, was collected near Orlando in Florida, and only four years later, the last captive individual, a male by the name of Inca, died in Cincinnati Zoo only six months after the death of his lifelong partner, Lady Jane. They had lived together in captivity for 32 years. The sad and needless extinction of this interesting bird mirrors the demise of the passenger pigeon, and ironically, both species met their end in a small cage in the same zoo, poignant reminders of human ignorance, greed, and disregard for the other species with which we share this planet.

Source: Wikipedia


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