The Last Carolina Parakeet

Incas, the last captive Carolina Parakeet, died at the Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago today.  Only a few decades prior, the Carolina Parakeet had numbered in the millions, with a range from Florida to New England.  The parakeet was especially prevalent in the Carolinas. 

Though almost entirely wiped out by the mid-1800s, the Carolina Parakeet was only first scientifically described in English in 1731 in Mark Catesby’s two volume work Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published in 1731 and 1743.

The Parrot of Carolina, Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina Florida and the Bahama Islands, 1731 and 1743. This image is taken from the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections’ copy of Natural History of Carolina Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731 and 1743) which was donated by Susan Gibbes Robinson.

Catesby’s scientific description is below. (In his description, Catesby remarks that the Carolina Parakeet is toxic to cats but this is likely because the birds would eat the seeds of cockleburs, which are poisonous to cats.)

“This bird is of the bigness, or rather less than a Black-bird, weighing three ounces and an half; the fore part of the head orange colour; the hind part of the head and neck yellow.  All the rest of the Bird appears green; but, upon further scrutiny, the interior vanes of most of the wing feathers are dark brown: the upper parts of the exterior vanes of the larger wing or quill feathers are yellow, proceeding gradually deeper colour’d to the end, from yellow to green; and from green to blue: the edge of the shoulder of the wing, for about three inches down, is bright orange colour. The wings are very long, as is the tail; having the two middle feathers longer than the others by an inch and half, and end in a point; the rest are gradually shorter.  The legs and feet are white: the small feathers coving the thighs, are green, ending at the knees with a verge of orange colour. They feed on seeds and kernels of fruit; particularly those of Cypress and Apples.  The orchards in autumn are visited by numerous flights of them; where they make great destruction for their kernels only: for the same purpose they frequent Virginia; which is the furthest North I ever heard they have been seen.  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 already decreasing in number by the time John J. Audubon included it as the 26th plate in his double elephant folio printing of Birds of America, published between 1827-1838. 

Plate no. 26, The Carolina Parrot, John J. Audubon’s Birds of America, published between 1827-1838. This image is taken from the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections’ copy of John J. Audubon’s double elephant folio printing of Birds of America, published between 1827-1838.

Audubon’s representation of the parakeets shows them as they existed in nature, friendly birds that existed in large flocks.  These flocks could decimate a farmer’s field.  For this reason, the colorful and friendly bird with the farthest northern range of any known parrot was viewed as a nuisance and landowners would wipe out an entire flock in a single day.  Others were captured and kept as pets because of their friendly natures. More were killed for their colorful plumage, in demand for ladies’ hats. The last sighting of a Carolina Parakeet in the wild was in 1910 and with Incas death on February 21, 1918 the Carolina Parakeet was extinct.

Southern author Ron Rash, whose archive was acquired by the Irvin Department in 2017, often writes about species that, though once plentiful in the Carolinas, have become extinct due to man’s destruction.  He is particularly interested in the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet.  He often laments its decimation in his works. In his 2002 book of poetry, Raising the Dead, Rash summarizes his feelings of loss and well as the loss to us all in his poem:

Carolina Parakeet

Though once plentiful enough
to pulse an acre field, green
a blue sky, they were soon gone,
whole flocks slaughtered in a day,
though before forever lost
found last here, in these mountains
so sparsely settled a man
late as 1860 might
look up from new-broken land
and glimpse that bright vanishing.

Jessica Crouch
Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections 

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