Today we think of parrots and parakeets as birds of tropical climates. Few people realize that North America once had a parrot of its own. The Carolina parakeet once inhabited most of the eastern United States outside of northern New England. It was found as far west as eastern Colorado. There were two subspecies, with slightly different plumage. The image to the right shows the eastern subspecies. The Louisiana subspecies is not quite as colorful, and more bluish than green. Both lived in old-growth deciduous forests in swamps and along rivers and streams. They lived in flocks typically comprised of a couple hundred individuals, and nested in hollow trees.
Discovery of the Carolina Parakeet
The first mention of the Carolina parakeet in the written record occurred in 1583, in George Peckham's A True Report of the Late Discoveries. He stated that explorers in North America reported parrots. The first scientific description of the Carolina parakeet was in the work of English naturalist Mark Catesby. His two volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands was published in 1731 / 1743. He refers to it as "the parrot of Carolina." In his description of it he notes that "The orchards in autumn are visited by numerous flights of them where they make great destruction."
Extinction of the Carolina Parakeet
The demise of the Carolina parakeet was due to a number of factors, with the major one being habitat destruction. Southern forests were felled for timber and to clear land for cultivation. The parakeets were hunted for their bright plumage and because they raided fields and orchards. The Carolina parakeet wasn't all bad for farmers - They also ate cockleburs, an invasive weed which is toxic to most animals. It was reported that cats sometimes died from eating the parakeets, and this is believed to be due to the toxins they ingested from eating cockleburs. Another possible factor is the importation of European honeybees for pollination, which may have competed with the the parakeets for nesting cavities in trees.
The range of the Carolina parakeet was mostly restricted to Florida after 1860, and to central Florida swamps by the latter part of the nineteenth century. Their final extinction in the wild was sudden and is not well understood. As late as 1896 there were healthy flocks with reproducing pairs living in habitat with adequate nest sites. Despite this, that last known parakeet in the wild was killed in 1904. It has been theorized that a disease was transmitted to them from domesticated poultry. While this could explain their sudden extinction, there is no evidence to support the theory.
The Carolina parakeet was apparently long-lived (up to 35 years) and easy to keep in captivity.Some were kept as pets, but they were not especially popular because they did not sing. Some of them did reproduce in captivity, but no one put together a serious captive breeding program to prevent extinction until it was too late. The last known Carolina parakeet was named "Incas." He died in the Cincinnati zoo in 1918, in the same aviary where the last passenger pigeon had passed away less than four years earlier.