Carolina Parakeet | America’s Forgotten Parrot

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Katrine Claassens, 2018

2014 marked the 100-year anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. People lauded the species in articles, videos, and celebrations. Nearly 50 articles—found everywhere from NPR, to the Atlantic, to the New Yorker—were published about the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

In these articles, we learned that R.W. Shufeldt, the man who dissected Martha, left her heart untouched (a fitting tribute), and that Martha’s specimen travels first class with a special handler. We learned there was a memorial launched at the Cincinnati Zoo, a place that has become a reliquary to Martha, with passenger pigeon-themed exhibits and a statue to mark her passing.

We even learned that Martha’s death helped give birth to the modern environmental movement through the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaties Act of 1918, a landmark in environmental legislation that helped pave the way for the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

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Passenger Pigeon Memorial at Cincinnati Zoo

This collective grief about what we lost, a kind of physiognomic guilt, is not misplaced. Yet there is a darker side to it. Four years after Martha died, in her old cage at the Cincinnati Zoo, a bird named Incas breathed his last. He was a Carolina parakeet, North America’s only temperate parrot.

He was a bird, which, like the passenger pigeon, covered a large range in the millions, and like the passenger pigeon, was shot needlessly until we decimated their numbers. He was the last of his kind, and he was fated to play second fiddle to Martha in both life and death.

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Carolina parakeet specimen (National Geographic)

It started with photographs. There were so few photographs taken of living Carolina parakeets that in the book Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, Errol Fuller notes this omission as extraordinary given how commonly they were kept as pets.

There are only two photographs of living Carolina parakeets, and one may have used a taxidermized model. The other shows a bird named Doodles eating seed out of his owner’s mouth. In contrast, the passenger pigeon, heath hen, and ivory-billed woodpecker sport at least a dozen photographs of living animals.

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One of two surviving photos of a living Carolina parakeet

Perhaps it is that Inkas went missing after his death. After Martha’s death, her feathers were lovingly collected, and she was shipped in a 300-pound block of ice to the Smithsonian for preservation. But the body of Inkas simply disappeared.

Perhaps it is also the lack of books available about the species. A quick scan of online booksellers revealed a dozen popular books on the passenger pigeon (including three on Martha), but a handful about the Carolina parakeet, and of those, only one in print.

Ignored in life, ignored in death—this should grieve us as much as its absence, because in all respects, the Carolina parakeet was a remarkable bird. It was the only indigenous parrot in a range that spanned 23 US states and was one of the only temperate parrots. It had a habit of flocking around its fallen, not unlike the funereal behavior of black-billed magpies. This also made it easier to kill.

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J. J. Audubon, from Birds of America

Its plumage was brightly colored, almost incandescent, and though it did not receive the same rhapsodic descriptions that John James Audubon gave the passenger pigeon, his painting of a seemingly-boisterous flock of Carolina parakeets in a tree is, arguably, one of his best.

And while a handful of news outlets and artists covered the anniversary of the species’ extinction last month, it is simply not enough. So, let’s take a moment to mourn the Carolina parakeet, America’s forgotten parrot.

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Jada Finch, Watercolor, 2014

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