The Carolina Parakeet
The Carolina Parakeet, one of the bird sculptures currently on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, was distinguished by its beautiful plumage and its very long tail. Although it was initially found in vast areas of the United States, its numbers began dwindling in the 19th century. The last parakeet was sighted in 1904, and the bird was declared extinct in 1939.
The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History.
The Carolina parakeet was found in forested areas and swampy regions of the United States, stretching from the southeastern United States to the Great Plains and west to the Mid-Atlantic region. A small bird, it weighed a mere ten ounces. It was distinguished by its colorful feathers, which ranged from yellow and orange to several shades of green. Due to urbanization, its habitats began to contract in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even in 1831, John James Audubon commented that, along the Mississippi, the number of Carolina parakeets was less than half those that existed a mere fifteen years earlier.
The demise of the parakeet was the result of several trends or causes which operated individually and collectively; these can be summarized as deforestation, decoration, displacement, and disease.
Deforestation robbed the birds of food and nesting sites, thereby killing or displacing many flocks. Moreover, habitat destruction made hunting more effective because it concentrated the birds, making them more vulnerable to hunters. Farmers and those who had small orchards saw the birds as pests. Many parakeets fell prey to hunters trying to protect their crops. When one bird was wounded, it would cry in distress, a call that summoned others of the flock. Entire flocks were shot as the birds rallied around a wounded bird.
The birds were also vulnerable to tastes in fashion: the parakeet’s beautiful feathers were used to decorate hats. In 1886, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York noted that, walking around Manhattan, he had spotted feathers from some 40 native species of birds decorating woman’s hats. The feather trade was a lucrative business, with hunters receiving twice the price of gold for an ounce of the coveted plumes. Although Congress enacted legislation to prohibit interstate commerce in certain types of feathers, the laws had too many loopholes to curtail the trade. By 1898 the prevailing fashion had had such an impact that environmentalists and ornithologists attempted to shame women for wearing hats with feathers. One New York Times article titled “Murderous Millinery” stressed that women invited public stigma “by exhibiting themselves . . . in the relics of murdered innocence.” The Audubon Society also urged “bird hat boycotts,” suggesting that women instead wear environmentally-correct “audubonnets” bedecked with ribbons and other non-feathered ornaments.
Another contributory cause of the Carolina parakeets declining numbers may have been the importation of honeybees, which evicted the birds from the cavities in hollow trees where they nested. Finally, some scientists have hypothesized that exotic poultry diseases may have decimated the parakeet population that had survived other threats and were in protected habitats. Whatever the reason or reasons, today Carolina parakeets can be appreciated only in museums and ornithological collections, where they are mounted specimens rather than part of a gregarious flock.
-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer
The Lost Bird Project is a companion exhibit to “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” on view at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries through October 2015.