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Ontario's extinct parrot still yields lessons

Carolina Parakeets were Ontario’s only parrot; however, they went extinct. This image of the birds was created by John James Audubon in 1825. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It surprises many to learn that a parrot species likely inhabited Ontario. The Carolina Parakeet was a small, 33 cm long neotropical parrot with a dark green back, lighter green underparts, and a yellow head with a reddish-orange face. The preferred habitats of this extremely social bird were old growth forests and swamps.

The earliest North American records of these birds date back to the 16th century, and the first scientific description of the species was in the mid-1700s with the publication of Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands by Mark Catesby, an English scientist. These birds were well known across the eastern U.S.

As well as having created a beautiful portrait of the birds in the early 1800s, John James Audubon also created a written record of the species. In terms of the birds’ behaviors, he wrote “They are quite at ease on trees.” He also noted that “on the ground these birds walk slowly and awkwardly, as if their tail incommoded them.”

“They are fond of sand in a surprising degree, and on that account are frequently seen to alight in flocks along the gravelly banks about the creeks and rivers.” Carolina Parakeets would nest and roost in hollow trees such as Sycamores, and holes that had been excavated by other birds.

It was records of Samuel de Champlain that are the best evidence that some Carolina Parakeets made their way to Ontario. Champlain was in the Peterborough area in 1615. In their book Before Ontario: The Archaeology of a Province, authors Marit Munson and Susan Jamieson cite Champlain’s description of a bird that “had a beak like that of a parrot, and was the size of a hen. It was entirely yellow, except the head which was red, and the wings which were blue, and it flew at intervals like a partridge.” Although not a perfectly accurate description of an adult Carolina Parakeet, that bird is the leading candidate species. There is a specimen in the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

It is sobering to read Audubon’s notes about what we would now refer to as the bird’s conservation status. “Our Parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number; and in some districts, where twenty-five years ago they were plentiful, scarcely any are now to be seen.” He described the Carolina Parakeet’s shrinking range. Even by then, very few of the birds were to be found in the Lake Ontario area.

Through the balance of the 1800s, there was a complete collapse of the bird’s population. It has been suggested that the two primary contributing factors for the extinction were habitat loss due to deforestation and hunting.

It seemed altogether to easy to kill these birds. Audubon wrote “Parakeets are destroyed in great numbers, for whilst busily engaged in plucking off the fruits or tearing the grain from the stacks, the husbandman approaches them with perfect ease, and commits great slaughter among them. All the survivors rise, shriek, fly round about for a few minutes, and again alight on the very place of most imminent danger. The gun is kept at work; eight or ten, or even twenty, are killed at every discharge. The living birds, as if conscious of the death of their companions, sweep over their bodies, screaming as loud as ever, but still return to the stack to be shot at, until so few remain alive, that the farmer does not consider it worth his while to spend more of his ammunition.”

Interestingly, the last known Carolina Parakeet was a captive bird that lived in the Cincinnati Zoo, and it died in the very same cage that had been home to the last known Passenger Pigeon.

Many people know about the extinctions of the Passenger Pigeon and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the early 20th century, but the lesser known loss of the Carolina Parakeet is equally sobering.

The results of an international study by Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and others were published in the journal Science in 2019. The study was widely reported on. In what was the first-ever comprehensive assessment of net changes to bird populations in the U.S. and Canada, an across-the-board loss of 2.9 billion breeding birds since 1970 was measured. This is a staggering 30% decline.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology conservation scientist Dr. Ken Rosenberg led the international team of scientists from seven institutions in the analysis of population trends for 529 bird species. The authors warned that this loss of birds and biodiversity represents a pervasive and ongoing crisis. “This loss of bird abundance signals an urgent need to address threats to avert future avifaunal collapse and associated loss of ecosystem integrity, function and services.”

Hopefully these losses will be lessons that motivate us to act personally and collectively.

To read John James Audubon’s full account of this extinct bird, visit the John James Audubon's Birds of America website. To learn more about the international study on recent bird loss, visit Nearly 3 Billion Birds Gone | Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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