We asked our friends at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville to spotlight something fascinating about our state. This one’s for the birds.
When we think of the birds of Virginia, a bright red cardinal comes to mind. But just over a century ago, we still had a native parrot species, too.
Quite the looker: The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) was a small parrot with brilliant green plumage, a yellow head and an orange face. It had the northernmost range of any parrot, ranging from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to southern New York. It also could be found as far west as Colorado.
Rise and fall: It is believed that there were as many as 2 million or 3 million Carolina parakeets at their peak, many in the cypress swamps of Florida. There were plenty of recorded sightings during the early Colonial period, but their numbers began to decline rapidly: The naturalist John J. Audubon commented on their sudden scarcity as early as 1832. (He also noted that the parakeets were poisonous to cats, likely because the birds ate the toxic seeds of cocklebur plants.)
The felling of old-growth forests in the 1700s and 1800s removed prime nesting sites. Some parakeets were collected for the pet trade. The introduction of European honeybees in the 17th century also may have played a role: The parakeets nested inside hollow trees, and many nesting sites were taken over by the non-native bees.
Hunted: Like the now-extinct passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeets also were targeted by man. The parakeets had a taste for many crops and were considered an agricultural pest. They also were hunted for their colorful feathers.
Easy targets: Carolina parakeets lived in big flocks of 200 to 300 individuals. Because they were gregarious, they were easy to hunt. Their flocking behavior caused them to return to dead or wounded members of their species, which made it easy for hunters to wipe out an entire flock.
Farewell: By 1900, Carolina parakeets could be found only deep in the swamps of central Florida. The last known wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County in 1904. And with the passing of a captive specimen at the Cincinnati Zoo on Feb. 21, 1918, the entire species disappeared.
If you’re strolling through the woods and spot a bright green parrot flitting through the trees, you haven’t discovered a long-lost population of Carolina parakeets. Between the 1960s and 1980s, thousands of South American monk parakeets were shipped to the U.S. as part of the pet trade. Many either escaped or were set free, and today, several U.S. cities have thriving populations.