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|Mounted specimen of C. carolinensis, Laval University Library|
C. c. carolinensis
Psittacus carolinensis Linnaeus, 1758
The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) or Carolina conure was a small green Neotropical parrot with a bright yellow head, reddish orange face and pale beak native to the eastern, midwest and plains states of the United States and was the only indigenous parrot within its range. It was found from southern New York and Wisconsin to Kentucky, Tennessee and the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic seaboard to as far west as eastern Colorado. It lived in old-growth forests along rivers and in swamps. It was called puzzi la née ("head of yellow") or pot pot chee by the Seminole and kelinky in Chickasaw. Though formerly prevalent within its range, the bird had become rare by the middle of the 19th century. The last confirmed sighting in the wild was of the ludovicianus subspecies in 1910. The last known specimen perished in the captivity of the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918 and the species was declared extinct in 1939.
The earliest reference to these parrots was in 1583 in Florida reported by Sir George Peckham in "A True Report of the Late Discoveries of the Newfound Lands" of expeditions conducted by English explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert who notes that explorers in North America "doe testifie that they have found in those countryes;.... parrots." They were first scientifically described in English naturalist Mark Catesby's two volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published in London in 1731 and 1743.
Carolina Parakeets were probably poisonous—American naturalist and painter John J. Audubon noted that cats apparently died from eating them, and they are known to have eaten the toxic seeds of cockleburs.
Carolinensis is a species of the genus Conuropsis, one of numerous genera of New World long-tailed parrots in tribe Arini, which also includes the Central and South American macaws. Tribe Arini together with the Amazonian parrots and a few miscellaneous genera make up subfamily Arinae of Neotropical parrots in family Psittacidae of true parrots.
The specific name Psittacus carolinensis was assigned by Swedish zoologist Carolus Linnaeus in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae published in 1758. The species was given its own genus Conuropsis by Italian zoologist and ornithologist Tommaso Salvadori in 1891 in his Catalogue of the Birds in the British Museum, volume 20. The name is derived from the Greek-ified Conure (parrot of the genus Conurus an obsolete name of genus Aratinga) + -opsis (likeness of) and Latinized Carolina (from Carolana, an English colonial province[Note 1]) + -ensis (of or from a place), therefore a bird "like a conure from Carolina".
There are two recognized subspecies. The Louisiana subspecies of the Carolina Parakeet, C. c. ludovicianus,[Note 2] was slightly different in color than the Nominate subspecies, being more bluish-green and generally of a somewhat subdued coloration, and went extinct in much the same way, but at a somewhat earlier date (early 1910s). The Appalachian Mountains separated these birds from the eastern C. c. carolinensis.
According to a study of mitochondrial DNA recovered from museum specimens, their closest living relatives include some of the South American Aratinga parakeets: the Nanday Parakeet, the Sun Parakeet, and the Golden-capped Parakeet. The authors note the bright yellow and orange plumage and blue wing feathers found in Conuropsis carolinensis are traits shared by another species, the Jenday Parakeet (A. jandaya), that was not sampled in the study but is generally thought to be closely related[Note 3]. Carolinensis is in a sister clade to that of Spix's Macaw. The Carolina Parakeet colonized North America about 5.5 million years ago. This was well before North America and South America were joined together by the formation of the Panama land bridge about 3.5 million years ago. Since the Carolina parakeets' more distant relations are geographically closer to its own historic range whilst its closest relatives are more geographically distant to it, these data are consistent with the generally accepted hypothesis that Central and North America were colonized at different times by distinct lineages of parrots – parrots that originally invaded South America from Antarctica some time after the breakup of Gondwana, where Neotropical parrots originated approximately 50mya.
A fossil parrot, designated Conuropsis fratercula, was described based on a single humerus from the Miocene Sheep Creek Formation (possibly late Hemingfordian, c.16 mya, possibly later) of Snake River (Nebraska). This was a smaller bird, three-quarters the size of the Carolina Parakeet. "The present species is of peculiar interest as it represents the first known parrotlike bird to be described as a fossil from North America."(Wetmore 1926; italics added) However, it is not altogether certain that this species is correctly assigned to Conuropsis, but some authors consider it a paleosubspecies of the Carolina Parakeet[Note 4].
The Carolina Parakeet was a small green parrot very similar in size and coloration to the extant Jenday and Sun Conures. The majority of the plumage was green with lighter green underparts, bright yellow heads and orange forehead and face extending to behind the eyes and upper cheeks (lores). The shoulders were yellow, continuing down the outer edge of the wings. The primary feathers were mostly green, but with yellow edges on the outer primaries. Thighs were green towards the top and yellow towards the feet. Male and female adults were identical in plumage, however males were slightly larger than females(sexually dimorphic). The legs and feet were light brown. They share the zygodactyl feet of the parrot family. The skin around the eyes was white and the beak was pale flesh colored. These birds weigh about 3.5oz.[Note 5] are 13in. long, and have wingspans of 21-23in.
Young Carolina parakeets differed slightly in coloration from adults. The face and entire body was green, with paler underparts. They lacked yellow or orange plumage on the face, wings, and thighs. Hatchlings were covered in mouse-gray down, until about 39–40 days when green wings and tails appear. Fledglings had full adult plumage at around 1 year of age. ("Nature Serve, Conuropsis carolinensis", 2005; Fuller, 2001; Mauler, 2001; Rising, 2004; Snyder and Russell, 2002)
These birds were fairly long lived, at least in captivity - a pair was kept at the Cincinnati Zoo for over 35 years.
Distribution and habitat
The Carolina Parakeet had the northern-most range of any known parrot. It was found from southern New England and New York and Wisconsin to Kentucky, Tennessee and the Gulf of Mexico. Its also had a wide distribution west of the Mississippi River, as far west as eastern Colorado. Its range was described by early explorers thus: the 43rd parallel as the northern limit, the 26th as the most southern, the 73rd and 106th meridians as the eastern and western boundaries respectively, the range included all or portions of at least 28 states[Note 6]. Its habitats were old-growth wetland forests along rivers and in swamps especially in the Mississippi-Missouri drainage basin with large hollow trees including cypress and sycamore to use as roosting and nesting sites.
Only very rough estimates of the birds' former prevalence can be made: with an estimated range of 20,000 to 2.5 million km^2, and population density of 0.5 to 2.0 parrots per km^2, population estimates range from tens of thousands to a few millions of birds (though the densest populations occurred in Florida covering 170,000 km^2, so there may have been hundreds of thousands of the birds in that state alone).
The species may have appeared as a very rare vagrant in places as far north as Southern Ontario. A few bones, including a pygostyle found at the Calvert Site in Southern Ontario, came from the Carolina Parakeet. The possibility remains open that this specimen was taken to Southern Ontario for ceremonial purposes.
Behavior and diet
The bird lived in huge, noisy flocks of as many as 200-300 birds. They built their nests in hollow trees, laying two to five (most accounts say two) 1.6" round white eggs.
It mostly ate the seeds of forest trees and shrubs including those of cypress, hackberry, beech, sycamore, elm, pine, maple, oak, and other plants such as thistles and sandspurs (Cechrus sp.). It also ate fruits including apples, grapes and figs (often from orchards by the time of its decline). They were especially noted for their predilection for cockleburs(Xanthium strumarium), a plant which contains a toxic glucoside, and was an invasive pest in southern farms and fields.
There are no scientific studies or surveys of this bird by American naturalists; most information about it is from anecdotal accounts and museum specimens. Therefore details of its prevalence and decline are unverified or speculative.
There are extensive accounts of the pre-colonial and early colonial prevalence of this bird. The existence of flocks of gregarious, very colorful and raucous parrots could hardly have gone unnoted by European explorers, as parrots were virtually unknown in seafaring European nations in the 16th and 17th centuries. Later accounts in the latter half of the 19th century onward noted the birds' sparseness and absence.
The birds' range collapsed from east to west with settlement and clearing of the eastern and southern deciduous forests. John J. Audubon commented as early as 1832 on the decline of the birds. The bird was rarely reported outside Florida after 1860. The last reported sighting east of the Mississippi River (except Florida) was in 1878 in Kentucky. By the turn-of-the-century it was restricted to the swamps of central Florida. The last known wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904, and the last captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918. This was the male specimen, called "Incas", who died within a year of his mate, "Lady Jane". Additional reports of the bird were made in Okeechobee County, Florida, until the late 1920s, but these are not supported by specimens. It was not until 1939, however, that the American Ornithologists' Union declared that the Carolina Parakeet had become extinct. IUCN lists the species as extinct since 1918.
In 1937, three parakeets resembling this species were sighted and filmed in the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia. However, the American Ornithologists' Union analyzed the film and concluded that they had probably filmed feral parakeets.
About 720 skins and 16 skeletons are housed in museums around the world and analyzable DNA has been extracted from them.
Reasons for extinction
The evidence is rather conclusive that extinction of the Carolina Parakeet was by anthropogenic activity, through a variety of means. Chief among them is deforestation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A significant role was hunting, both for their colorful feathers used to adorn women's hats and to reduce predation on southern crops. This was partially offset by recognition of their value in controlling invasive cockleburs. Minor roles were played by capture for the pet trade and, it was hypothesized, by the introduction for crop pollination of European honeybees that competed for nest sites.
A factor that exacerbated their decline to extinction was the unfortunate flocking behavior that led them to return to the vicinity of dead and dying birds (e.g., birds downed by hunting), enabling wholesale slaughter.
The final extinction of the species in the early years of the 20th century is somewhat of a mystery as it happened so rapidly. Vigorous flocks with many juveniles and reproducing pairs were noted as late as 1896, and the birds were long-lived in captivity, but they had virtually disappeared by 1904. Sufficient nest sites remained intact, so deforestation was not the final cause. American ornithologist Noel F. Snyder  speculates that the most likely cause seems to be that the birds succumbed to poultry disease, this in spite of the fact that no recent or historical records exist of New World psittacine populations being afflicted by domestic poultry diseases. The modern poultry scourge Newcastle Disease was not detected until 1926 in Indonesia, and only a subacute form of it was reported in the United States in 1938.
- Thick-billed Parrot the only other former native American parrot
- Monk Parakeet a prevalent feral North American parrot often presumed to be native
- Feral parrots other non-native North American parrots
- a reference to the 17th century English province of Carolana, called Florida by the Spaniards and La Louisiane by the French, a grant from King Charles I which included the territory extending from the Atlantic Ocean to New Mexico, between the 30th and 36th parallels of latitude, which encompasses on the Atlantic seaboard the modern states of North and South Carolina
- ludovicianus, Latinized "of Louisiana", a reference to the Louisiana Territory of the early 19th century, which does not include the modern state of Louisiana.
- Sun Parakeet, Golden-capped Parakeet and Jenday Parakeet together with Sulphur-breasted Parakeet are collectively referred to as the Aratinga solstitialis complex; they are so closely related that they are considered by some authorities to be subspecies of A. solstitialis.
- Molecular studies showing that carolinensis diverged from the ancestral parakeets no earlier than 5.5mya would appear to rule out the paleosubspecies hypothesis, as well as the fossil species having a close relation to the modern carolinensis.
- There is notable conflict over the weight of this bird, with most references reporting 280g (about 10oz), but that would make the bird an improbable 2.5 times as heavy as the similar size closely related Nenday Parakeet whose weight is given as 100-140g (3.5-5oz)
- Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, N. Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, S. Carolina, S. Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, W. Virginia, Wisconsin
- BirdLife International (2012). "Conuropsis carolinensis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Griggs, Jack L. (1997). American Bird Conservancy's Field Guide to All the Birds of North America. New York: HarperPerennial. ISBN 0-06-273028-2.
- Snyder, Noel F. & Russell, Keith (2002). "Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis)". In A. Poole & F. Gill. The Birds of North America 667. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc. doi:10.2173/bna.667.
- Dan A. Tallman, David L. Swanson, Jeffrey S. Palmer (2002). Birds of South Dakota. Midstates/Quality Quick Print. p. 181. ISBN 0-929918-06-1.
- Birkhead, Tim (2012). Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird. New York: Walker & Company. p. 123. ISBN 978-0-8027-7966-3.
- Coxe, Daniel (1722). A description of the English province of Carolana. London.
- Kirchman, Jeremy J.; Schirtzinger, Erin E.; Wright, Timothy F. (2012). "Phylogenetic Relationships of the Extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) Inferred from DNA Sequence Data". The Auk 129 (2): 1–8. doi:10.1525/auk.2012.11259. Retrieved 2012-09-22.
- Bennu, Devorah (2012-09-19). "Extinct Carolina parakeet gives glimpse into evolution of American parrots". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-09-22.
- Alexander Wetmore (1926). "Descriptions of additional fossil birds from the Miocene of Nebraska". American Museum Novitates 211: 1–5.
- Storrs L. Olson (1985). "The fossil record of birds. Section VIII. K. Psittaciformes". In D. S. Farner, J. R. King & Kenneth C. Parkes. Avian Biology 8. New York: Academic Press. pp. 120–121. ISBN 0-12-249408-3.
- W. Earl Godfrey (1986). The Birds of Canada (revised ed.). National Museum of Natural History. p. 303. ISBN 0-660-10758-9.
- Wright, Albert (Jul 1912). "Early Records of the Carolina Paroquet". The Auk 29 (3): 343–363. doi:10.2307/4071042.
- Snyder, Noel (June 2004). The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird. Princeton University Press.
- Cokinos, Christopher (2009). Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. Penguin. p. 41.
- Dieter Luther (1996). Die ausgestorbenen Vögel der Welt [The extinct birds of the world] (in German) (4th ed.). Heidelberg: Westarp-Wissenschaften. ISBN 3-89432-213-6.
- Cokinos, Christopher (2009) Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds(Chapter 1: Carolina Parakeet), Tarcher ISBN 978-1585427222
- Snyder, Noel (2004) The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird, Princeton University Press ISBN 978-0691117959
- Julian P. Hume, Michael Walters (2012) Extinct Birds(p. 186), Poyser Monographs ISBN 978-1408157251
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