ON THIS DAY: The death of the last known Carolina Parakeet and Audubon’s images of a now-extinct species

It was on this day (21 February) in 1918 that the last known Carolina Parakeet, Incas, died at the Cincinnati Zoo – tragically, in the same cage the last known Passenger Pigeon, Martha, had died only four years earlier. (Even worse, unlike Martha, whose body was sent to the Smithsonian where it has been safely preserved and displayed ever since, Incas – who was also supposed to be sent to the Smithsonian – never made it, and remains lost to this day.)

Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis, Linnaeus 1758), preserved specimen in the Field Museum of Natural History collection. [Wikimedia Commons]

The Carolina Parakeet (aka Carolina Parrot or Carolina Conure) was the northernmost ranging parrot and the only one native to the eastern United States. Audubon warned of their rapidly declining numbers during the early 1800s, describing witnessing large numbers of Carolina Parakeets being killed by landowners angered by their crop raids. As retaliatory killings continued and their old-growth wetland forest and swamp habitats continued to disappear, these once common birds became extirpated from most of their range, with the last known remnant population in Florida then succumbing to “[an] abrupt disappearance [that] seems to be directly attributable to human pressures.” (The last confirmed wild sightings were in 1910, although unconfirmed sightings persisted into the 1940s, which in recent studies have been given more credibility; the last known captive bird died in 1918 as previously noted; the species was officially declared extinct in 1939.)

Audubon’s illustration of the species in the original edition of The Birds of America is perhaps one of his finest works (and my personal favorite!), capturing the boisterous beauty of these colorful and highly social birds as they feast on cocklebur seeds. There is even a juvenile in the mix, its head still green:

1.”Carolina Parrot” (Conuropsis carolinensis carolinensis subspecies), Plate XXVI in the original edition of The Birds of America (1827-38), engraving by Robert Havell, Jr. after John James Audubon’s original 1825 watercolor painting, hand-colored engraving and aquatint on wove paper. [Wikimedia Commons]

Unfortunately, the plate made for the smaller second edition is much inferior to the original, thinning out both the flock and foliage:

2. “Carolina Parrot or Parrakeet” (Conuropsis carolinensis carolinensis subspecies), Plate 278 in the first Royal Octavo edition of The Birds of America (1840-4), engraving by J. T. Bowen after J. J. Audubon, hand-colored stone lithograph. [Wikimedia Commons]

Those green-bodied Carolina Parakeets in Audubon’s published plates are the nominate subspecies, Conuropsis carolinensis carolinensis. He also made an unpublished watercolor of the other subspecies, Conuropsis carolinensis ludovicianus, which tended to have a more bluish body and paler yellow head plumage:

3. “Carolina Parrot” (Conuropsis carolinensis ludovicianus subspecies), watercolor painting by John James Audubon, 1811. [Wikimedia Commons]
Map showing the originally estimated and recently revised ranges of the two Carolina Parakeet subspecies. [Burgio et al 2017]

Bonus book recommendations:

Audubon as Artist: A New Look at The Birds of America (April 2024)
The Birds of America (2021 edition)
Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America (2012)
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