The Last Parakeet
Posted On: 02/21/2018 - 10:44am, Posted By: Other
This post is guest-authored by Stanley Hedeen, professor emeritus at Xavier University and long-time volunteer at the Geier Collections & Research Center.
The world’s last Carolina Parakeet (Cornuropsis carolinensis) died in Cincinnati 100 years ago, on February 21, 1918. The eastern U.S. species, the northernmost member of the parrot family, had been a common resident of the city’s flood plain forests, where it ate cocklebur seeds and the buds, flowers, and fruits of shrubs and trees. The bird also fed on fruit in orchards and grain in crop fields, causing local farmers to shoot the species. Large numbers of parakeets were easily killed since they flew in flocks that would not abandon wounded members. One might imagine that their colorful plumage also made them an easy target!
The shooting of the parakeet by farmers undoubtedly contributed to the bird’s demise, but so did many other factors. Honeybees imported to the United States from Europe drove the parakeets out of the hollow trees in which they nested. Much of the bird’s flood plain forest habitat was cleared for agriculture. Parakeets were collected alive and sold as cage birds in Cincinnati markets. Finally, parakeets were shot for food, for sport, and for feathers. Their plumage decorated the hats of many women during the nineteenth century.
When free-flying parakeets disappeared from the Ohio Valley during the late 1800s, the Cincinnati Zoo still held a collection of the birds in its aviary. Carolina parakeets did not breed well in captivity, and so by 1916 the number of the zoo’s caged parakeets had declined to two individuals, a female named Lady Jane and a male named Incas. Following Lady Jane’s passing in 1917, several other institutions attempted to buy Incas, possibly the world’s last Carolina parakeet, but the Cincinnati Zoo refused the offers.
Incas, described as “a listless and mournful figure” following the death of his mate, perished on February 21, 1918. The zoo announced that Incas would be mounted and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, just as the zoo had sent the national museum the carcass of the world’s last passenger pigeon following her death at the zoo in 1914. The Smithsonian, however, does not have Incas on display or in storage. Perhaps he remains in Cincinnati as one of the two unlabeled parakeets in the Cincinnati Museum Center collection.
Observers reported wild Carolina parakeets in southern states during the two decades following the death of Incas, but they collected no birds for verification. Ornithologists now generally accept that the species vanished, if not at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918, then certainly by 1940. Today’s farmers continue to profit from the disappearance of the Carolina parakeet, but that benefit comes at the cost of less charm and beauty in our woodlands. The nation lost a valuable aesthetic resource when its single species of parrot passed from sight.