Once Upon an Endling
I was 39 years old when I first learned the extinction story of the Carolina Parakeet.
I had been volunteering in wild bird care at Tri-State Bird Rescue in Newark, Delaware. Every day I spent there, I learned of another threat humans impose on birds. Car collisions, window collisions, electrocution from power lines, oil spills, chemical leaks, pollution, lead poisoning, gunshots, rat poisoning, lack of prey, cat predation, invasive species, starvation, disease. Add to that list all the natural phenomena and disasters birds live through—heat waves, floods, droughts, hurricanes, blizzards, ice storms, tornadoes, extreme cold, parasites, fungal infection, predation.
After one particularly intense evening at the rescue, I marveled there were any birds left on earth at all. Amazed by the resiliency birds have, despite the adversity they face from minute to minute, I wondered: had any local species of bird gone extinct where I lived?
I did what anyone would do: I Googled it. The answer shocked me.
Among a list of half a dozen birds thought to be extinct in North America, were two species that once lived in this tristate area I call my home (PA-NJ-DE)—the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina… Parakeet? Say what now?
I needed to know more. I scoured the online booksellers and libraries for Carolina Parakeet titles. I peeled through through digital archives of The Auk, and found the same facts over and over. The Passenger Pigeon population was so large, the birds were uncountable. They darkened the sky. The Carolina Parakeet, was a common resident in bottomland swamps, with a range that extended to Pennsylvania, perhaps New York, according to historic accounts. The earliest explorers of this continent could barely believe what they saw. Brilliantly hued “paroquets” foraged in gregarious flocks up and down the Mississippi. Flocks of millions of “turtle doves” raided the forests for nutsI could barely believe what I read.
I became obsessed. Who were these ghost birds? Did anyone else know about them?
I found a book called Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, written by a non-fiction author, poet, and writing professor at The University of Arizona, Christopher Cokinos. His lyrical prose drew me in:
“After such early-morning flying, feeding and conversing, the parakeets took refuge in trees and quietly loafed the afternoon away; while there they muttered and chattered in low tones, doubtless finding reassurance in each other’s talk.”
Cokinos covers the life histories of the pigeon and the parakeet, plus the Great Auk, the Labrador Duck, the Heath Hen, and the probably-extinct Ivory-Billed Woodpecker with tangible loss and affection. Reading the painterly descriptions, the soil beneath my feet seemed to move, unsettled, like an ancient graveyard for zillions of dead birds. As the magnitude of the loss soaked in, I began to hurt. I couldn’t just sit with this new knowledge. I needed to do something. I had to draw them, paint them back to life. Inject their tattered feathers with fresh pigment because I wanted to see what they may have looked like. I would need to gather visual reference to get it right: historical drawings, etchings, photos, and specimens. Study skins and mounts would give me the 3-dimensional views I needed.
I contacted the Bird Department at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. There, I gained access to an archive of over a million meticulously prepared dead bird skins, some dating back to the 1700s. One cabinet housed extinct and critically endangered birds. In this steel coffin lay a dozen or so Carolina Parakeets, including one specimen prepared by John James Audubon himself.
The above illustration is a rendering I did in pastel pencils on Arches watercolor paper (only dry media is permitted in the Bird Department). This taxidermy mount was in surprisingly good condition, but the birds looked lifeless. It’s all in the eyes.
Pressed for time, I returned when I could to do more studies of the pigeons and parakeets. Meanwhile, I learned of a grant program with the academy, The Don and Virginia Eckelberry Fellowship for nature artists. I submitted my application in October 2014 and received notification of my acceptance in March 2015. I used the funds awarded to me to travel to a place where parrots fly free: Costa Rica. Twice I witnessed Scarlet Macaws cracking open fruit in the hundred foot tall palm trees near Tarcoles.
On one of those days, I also observed a large, gregarious flock of little green and yellow birds flitting about a giant tree, with a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl dozing nearby. I fell in love. The ear-crackling screeches, the native language of parrots. The full length of their intensely saturated plumes. We were lucky to spot some more on the road between Tarcoles and Monteverde. I got out of the car so I could draw them, but they were so well-camouflaged, I could barely find them.
Can you find the parrots in this picture? Not the ones on my shirt. That’s cheating.
Caged birds don’t just lose their freedom to fly. They lose their whole identity.
Incas and Lady Jane were the names given to the last known pair of captive Carolina Parakeets. They were wild once, before being captured and making their way to the Cincinnati Zoo. When Lady Jane passed away, Incas became an endling. He lost everything. His life mate. His pair bond. The only bird world who spoke and understood his language; the one who sidled up to him and nibbled the back of his neck each day, and pressed against him at night. It’s no wonder Incas only lasted a few months after that. His keepers claimed, in his obituary, that he died of a broken heart. I can relate to that.
Since 1918, laws have been passed, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of the same year, that protect wild birds from overhunting, extermination and abuse. This law does not protect exotic birds, such as Scarlet Macaws, smuggled across our borders, from abuse or neglect. There are so many talking points here. Immigration, animal trafficking, border walls, gun control, states’ rights vs. federal rights. Overfishing. Deforestation. Climate change.
The extinction dates of the Carolina Parakeet (2/21/18) and the Passenger Pigeon (9/1/14) are teaching moments. Please share read more at the links below and share Incas’ story. Yes, it is sad. We have to let the hurt in, to feel this loss and share it with our kids—before they turn 39—to ensure this kind of story never happens again.
John James Audubon’s species description and illustration of the “Carolina Parrot”
Lazarus ecology: Recovering the distribution and migratory patterns of the extinct Carolina parakeet http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ece3.3135/full
Authors Kevin R. Burgio, Colin J. Carlson, Morgan W. Tingley
Not Quite the Last of the Carolina Parakeet by Rick Wright on ABA.org
We Now Know the Real Range of the Carolina Parakeet by Sabrina Imbler on Audubon.org
She’s Wearing a Dead Bird on her Head! (out of print) by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by David Catrow
Kate Garchinsky draws birds and bats and other things in her woodland studio near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is the illustrator of Belle’s Journey: An Osprey Takes Flight (May 2018), The Secret Life of the Red Fox (March 2017), and The Secret Life of the Little Brown Bat (Sept 2018). Visit her website at KateGarchinsky.com. To be notified of new posts, join Patreon.com/KateGarchinsky and on Twitter @katesnowbird.