Part 2 – A continuation of an earlier post (here).
I was walking a dirt track in a local wildlife management area in central New Jersey. It was the mid 1980s. On the right side of the road was a small meadow. The meadow gave way to riparian woods which gently sloped to a small phragmites-lined estuarine river. The other side of the road had a narrow strip of grass (weeds) and a line of trees forming a windbreak for the agricultural field beyond. It was the height of migration and I was looking for neotropical migrant birds.
A loud noise to the left, something between a squawk and a screech, caught my attention. It was a familiar noise, yet out-of-place here in a wildlife refuge in central Jersey. Atop one of the trees which made up the windbreak to my left perched a large green bird. The bird had a large round head and heavily hooked bill. It was a parrot.
Now, my rational self told me that this bird was someone’s pet who had flown out of a window, or who had been placed in its cage on the front porch to enjoy the mild spring morning and had somehow managed to open the cage door and escape while no one was watching.
Over the years I’ve come across many such sightings. Other than south Florida, which has every kind of escaped animal, plant, reptile, or fungus, it seems psittacines (parrots and kin) are more common near large cities, especially cities with active ports. The parrot pet trade is a large one. The more parrots in a given area, the greater the chances that some of them will escape their bondage. I’ve even seen a parakeet (budgerigar) here at the Museum, in the middle of a frigid winter.
It was once suggested to me that sea captains, even modern-day cap’ns, tend to favor parrots as pets while aboard ship. Is that some sort of pirate mythology? I’ve not done research to see if ship captains actually do favor parrots as pets and carry them around the world on their voyages. It seems reasonable. If it were true, then a steady stream of container ships and tankers entering and leaving a busy port increases the possibility of escapee parrots in port towns and cities.
The bird I was looking at, or any other parrot, parakeet, cockatoo, or macaw you might see here in North America, was certainly not native. But flash back a hundred and fifty years or so and I might have run into a bright green bird while strolling down a country road on a May morning in New Jersey, or Ohio, or Texas, or here in North Carolina, a Carolina parakeet. About a foot in length with bright green plumage, yellow head, red or orange face and ivory colored bill, the Carolina parakeet was North America’s native parrot, certainly the only parrot species to be seen in the east.
The bird’s range stretched from New York to Florida, west to Colorado and down to the Gulf Coast. It nested in old growth riparian forests. Little is known of its nesting behavior although it’s been suggested that it sought out hollow trees or tree cavities. It was, though, also found in other more upland habitats out of the breeding season. The bird formed small to large flocks (in the hundreds) traveling the countryside searching for food which consisted of seeds, nuts, fruit, and curiously, cocklebur seeds.
There’s been no single cause put forth as the reason for their extinction. They were not shot wholesale for the market (Audubon thought the birds were poisonous?). They were collected (shot) for their feathers or whole bodies for the millinery trade (hat making). It’s not difficult to locate a photograph on the internet of one of the birds draped across a 19th century ladies hat. The forest in which the birds nested had largely been cut clear. They were taken as pets. They were shot by farmers to protect their crops. And, it’s been said that the parakeet competed for nesting sites with honey bees (honey bees were introduced in eastern North America in the 1600s and, in the wild, use hollow trees for their hives. By 1800 they had spread clear to Wisconsin and down into Texas). Some propose that in the end, the birds may have succumbed to a poultry disease. All of these were probably contributing factors to the end result, no more Carolina parakeets.
How wonderful would it have been to see a flock of these bright green birds flying through the forest or along a country lane. The last known wild bird was shot in Florida in the early 1900s. The last known captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden in 1918 (passenger pigeon, 1914). In 1939, the species was declared extinct.
There lives in our area a woodpecker that measures from about 16 – 18 inches in length, a large woodpecker indeed. It is essentially black with white markings on its wings, face and neck. Both male and female have a red crest. The wood chips fly when this woodpecker pounds on a tree to excavate a nest hole or to dig out a fat juicy grub within the tree. This is the pileated woodpecker.
There is, or was, a larger woodpecker here in the south-eastern states, the Ivory-billed woodpecker. Measuring in at about 18 – 20 inches, it was the second largest woodpecker in North America (the imperial woodpecker of Mexico, if extant, approaches 2 feet in length and is, or was, the largest in the world). The ivory-billed was heavier, with more bulk than the pileated woodpecker. The male ivory-billed sported a red crest. The female’s crest was black.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers require large tracts of old growth forest, hardwood or mixed pine and hardwood bottomland which is prone to flooding, in order to survive. Old growth forest contains large ancient trees, but also contains young trees with all ages in between, and a variety of species. Most importantly for the woodpecker, old growth forest contains dead or dying trees infested with beetle larvae – food for the woodpeckers. That type of forest still exists to some extent, in limited places. But large tracts of forest are necessary to keep a woodpecker like the ivory-billed busy. Most of the forest required to support ivory-billed woodpeckers has long been cut. What remains is apparently not enough to support a population of large, grub eating woodpeckers.
The ivory-billed woodpecker was last seen (officially) in the 1930s and 40s but there are reports from every decade since, including the current decade (2010s). They come from every state from Georgia to Texas, and all points in between. Some of the reports are credible. Others are dismissed. Some are kept secret. One of the most notable sightings was in 2004 in Arkansas, video (of poor quality) included. It set off a massive search for the woodpecker, but no bird was subsequently found.
There were no mass shootings or hunting of the birds for market as there was for passenger pigeons and some other birds of the period. There were, however, no qualms about shooting them near the end, as proof of their existence (a bird in the hand), or for their increased value as a collector’s item.
There are still people searching the alluvial forests of the southeast for the ivory-billed woodpecker. If there is an ivory-billed out there somewhere, if not the last ivorybill, it’s one of the last.