Forever Gone: The Tale of the Carolina Parakeet

Learn how bird lives and black lives intertwine under the long shadow of history.

Illustration by John James Audubon via Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine that there is no headstone at the Cincinnati Zoo aviary, no mark of remembrance, no epitaph. Had there been, it might have read:

Here lies the last Carolina parakeet.
Conuropsis carolinensis.
Died February 21, 1918.
His life done and barely known,
doomed to the dark swamp hereafter,
a bird forever gone.

Final rites for the passage of one of the most unique birds ever to sweep across the skies of the American psyche.

There are few creatures that we can tag with exact departure dates, but with the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) we probably can. It all ended on February 21, 1918, in the same year World War I came to a close and not quite four years after the passenger pigeon’s own exit from existence. Incas died that day. He had been housed for some years at the Cincinnati Zoo aviary, and was the last Carolina parakeet anyone would ever see with certainty.

The passenger pigeon’s extinction was sadly predictable. People had blasted at flocks that once darkened the sky until the birds became scarcer and scarcer, and then were finally gone. But how the Carolina parakeets’ population dwindled down to Incas is a mystery that plagues conservation scientists to this day. It wasn’t for lack of the species’ range. Despite their name, Carolina parakeets were found across most of the eastern half of the lower forty-eight states. Recent science shows that there were two subspecies — a southeastern population, Conuropsis carolinensis carolinensis, that dwelled in the Southeast Atlantic, Gulf coastal plains, and all of Florida; and another, Conuropsis carolinensis ludovicianus, found west to Texas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. In some years, birds from the western groups wandered widely and could end up in the Northeast. Wherever they occurred—north, south, east, or midwest—mature floodplain bottomland forests lying along great rivers were the parakeets’ preferred haunts.

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