Colby College is fortunate to have a copy of the Bien edition of Audubon’s Birds of North America on loan from the Gerald Dorros family. The Bien edition was published in 1860, nine years after Audubon’s death. This edition was printed using a lithographic technique rather than the aquatint technique used in the original Havell plates. To my eye, the Bien prints are even more eye-popping than the original aquatints.
The original intent was to reproduce all 435 plates using the new lithographic process. The Civil War and hard financial times for the Audubon family put an end to the project after the first volume.
The Bien edition has some of Audubon’s most enduring and iconic plates: Greater Flamingo, Wild Turkey, Wood Duck, Common Grackle and Glossy Ibis. My favorite Audubon plate is included as well, the Carolina Parakeet. Viewing this plate is bittersweet because the Carolina Parakeet is now extinct.
The range of Carolina Parakeets spanned Florida to southern New York along the Atlantic seaboard westward as far north as South Dakota and as far south as east Texas. These birds were most common in the sycamore-dominated bottomlands and cypress swamps in the southeastern and midwestern states.
Carolina Parakeets were fairly large birds, reaching 13 inches in length with wingspans up to 22 inches. The body was green and the head was yellow with bright orange on the forehead and around the eyes. A spectacular bird.
Although Audubon, Alexander Wilson and other early American ornithologists provided some information on the species, no comprehensive study was ever done. As a result, we have large gaps in our understanding of the species.
We do know that the species persisted into the 1920s in Florida and probably into the 1930s in South Carolina in the vicinity of the Santee River.
Carolina Parakeets were typical parrots, gregarious and loud. They had a broad diet like most parrots with a particular taste for cockleburs. Audubon’s plate shows these parrots feasting on cockleburs.
These birds did sometimes become a pest in orchards and grain fields. Some were shot by orchard owners and farmers. Unfortunately, the social behavior of the species made them easy targets. Once a few had been killed, the surviving flock members would circle back to investigate the fate of their fallen flock mates and thus were easily shot themselves.
However, shooting of Carolina Parakeets was likely not a major contributor to their demise. They were not considered a major agricultural pest. Early settlers regarded them favorably and why not. Birds that eat sandspurs, thistle seeds and cockleburs do humans a favor. We do have some evidence that Carolina Parakeets were shot for food and for their colorful feathers. Some parakeets were also captured for the pet trade even though Carolina Parakeets were not very good mimics.
What did lead to the extinction of this species? Three hypotheses have been proposed, each stemming indirectly from human activities. First, the loss of bottomland forests to timbering and to development reduced suitable habitat. The introduction of the honeybee (a non-native species) led to competition for nest and roost holes for the parakeets. Finally, we have some evidence that disease played a role in the species’ decline. These diseases may have come from poultry.
I look back with nostalgia on the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. I was one of a small group at my high school that embraced the day, putting up posters in the hallways. That was the day the modern environmental movement began.
As Earth Day approaches each year, I take particular care to think about all the bird species we have lost from our direct and indirect effects. Passenger Pigeon, Dodo, Great Auk, Bachman’s Warbler, Labrador Duck, Eskimo Curlew – the list seems endless. We all need to redouble our efforts to walk more lightly on earth.