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Why did North America’s Only Parrot Become Extinct?

You may not have realised that North America ever had any native parrots. You certainly won’t have seen them as the last wild Carolina Parakeet was spotted in Florida almost a century ago. The last captive bird had died two years earlier at the Cincinnati zoo. When Dutch settlers had seen the colourful birds in the 18th century that believed them to be portents of the end of the world. They weren’t, of course! It was the parrots were to come to an end, not the world as we know it and the reason that they became extinct has remained a mystery.

Why does the demise of the parakeets matter?

It is important to understand why these birds disappeared. Parrots worldwide are at greater risk of extinction than any other bird and so understanding the demise of the Carolina Parakeet could help scientists in their efforts to help other species.

Charting the range of the Carolina parakeet

Historically, the range of a species was determined by plotting sightings of the birds. As a result, it was believed that the parakeets lived as far north as upstate New York and as far south as the Texas coast. But birds can frequently be seen in areas where they don’t normally live. Just because one bird has been seen in a particular area, it doesn’t mean that there is a colony living there.

A more in depth-study of the history of the birds has revealed that there were two sub-species. The Eastern subspecies was largely confined to Florida, Georgia the Carolinas and Alabama. The Western subspecies lived in the central United States from Nebraska and east to Ohio and then south to Louisiana and Texas and did not inhabit New York. The species’ range was smaller than originally believed.

Bringing back the Parakeets

Discovering the species’ true range is important because the Carolina Parakeet is an excellent candidate for "de-extinction". This is the process where DNA is taken from deceased specimens and used to resurrect the birds, Jurassic Park style! It would be possible to bring back a species but if it is to survive, it must be returned to the correct areas. However, climate change would have to be factored in.

Is de-extinction too expensive?

De-extinction would be a very costly project and there is a great deal of debate as to whether such expense could be justified. It certainly couldn’t be if the reasons for the birds’ extinction cannot be established. If the mystery cannot be solved, the species could well fail again. The history of the Carolina parakeet’s decline appears to parallel the history of American growth over the course of the 19th century. The prosperity came with many costs. As the country expanded and reshaped the landscape to suit its needs, many native species died out. The parakeets were probably the victims of industrialisation and agricultural practices.

There are many areas around the world which are developing rapidly but are also home to several species of parrot. The industrialisation of these regions mirrors what was happening in America in the 19th century and so the native birds could meet with the same fate.

Could a better understanding of how human progress impacted the Carolina Parakeet help to save parrots across the globe? Who would be prepared to finance the necessary research to get to the heart of the matter?


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