An Atmosphere of Gems

When any reason for giving approaches, Hope Is The Thing With Feathers, by Christopher Cokinos, eloquently unravels the sad, strange stories behind five vanished bird species.  Subtitled A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, the very first chapter captured my imagination with the tale of a species so beautiful one pioneer wrote they colored the sky like “an atmosphere of gems.” That magical phrase painted a picture so vivid, I was compelled to tell the story of a creature lost to us. It is the story of the Carolina Parakeet.

The Carolina Parakeet was the only parrot native to the United States. The species name carolinensis is a Modern Latin word meaning “of Carolina.” Plants and animals have often been named for the geographic regions where they were discovered, so it is likely the first specimens of this bird to catch the attention of naturalists came from the Carolinas. Once common, the bird ranged across the eastern half of the United States.  And wherever it lived, people took notice.  Because of the Carolina Parakeet’s legendary beauty, and because their tendency to fl y in flocks enhanced their visual impact, generations of the country’s earliest settlers mentioned “the wild parroquets” in their diaries, letters and books. In 1612, one pioneer wrote, “Parakitoes I have seen many in the Winter and known divers killed, yet be they a Fowle most swift of wing, their winges and Breasts are of a greenish colour with forked Tayles, their heades some Crmysen, some yellow, some orange-tawny, very beautyful.” In 1780, Dutch pioneers in NY were awestruck when a fl ock of the brightly colored birds took flight in the dead of winter. They thought the amazing sight signaled the end of the world.

Another hundred years hence, Gert Goebel, a German settler cherished the sight of parakeets in trees near his home. In a translation of his 1877 autobiography, he wrote: These flocks of paroquets were a real ornament to the trees stripped of their foliage in winter. The sight was particularly attractive, when such a flock of several hundred had settled on a big sycamore, when the bright green color of the birds was in such marked contrast with the white bark of the trees, and when the sun shone brightly upon these inhabited tree tops, the many yellow heads looked like so many candies.

This sight always reminded me vividly of a kind of Christmas tree, which was used [in Germany] by the poorer families … A few weeks before Christmas a young birch tree was set in a pail of water. In the warm room it soon began to produce delicate leaves. Then on Christmas Eve such a tree was decorated with gilded and silvered nuts and with apples and candies, it did not look unlike one of these bird-covered tree tops, only these enormous Christmas trees of the forest looked vastly more imposing than the little birch in the warm room.

To say this bird was beautiful is the preeminent understatement. They were, in fact, stunning.  About a foot long from its orange-and-yellow head to the bluish tips of its tail, the bird’s plumage shimmered with a range of shocking to-soft shades of green. The chest and belly was of a deeper, more vivid hue. The back was darker – like leaves in shade. An even darker sliver of green, edged with orange and red, wedged itself along the bird’s wings. And where wings joined body, a yellow streak sparked – delivering yet another blur of color each time the Parakeet took flight. Carolina Parakeets did not build nests. Instead, whole colonies roosted together in hollow trees deep in cypress swamps or near timbered waterways. They also did not have an established migration pattern. Apparently, they simply moved about – in swift, undulating fl ocks of a dozen to hundreds of birds – as food sources dictated. The birds’ diet consisted of a variety of seeds, nuts, assorted berries, wild grapes and leaf buds. Most of all, they favored cockleburs. They also relished salt and would seek out salt licks and saline marshes to ingest the mineral.

The arrival of Europeans launched the slow, sad demise of the Carolina Parakeet. Tree cavities where the birds nested were taken over by the fast-spreading European honeybee. Deforestation further reduced their habitat. As woodlands gave way to agriculture, the noisy, gregarious birds developed a palate for the seeds of domesticated crops. Thus, early farmers condemned the parakeets as a pest — a pest they dealt with at the end of a gun. Parakeets were also hunted for food, captured and sold as pets, and killed so their colorful feathers — and sometimes their whole, dead bodies — could be used to accessorize ladies’ hats.

An explorer, John K. Townsend, created a poignant and disturbing image when he described the Parakeet’s tendency to swarm in disbelief when any member of the fl ock was shot. In 1834, he wrote:

They seemed entirely unsuspicious of danger, and after being fi red at only huddled closer together, as if to obtain protection from each other, and as their companions are falling around them, they curve down their necks and look at them fl uttering upon the ground, as though perfectly at a loss to account for so unusual an occurrence … And so, a few men bearing arms could easily eliminate entire flocks at a time.

Not surprisingly, Carolina Parakeets captivated the attention of nineteenth century ornithologist, John James Audubon.  Describing the bird, he wrote, “the richness of their plumage, their beautiful mode of fl ight, and even their screams lend charm to our darkest forests and most sequestered swamps.” Now when I pass through area swamplands, I fi nd myself mourning the bird whose color and song lent beauty to our Lowcountry.  It has been reported that the last known wild parakeet was killed in Florida in 1913, but rumors of scattered sightings were reported as late as the 1930s. In fact, one of the last glimpses of Carolina Parakeets was alledged to have happened very nearby. Cokinos writes, Only three years before [in 1936], ornithologist Alexander Sprunt Jr. and National Audubon Society colleague Robert Porter Allen thought they had seen a fl ight of Carolina Parakeets in SC’s Santee Swamp. Their account is intriguing but ultimately unprovable, even though Sprunt later would get word that someone else had seen two adults and a young Carolina Parakeet in the vicinity. In the face of withering skepticism from other ornithologists, Allen eventually equivocated in this claim. Sprunt, however, remained convinced the birds they saw were not distant Mourning Doves but Carolina Parakeets.” Somehow, the possibility that the world’s last living Parakeets may well have lived so close makes this story infi nitely more sad. And more compelling. In these environmentally complicated times, an old truth bears repeating: we must learn from our mistakes and work together to save other threatened species – for if they are lost, they are lost forever.

Kimberly Duncan