The last Carolina parakeet died in captivity in 1918. Now, new genetic analysis has revealed what drove the bird to extinction.
BY LIZ LANGLEY
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 12, 2019
The United States was a more colorful place when flocks of Carolina parakeets flew across the sky like daytime fireworks, flashing pops of orange, yellow, and green.
The country’s only native parrot species ranged from southern New England down to Florida and as far west as Colorado, but the last one died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. Since then, the Carolina parakeet has symbolized the perils of extinction in the United States, much like the dodo has on the global stage.
A century after the last parakeet soared over America, a mystery endures: Was the demise of the 12-inch-long bird entirely driven by people? Farmers, who saw them as crop pests, easily eliminated whole flocks, since the animals had the unfortunate habit of gathering around their fallen comrades. Hunters killed the parakeets for their plumage, which was a popular hat accessory in the 20th century. And habitat loss—particularly land-clearing for agriculture—also removed trees the birds used or nesting. (Read how parrots may have become too popular for their own good.)
Even so, other experts have speculated other causes were at play: Natural disasters, such as fires and floods, could have fragmented the birds' habitat, and they may have been exposed to harmful diseases spread by poultry.
Now a group of international researchers has sequenced the Carolina parakeet genome and concluded that the bird’s rapid decline shows human interference drove their extinction, according to a study published today in the journal Current Biology.