In December, the Carolina Parakeet will be the featured bird in New-York Historical’s Audubon’s Birds of America Focus Gallery. Below, curator Roberta J.M. Olson outlines the tragic story of the bird’s extinction, which became official almost 100 years ago.
In the early 19th century, artist and naturalist John James Audubon (1785–1851) sounded the alarm about habitat loss and climate change. He saw what was happening to the Carolina Parakeet, the only parrot native to the U.S. that he called the “Carolina Parrot” and realized it was the canary in the coalmine. After spotting countless parakeets and hearing their vociferous cries in 1808, Audubon painted his watercolor of a single bird in 1811 (below). Five years later, he presciently noticed that: “[O]ur Parakeets are very rapidly diminishing…, where twenty-five years ago they were plentiful, scarcely any are now to be seen.” On the centennial of its extinction, the species is a heartbreaking harbinger of the tragic species loss that is accelerating in this age of climate change and habitat destruction.
With settlement and the clearing of the North American eastern and southern deciduous forests, the once-abundant bird became extinct, slaughtered as a pest or for sport or for its spectacular feathers. Also, sold by the thousands as cage birds, the species rarely bred in captivity. By the turn of the 20th century, Carolina Parakeets were only found in the swamps of central Florida. The last known wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County in 1904, while the last captive bird—a male named Incas, whose mate, Lady Jane, passed away the previous year—died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the Carolina Parakeet as extinct in 1920, while the American Ornithologists’ Union recognized its definitive extinction in 1939.
Audubon admired the Carolina Parakeet and portrayed seven in his preparatory watercolor for the plate in his iconic folio-print series The Birds of America. “The woods are the habitation best fitted for them,” he wrote, “and there the richness of their plumage, their beautiful mode of flight, and even their screams, afford welcome intimation that our darkest forests and most sequestered swamps are not destitute of charms.” He added, “The stacks of grain…are resorted to by flocks of these birds, which frequently cover them…as if a brilliantly coloured carpet had been thrown over them.”
Because no film footage or recordings of its calls exist, the species lives only in Audubon’s brilliant watercolor. It features a nearly cinematic group, arranged in a reversed S-curve showcasing seven birds. The top one fans its 14 tail feathers—which Audubon noted was highly unusual—while the lower drastically foreshortened bird appears to fly off the page and out into the viewer’s space. The parakeets perch on a common cocklebur, their favorite food. With a deft stratigraphy of layers and thousands of parallel strokes, Audubon suggested the textures of their plumage, and, in a tour-de-force, drew every shaft (rachis) and barb, suggesting even the barbules of each feather in glittering graphite that are the equivalent of the shimmering iridescence of their feathers when the bird moved in the light. (Read a recent piece about the Parakeet’s extinction in the New York Times.)
Other Birds Audubon Depicted in the Arc of Extinction
Audubon never saw the Great Auk alive, but drew this alcid, a flightless bird that is agile in water, from an upright specimen that he purchased in London. He also depended on a single account about it from Henry Havell, the brother of his engraver. The Great Auk was extinct by 1844, a casualty of relentless harvesting by sealers. (The New York Times recently published a feature about the Great Auk and how it was driven to extinction by human activity.)
Once abundant, the Eskimo Curlew’s last sighting was in 1962, and it’s more than likely extinct. Audubon’s scene is strangely prophetic and displays an avian reaction that resembles a human emotion: The male regards its dead mate with incredulity, listening for a sound of life.
An endangered bird, the Saltmarsh Sparrow breeds in salt-water marshes of the Atlantic coast and is gravely threatened by global sea level rise, the result of climate change. Recent estimates suggest that the bird’s population could drop from 53,000 to 5,000 in the next 25 years.
Vanishing and Vulnerable Bird Species
The Carolina Parakeet and Great Auk are not alone in being vulnerable to the effects of humans and civilization. Although ornithologists by necessity have to be optimistic, recent news coverage has laid out the devastating truth. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s autumn 2019 issue of Living Bird noted on its cover “3 Billion Birds Lost,” claiming that more than one in four birds has disappeared across North America.
The Fall 2019 issue of Audubon magazine headlined the special report: “Birds Can’t Fight Climate Change. We Can.” Recently, the National Audubon Society studied what would happen to species with a warming of between 1.5 and 3 degrees Celsius and a subsequent rise in sea levels. David Yarnold, president of Audubon, has noted, “The big takeaway is that we can have a huge impact on the future of the planet and birds, by changing our emissions trajectory.”
The Audubon Mural Project
How do we keep avian species from avoiding the fate of the Carolina Parakeet and save birds like the Saltmarsh Sparrow? That is the question posed by the Audubon Mural Project, a public art initiative of the National Audubon Society, in partnership with the gallery Gitler &_____. Inspired by the legendary artist (a former resident of the Upper West Side), it is energized by findings that half of all North American birds face dire threats due to global warming. The project is commissioning artists to paint murals of threatened birds throughout Hamilton and Washington Heights. Among them are three ravishing murals by George Boorujy—New-York Historical has just acquired three drawings by Boorujy for this project.
The project is very much in the spirit of Audubon, considered America’s first great watercolorist, who, around 1826, began to despair over the disappearance of America’s forests and the inroads of “civilization.” In 1841, alarmed by these developments, Audubon approached Secretary of State Daniel Webster with the bold initiative to establish a “Natural History Institution” to advance the knowledge of natural science, and he offered to serve as its director in order to conserve this national patrimony: America’s wildlife. Audubon’s sometimes prescient sensitivity to ecological issues, and his appreciation of the natural environment finds expression in a number of organizations. Today, this spirit is spreading globally, inspiring all us to make a difference. Listen to the canaries all around us!
Written by Roberta J.M. Olson, curator of drawings at New-York Historical