At one point in time, the Carolina parakeet was alive and well. In the mid-nineteenth century, the birds’ numbers declined due to habitat loss and hunting. However, the remaining population seemed to be stable, and they were far from becoming extinct.
But by the early twentieth century, they completely vanished. The species was officially declared extinct in 1939. Nearly a century later, scientists are still puzzling over their sudden disappearance, and recently, it seems they’ve come close to determining the cause.
The Carolina parakeet was the only parrot that was native to America. The small parrots had brilliantly colored plumage. They had golden heads dotted with orange patches and jade-green bodies.
They traveled in large flocks of about 300 and were quite abundant all over America, inhabiting a significant portion of the eastern United States. The beautiful, colorful birds frequented swampy forests and feasted on a variety of seeds, fruits, and grains.
As European colonizers arrived and settled down in the area, they began clearing away the forests where the parrots lived, mainly for agricultural purposes. They were not fond of the birds because of their habits of traveling in loud, noisy groups and ruining entire crops. Landowners would shoot them to protect their crops.
The Carolina parakeets were sociable birds that had a close bond with each other, so when a member of their flock died, the rest of the birds would gather around to mourn the loss. As a result, this made it easy for farmers to pick them off in one go. And because of their companionable nature, they were often captured and sold as pets.
A Victorian-era fashion trend also contributed to their demise. The “plume boom” led to an increased demand for feathers, wings, and sometimes even whole bodies of birds to be mounted on middle-class women’s hats.
In 1913, the Weeks-McLean Act banned the commercial hunting of migratory birds, but before the law was passed, thousands of parrots, along with herons and egrets, were slaughtered.
After the plume trade ended, Carolina parakeet populations seemed to have bounced back. But then, they were mysteriously gone.