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Carolina Parakeet: What Could Have Been

While the Carolina parakeet has been extinct for more than 70 years, have you ever wondered what this parrot would have been like a pet?

Daniel Sigmon
Posted: July 1, 2013, 12:30 p.m. PDT

Carolina parakeet
By Thomas Kimball
The Carolina parakeet, or Carolina conure, went extinct in 1939.

"If hope lives not only as a feeling but as a dedication to vision, then hope flames soon enough, some brush of petal color, fruit color, feather color against the dull milky haze of a sky in which we’ve punched holes.  These days hope asks much from us.

Until recently, I never thought much of Osage orange trees, those squat medusas of thorny branches with neither the majesty of a cottonwood nor the quaintness of a redbud.  But, once, groves of Osage oranges harbored Carolina Parakeets.  I hold those trees dearer now.”

— Christopher Cokinos, from his book "Hope is the Thing with Feathers."

There once was a time when the Carolina conure (Conuropis carolinensis carolinensis), also known as the Carolina parakeet, and its subspecies  the Louisiana parakeet (C. c. ludovicianus) were the jewels of the American sky. The playful nymph greeted and delighted first those Native Americans who lived among them, and then, the European settlers that gazed upon them with wonder as they arrived in North America. This is sadly no more. The Carolina parakeets' memory fades quickly into the shadows of history. We have yet to reach the hundredth anniversary of their official extinction in 1939. It is difficult to say exactly when a species goes extinct and, according to some accounts, it may be less than 60 years — less than a human lifetime — since  that last, lonely Carolina conure breathed its final breath somewhere deep in a marshlands of the Florida countryside.

And yet, the emerald of the American skies is but a whisper in the winds, drowned out by the clamoring hustle of progress and the relentless thud of the marching steps of time. But if one listens, stops and listens to the trees and the sky around us, there is the faint whisper that the Carolina parakeet was once here in the vegetation and the land in which they once thrived. There are those hopeful dreamers that pray that they are still out there somewhere, hidden away in an isolated swamp, or that the miracles of science will one day give us back our beautiful little parrot. But, these are the whimsies of fantasy. Conuropsis carolinensis belongs to the ages now.

The loss is perhaps felt even more because there was once a time when Carolina conures were the delightful companions of common folk across the United States and prized birds of avaries in Europe. Judging from the accounts that we have, they were delightful as pets, bonding strongly with their human keepers. 

What follows is a bit of theater. It is what BirdChannel might write about the Carolina conure if it was still in existence and available as a pet. I have spent the last three years immersed in research about the Carolina conure and the quaker parakeet, and in my studies, I came to an almost tearful moment when, though I had never seen one alive, I felt as though I had experienced them and had some inkling of what it must have really been like to be with them. What follows is based closely on accounts and descriptions of the bird and its behavior as recorded by naturalists and pet owners. I hope that, for even the briefest of moments, I can bring the Carolina parakeet back to life for you in these lines and that when you look out into the sky and listen to the trees rustle in the wind, you will be able hear the echos of our beautiful missing bird.

What Could Have Been: The Lovable, Noisy Carolina Conure
They may not have been common in the skies outside your door for  a hundred years, but thanks to the hard work of breeders in the United States and Europe, the Carolina conure is still a delight to call your family pet. When you look at how beautifully they are colored, it’s hard to imagine that at one time most people gave little or no thought to this bird. It was so common place that people paid it no mind.  They were more interested in those exotic birds from far away places like South America and Australia.  Well, those folks had no idea what they were missing.  If you can handle the noise they make, today’s Carolina Conure is one of the best pet birds you can own.

They come in two varieties: Carolinas and Louisianas. Carolinas are predominately green with red feathers on their nares that turn to orange and then yellow over the head.  The flight feathers take on a dark blue hue as they come to their points.  There may also be little flecks of orange and yellow on the leading edge of their wings at the wrist joint.  They are robust conures and about the size of a cherry-headed conure.  Louisianas are like the Carolinas except they have a bluish iridescence to their green feathers and they are a little smaller.  In all other respects, the two subspecies are two peas in a pod.

These guys are noisy birds and love to make a raucous.  They have high-pitched calls much like that of a sun conure or nanday conure and they love to shout it out for almost any reason.  They will greet you with screams of delight when you come home and let you know when you’ve stepped out of line in just the same way.  If you can’t take noise, this may not be the bird for you. Their attitude is playful and mischievous and they do best with families that are willing to spend lots of time bonding. 

They are very quick to learn commands and love training.  Most Carolinas will quickly learn to recognize their names and will come when called.  This is one of the things that makes them so special.  They are one of the easiest of birds to train for free flight.  They form natural strong bonds with their human companions and can easily be taken outside without a harness.  They will fly along with you, scouting ahead and playing tricks on the squirrels and other birds as you go, and will come down to you when called.

What Could Have Been: Carolina Parakeet Care
Good care of a Carolina starts with a spacious cage (40 inches by 30 inches by 24 inches is a good start) with ½-inch to ¾-inch bar spacing.  These are busy birds and they need lots of room to move around and play.  A good number of toys for destruction is a must.  These birds have powerful beaks and they enjoy chewing on wood, leather and plastic – almost anything they can get their beak around. Lots of perches of different sizes and materials are great as well to give their feet a chance to exercise and rest.  The oddest thing you will notice in a Carolina cage is their sleeping perch.  It is usually a two-by-four at least six inches long that is hung near the top of the cage on the back side or corner so that 4 inch dimension of the wood is parallel with the sides of the cage.  Often times, Carolinas like to sleep with their beak sunk into the wood and their feet clinging to the sides of the two-by-four.  This is much like they used to do when they roosted inside barns when they were wild.

Carolina parakeet
Psittacosis was once known as parrot fever.

Carolinas also appreciate a place to hide away and rest.  A hidey-hut or  hollow tube will do nicely for this. They will sometimes enjoy augmenting these spaces with paper, cloth and vegetation. They are particularly fond of Spanish moss, which they will drag into their favorite hidden spots. This activity is related to their nesting behaviors and can be a great activity for them. You should limit these kinds of activities if egg laying or reproductive health concerns become a problem.

Carolina parakeets will thrive on a well balanced diet that includes pellets, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds. They especially love oranges and apples. Don’t deseed them.  These guys are native to the USA and they love to rip the fruit up and get to the seeds, which they commonly ate when they existed in wild populations.  For an extra special treat, you can grab a few cypress balls of the cypress tree in your yard and hang them from the top of the cage. They will pop them open with ease, scooping up the yummy bits as they shout will glee.  If you really want to get your Carolina excited, you can even put one or two cockleburs in their cage occasionally.  They are famous for their love of these prickly seed pods. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt them. They’ll love you for it. (Make sure that you’re cockleburs haven’t been sprayed with herbicidal chemicals.)  It is also appropriate from time to time to supplement their diet with meal worms. (In the wild Carolina parakeets were known to pick grubs and insect larva out of tree bark.)

Carolinas are hearty birds, but are susceptible to the same kinds of conditions and illnesses as other psittacines.  Regular yearly well-bird exams are a good way to make sure that they remain in good health. They are also prone to feather picking and other behavioral issues if they are under stimulated.  Time outside with you or in an aviary is great for them and will help with vitamin-D production. Remember, they are native to the United States and can easily cope with most of our weather.  Cool temperatures aren’t a big deal. The rule of thumb:  if you are comfortable, so are they. Just remember to make sure they have a way to find some shade if they are going to be out for a while.  A well cared for Carolina conure can live as long as 30 years.
 
Carolinas As Pets
Carolinas are active birds and need lots of interaction with you.  The more you work with them, the more rewarding your experience will be and it will help keep the noise down as well.  They appreciate learning tricks and adore direct interaction, but they also love to spend some down time with their owners as well, sitting contentedly on a shoulder or chest and preening themselves and their favorite human.  It’s very important to socialize them early as they can easily become one person birds and become fiercely protective of their chosen companion.

A properly socialized, well-fed, well-stimulated Carolina conure can be a pure delight as an avian companion. They are compact but complex and are a great step up bird for someone looking to expand beyond a canary or a budgie.  They can be noisy, so make sure that you can deal with a little extra noise from time to time.  How lucky we are that concerned, conservation minded breeders have kept this bird around for us to enjoy.

Could You Have Kept A Carolina Parakeet?
Had this scenario been played out in real life and breeders had kept the Carolina  parrot alive in aviculture, it is uncertain whether we would have been able to enjoy them as pets at all.  According to United States law, it is illegal to own animals that are indigenous to the U.S. as pets.  A common example would be the native crow, which is illegal to own and handle without very strict permits.

Carolina Parakeet Extinction
It is difficult to pinpoint one cause for the disappearance of the Carolina conure. Certainly habitat competition from humans was a source of great trauma to the species. Indiscriminate hunting lead to the destruction of whole concentrations of the bird. Undoubtedly, some of the heaviest pressures in the last days came from collectors who seemed only to increase their efforts as the bird became more and more rare, killing birds for collections and stealing eggs. Still, this alone was not enough. The last populations in Florida may have become stricken with poultry disease as a result of roosting near farm birds.  It seems that the Carolina conure was the victim of a perfect storm of pressures that lead to its eventual downfall.

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Carolina Parakeet: What Could Have Been

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Reader Comments
One of Audubon's paintings is of Carolina Parrots.
Me, N/A
Posted: 7/10/2013 8:06:47 PM
so sad...wonder if we (humans) will ever stop...
Gabby, San Diego, CA
Posted: 7/7/2013 2:13:14 PM
I also shed tears reading about birds driven to extinction by thoughtless humans. What might have been...
Carol, Silver Spring, MD
Posted: 7/6/2013 6:29:49 PM
I recently watched a program, " The Lost Bird Project ". They had segments on several extinct birds, among them the Carolina Parakeet. Just read a National Geographic article on the possibility of songbird extinction in the Mediterranian area. One cannot read through tears.
bonnie, Southbridge, MA
Posted: 7/4/2013 8:58:49 AM
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