This essay was adapted from the Post & Courier's Do You Know Your Lowcountry series.

The only parrot native to the continental United States (parakeets are part of the parrot family), the neotropical Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) was a colorful, vivacious bird boasting feathers of vibrant green hues, a yellow head and reddish orange face. Native Americans called them puzzi la nee, meaning “head of yellow,” according to the John Jay Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Pennsylvania.

Measuring 12 inches long and once plentiful in the Lowcountry, the parakeets nested in tree cavities of deciduous forests such as that found in the Francis Marion National Forest. They once could be found from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes and westward nearly to the Rockies. They lived off fruits, seeds, thistles and cockleburs. Unfortunately for them, they also developed a taste for crops cultivated by colonial Europeans, such as corn, grain, apples and, here in the Lowcountry, rice. 

In his seminal work, Birds of America, published in 1838, naturalist John Jay Audubon noted the Carolina Parakeet “… eats or destroys almost every kind of fruit indiscriminately, and on this account is always an unwelcome visiter [sic] to the planter, the farmer, or the gardener. The stacks of grain put up in the field are resorted to by flocks of these birds, which frequently cover them so entirely, that they present to the eye, the same effect as if a brilliantly coloured carpet had been thrown over them.”

Thus, as an agricultural pest, Carolina Parakeets were killed in huge numbers during the 19th century. It was not hard to do, for these birds were very social creatures. As Audubon goes on to describe the sad scene, when fired upon “…[a]ll the survivors rise, shriek, fly round about for a few minutes, and again alight on the very place of most imminent danger. The gun is kept at work; eight or ten, or even twenty, are killed at every discharge. The living birds, as if conscious of the death of their companions, sweep over their bodies, screaming as loud as ever, but still return to the stack to be shot at, until so few remain alive, that the farmer does not consider it worth his while to spend more of his ammunition.”

The Carolina Parakeet faced other challenges as well. One was the deforestation of its habitat for agricultural fields. The second was its beauty; the parakeet’s bright plumage was coveted for ladies’ hats and military decorations. 

The most widely accepted explanation for their demise, at least until recently, was the contraction of a disease common at the time among poultry. This impact, however, was minimized in a study published Dec. 12, 2019, in the journal Current Biology, which presented new genetic evidence placing the blame squarely on human interference.

Whatever the cause – or combination of causes – their population declined very rapidly in the late 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, rare sightings of the bird were restricted to the swamps of central Florida. The last Carolina Parakeet documented in the wild was shot there in 1904.

One of the last Carolina Parakeets raised in captivity was a cherished family pet named Doodles. After being rejected by his captive mother, Doodles was hand-raised by Smithsonian scientist Dr. Paul Bartsch, who recalled: “He shared our meals, was well behaved, and stuck to his own plate almost always.” He also enjoyed a good snuggle and naps, either pressed against Dr. Bartsch’s cheek or with the family’s pet squirrel, according to Emily Jack of the University of North Carolina Libraries. Doodles was memorialized in a 1906 photo, nestled on the tie of a man identified only as Mr. Bryan, perhaps a family friend or associate of the Bartsches. With no mate to help carry on his line, Doodles passed in 1914.

The last known captive Carolina Parakeet, named Incas, died Feb. 21, 1918, nearly a year after the death of his mate, Lady Jane, at the Cincinnati Zoo, in the same cage in which America’s last passenger pigeon passed away several years before.

Reports of the parakeets’ sightings continued until the late 1920s, but none of the reports were supported by recorded specimens. In 1938, a group of ornithologists claimed to have seen a flock of parakeets in the northern swamps of Charleston County; however, most other ornithologists dismiss this claim as being without proof. Since then, no other sightings have been reported. In 1939 the American Ornithologists’ Union declared that the Carolina Parakeet had become extinct. 

Today The Charleston Museum has the largest collection of Carolina Parakeet skins and skeletons, about 720, in the world.

This 1825 painting of Carolina parakeets by ornithologist John J. Audubon was published in his book Birds of America.
One of the last living Carolina parakeets known to exist in captivity was named Doodles. He was owned by Smithsonian scientist Paul Bartsch, who kept him as a family pet. Doodles was memorialized in this 1906 photo, nestled on the tie of a man identified only as Mr. Bryan.

Sources for more information:

Liz Langley. "How Humans killed off the only parrot native to the continental U.S.," in National Geographic, Dec. 12, 2019.
"The Last Carolina Parakeet," John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove.
Sabrina Imbler. "We Now Know the Real Range of the Extinct Carolina Parakeet," in Audubon Magazine, Winter 2017.
Brigit Katz. "The Extinction of This U.S. Parrot Was Quick and Driven by Humans," in Smithzonian Magazine, Dec. 13, 2019.
Zena Timmons. "A great slaughter: The extinction of the Carolina Parakeet," blog of the National Museums of Scotland.
Jennifer J. Uehling, Jason Tallant & Stephen Pruett-Jones. "Status of naturalized parrots in the United States." Abstract with reference resources.