When introducing new visitors to the museum, I find it helpful to put the Chesapeake in its environmental history context; to understand what the Bay is like now, it’s essential to understand what it was like before- 50, 100, or even 400 years ago. Some of the oldest accounts I share of the ‘primordial’ Chesapeake as the first colonists encountered it are so radically different from our modern Bay as to seem outlandish hyperbole at best and downright lies at worst. Giant oysters as long as your forearm? Dinosaur fish, twelve feet long, patrolling the rivers with armored plates? Flocks of brightly colored parrots blanketing cypress swamps in gaudy, twittering color? Impossible! Totally absurd!
But these descriptions can be substantiated with artifacts and fossil evidence- a bony plate from an enormous sturgeon found in an uncovered Jamestown trash midden, for example, or oysters the size of a tall man’s shoe, dredged from a channel bottom. And the one about the parrots? Well, up until about 100 years ago, you could have confirmed that legend with your own two eyes. Carolina Parakeets were the only parrot species native to North America, and for 300 years after settlement, they painted the skies with their gold, green and red plumage in flocks numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
As depicted in this image by John James Audubon, the Carolina Parakeet was a foraging bird, known for dusting cockleburrs, cypress groves, and later, (foreshadowingly) fruit orchards with whirring, gaudy companies numbering in the hundreds. Carolina Parakeets were also highly social, mating for life, roosting together at night, and prodigiously reproducing. Those social instincts compelled them to defend other threatened or injured parakeets from predators, and when alerted to a bird in danger, the rest of the flock would swarm to its rescue, a tendency that became highly problematic for their population once hunting humans entered the picture.
Initially, the parakeets were a pretty decoration to the backdrop of endless forests blanketing the eastern coast of North America. But as those forests were felled to clear the land for farming, the voracious appetites and sheer number of the Carolina Parakeet soured their appeal to farmers who watched the birds descend on their apple trees and wheat sheaves like a plague of locusts. According to Audubon, who witnessed the birds devour a grain crop, the flocks so densely covered the field it appeared as if “brilliantly colored carpets had been thrown on them.”
The retaliation was instantaneous and severe. As the parakeets never learned to fear humans, it was also rather easy, and was made easier by their habit of defending the fallen. Audubon described these massacres: “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 on ammunition.”
Naturalists also observed this curious tendency, as described by Alexander Wilson in 1808:
“ When they alighted on the ground it appeared at a distance as if covered by a
carpet of richest green, orange, and yellow: they afterwards settled, in one body,
on a neighboring tree … covering almost every twig of it … Having shot down a
number, some of which were only wounded, the whole flock swept repeatedly
around their prostrate companions, and again settled on a low tree, within twenty
yards of the spot where I stood. At each successive discharge, although showers ofthem fell, yet the affection of the survivors seemed rather to increase….”
(Apparently being a naturalist in those days didn’t preclude you from killing as many as you wanted in the name of curious science.)
As the dazzling flocks of parakeets were being exterminated by farmers as pests and naturalists as accident-prone anomalies, they were additionally threatened by that glutton of natural beauty, fashion. Trends in the late 19th century dictated that flat, wide-brimmed hats, decorated with every manner of trim, frippery and feather were a la mode, and there was a always a great hunger for unique, picturesque materials. The Carolina Parakeet’s intensely saturated red, yellow and green plumage made it an ideal candidate for spicing up one’s dated chapeau with a decoration that was charmingly American. So enamored were the hat makers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York with the stiff little beauties that they even worked in the entire bird into their creations.
Look at that expression. She knows what she did.
By the turn of the 19th century, the last remaining flocks of Carolina Parakeets were struggling along in Florida swamps, where their scarcity damned them to be constantly pursued by ardent collectors and trappers. Even the trees they roosted in stung them, as the European honeybee proliferated in North America and took up residence in the hollow trees the parakeets clustered in at night. The last wild birds were seen in Okeechobee, Florida in 1920.
There were a few captives, however, in zoos throughout the world, but those, too, were struggling. The last surviving pair in the United States were ironically housed in the same cursed cage in the Cincinatti Zoological Gardens as the last passenger pigeon, which had died two years before. The birds had been mated for an incredible 32 years. In the late summer of 1917, the female, Lady Jane, died. Incas, the male, became listless after her death, and in February 1918, followed his mate for life to that big cypress in the sky.