Darwin sought to not only produce a new scientific truth, but also to put an end to polygenism, the current scientific discourse on human origins that gave tacit and at times explicit support for slavery: ‘... when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.’ (Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 235)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Audubon's description of the habits and horrific destruction of the Carolina Parakeet (aka Carolina Parrot)

Audubon's description of the habits and horrific destruction of the Carolina Parakeet -- aka Carolina Parrot -- (Conuropsis carolinensis).

February 21st marked the 100th anniversary of the death of the last captive Carolina Parrot in the Cincinnati Zoo.  North America's only parrot, once numbering in the millions and inhabiting large portions of the eastern United States, the reasons for its decline are well summarized by @GrrlScientist in her Forbes article: “What Happened to America's only Parrot?

“....North America lost its only endemic parrot species after the arrival of European settlers, and this loss was likely due to a combination of factors, particularly wholesale habitat destruction and unrelenting persecution.”

 At the blog for the University of South Carolina's Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Michael Weisenburg in his “The Last Carolina Parakeet” notes that “....the Carolina Parakeet was only first scientifically described in English in 1731 in Mark Catesby’s two volume work Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published in 1731 and 1743.” He also notes the writings of Ron Rash on species loss in the Carolinas:
“Southern author Ron Rash, whose archive was acquired by the Irvin Department in 2017, often writes about species that, though once plentiful in the Carolinas, have become extinct due to man’s destruction.  He is particularly interested in the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet.  He often laments its decimation in his works. In his 2002 book of poetry, Raising the Dead, Rash summarizes his feelings of loss and well as the loss to us all in his poem:

Carolina Parakeet

Though once plentiful enough
to pulse an acre field, green
a blue sky, they were soon gone,
whole flocks slaughtered in a day,
though before forever lost
found last here, in these mountains
so sparsely settled a man
late as 1860 might
look up from new-broken land
and glimpse that bright vanishing.”

By the time that Audubon described the Carolina Parrot, its numbers were already in decline from hunting and habitat destruction.  His account of the actions of humans and the reactions of the birds to the humans that were attempting to eradicate them is just a portion of his description of the species.  The full text of Audubon's description, and a high resolution version of Audubon's painting is available from the Audubon Society at http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/carolina-parrot

“They visit the mulberries, pecan-nuts, grapes, and even the seeds of the dog-wood, before they are ripe, and on all commit similar depredations. The maize alone never attracts their notice. Do not imagine, reader, that all these outrages are borne without severe retaliation on the part of the planters.

So far from this, the Parakeets are destroyed in great numbers, for whilst busily engaged in plucking off the fruits or tearing the grain from the stacks, the husbandman approaches them with perfect ease, and commits great slaughter among them. All 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. I have seen several hundreds destroyed in this manner in the course of a few hours, and have procured a basketful of these birds at a few shots, in order to make choice of good specimens for drawing the figures by which this species is represented in the plate now under your consideration....

Our Parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number; and in some districts, where twenty-five years ago they were plentiful, scarcely any are now to be seen. At that period, they could be procured as far up the tributary waters of the Ohio as the Great Kenhawa, the Scioto, the heads of Miami, the mouth of the Manimee at its junction with Lake Erie, on the Illinois river, and sometimes as far north-east as Lake Ontario, and along the eastern districts as far as the boundary line between Virginia and Maryland. At the present day, very few are to be found higher than Cincinnati, nor is it until you reach the mouth of the Ohio that Parakeets are met with in considerable numbers. I should think that along the Mississippi there is not now half the number that existed fifteen years ago....”

--- Audubon, John James. 1840. The Birds of America: from drawings made in the United States and their territories. New York: J. J. Audubon; Philadelphia: J.B. Chevalier.

Of course, it is important to note that Audubon personally collected or was sent specimen depicted in The Birds of North America, and so the Carolina Parrots he depicts in his painting as vibrant and living, were in fact, dead when he sketched and painted them.

Credit: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Related Posts:

Maria Martin Bachman's sketches and paintings for Audubon: On-line Exhibition from the Charleston County Public Library
Audubon's Birds and some often Overlooked Contributions of Women to Natural History
A Short Biography of John Bachman (1790-1874)
Podcast - Charleston's Women Naturalists: Jennifer Scheetz, Archivist, Charleston Museum
The "American School": A brief timeline of the Monogenist/Polygenist Debate.
Notes on Royal Society’s “Types of Mankind” post
Review of America’s Other Audubon (Brain Pickings Blog)
Blue Jays in Audubon Magazine: Slings and Arrows: Why Birders Love to Hate Blue Jays