What a little bird told us
Once upon a time, there were parrots living in America. Not the escaped kind we know today that steal away from airports and apartments to find improbable refuge in Brooklyn or Chicago, but wild parrots that evolved here in their own slow, mysterious way.
They were large, colorful, noisy birds, found from the Ohio Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. John James Audubon noted the decline in the Carolina parakeet back in the mid-19th century, but the birds hung on in the wild until the turn of the 20th century. The last known Carolina parakeet died in the Cincinnati Zoo 90 years ago, on Feb. 21, 1918. His name was Incas. He had outlived Martha, the very last passenger pigeon -- which also died in the Cincinnati Zoo -- by four years. Once you get a celebrity cage and a human name, it is usually over for your species.
What is the right way to honor the memory of Incas and his species on the anniversary of their extinction? And what lessons are there to apply from his death?
One lesson is the importance of zoos. It is big news, understandably, when a tiger escapes, but as a rule, it is the animals that need protection from us, not the other way around. Incas wasn’t the only caged Carolina parakeet, and there were even pairs that hatched out young, but as Christopher Cokinos points out in his excellent history of extinct birds, no effort was made to coordinate among the zoos to create a diverse breeding flock. Or to rescue the eggs that Incas and his mate repeatedly tossed out of their nest.
That thinking has changed. I remember looking at Micronesian kingfishers some years ago in the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. These birds are extinct in the wild, but in the 1980s, before they winked out altogether, scientists gathered up 29 remaining birds and have been successfully breeding them with an eye to returning them to an island close to where they once lived (without the snakes, introduced accidentally by humans, that killed them off).
Another lesson is that birds need protection from our sentimental urge to see them as simple creatures that can be “saved” without a radical change in our thinking about the world. Saving birds means nothing if we don’t re-create an environment for them to live in. Birds are not dangerous, like tigers -- unless, of course, bird flu becomes a threat -- but they are wild, and they live inside an infinitely complex web of complementary dependencies.
The Carolina parakeet became extinct for the usual reasons -- hunting by humans, loss of habitat. But also, it seems, for a few unusual reasons, like the spread of honeybees -- brought here by European settlers and referred to by Indians as “the white man’s flies” -- that took over the hollow logs the birds nested in.
Though the Carolina parakeet managed to hang on in land developed for farming, this very adaptability may, in a crowning irony, have proved its undoing since it is speculated that proximity to human habitation exposed the birds to poultry disease, which they could not withstand.
In this sense, they fell victim to the law of unintended consequences as well as our own rapacity.
Not that rapacity is to be underestimated. Frank Chapman, the man who created the Christmas bird count, the annual volunteer effort to tally bird populations, inaugurated in 1900 in New York City, tells a chilling story about Carolina parakeets. Chapman was a pioneering ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and he devised the bird count as a way of sublimating the hunting urge and replacing it with the conservation urge, the counting urge -- in short, the bird-watching urge. But Chapman was also a hunter, and he tells a story in his memoir about a shooting trip he made in Florida in 1897, when there were hardly any Carolina parakeets left. Chapman learned about a small flock and, unable to resist gathering rare specimens, shot them. Looking at the bodies laid out before him, he vowed to shoot no more of the birds. But later that day, he stumbled on another small cluster and killed them too. “Good resolutions,” he wrote, “like many other things, are much easier to plan than to practice.”
This dual heritage -- the killing urge and the conserving urge -- lies at the heart of our relationship to nature, and it is only by acknowledging it that we will do right by the wild world around us. This is why hunters often make the most pragmatic, and effective, conservationists. And why it is fitting that Audubon lent his name to bird conservation, though he too was a great hunter. He spent his life killing birds, impaling them on wires in animated poses, and then painting them as if they were alive.
On the very first page of his memoir, Audubon describes the death of a parrot as if it were a murder. It is an extraordinarily strange but meaningful story. According to Audubon, his mother, a highborn Louisiana lady living in St. Domingue, kept a number of parrots as well as several pet monkeys. One morning, one of the parrots asked for breakfast, and a monkey, offended for some reason, stood up and killed the bird. Little Audubon was so traumatized by this primal scene that he recalled it, he writes, thousands of times, noting that it was responsible for his lifelong love of birds.
One of the things that makes the story disturbing is that Audubon was creating a sort of racial parable with his tale -- his mother, he later tells the reader, was killed by blacks in the slave revolt that turned St. Domingue into Haiti; his story, therefore, feels like a weird racial parable in which his mother is somehow the delicate bird and the black slaves are the killer primates. But Audubon was lying -- his mother wasn’t killed in St. Domingue; she died in childbirth and was a chambermaid. Audubon was fabricating a story to hide his illegitimacy. Which is something I believe many of us do in relationship to nature -- hide our origins. Darwin, after all, has made monkeys of us all. Racism is merely the crudest attempt to force a single group to bear the burden of our shared animal natures.
Looking at birds, at any wildlife, brings us into contact not only with these creatures but with ourselves -- as we are, and as we wish to be. We are both the talking bird and the killer primate -- as Audubon clearly knew at some level, intent as he was on both killing birds and bringing them back to life. And we need to fit our understanding of the natural world into our understanding of ourselves.
I sometimes wonder how it is that the passenger pigeon is more often remembered than the Carolina parakeet. To be sure, it was the more dramatic loss because its flocks took days to pass, and it is speculated that the birds, numbering in the billions, accounted for one-quarter of the bird life in the United States. But I also think it’s worth noting the dates of the two birds’ disappearance. Martha the passenger pigeon died in September 1914, just one month into the World War I, which the United States had not yet entered. Four years later -- after millions of wartime deaths and a complete upheaval in the world order -- Incas the Carolina parakeet died. The fall of a sparrow, or any bird at all, must hardly have weighed much against the balance of human carnage, about to be doubled by the Spanish flu pandemic.
Today, amid war and terrorist threats and daily worries about the economy, there are certainly enough global distractions to keep us from recalling the Carolina parakeet or noticing the creatures in need of our protection. But according to Watchlist, put together by the American Bird Conservancy and the Audubon Society, one in four bird species in this country is imperiled. These birds do not all live in the same place or suffer for the same reasons -- for the Hawaiian duck, it is the introduction of cats and dogs and mongoose, as well as the destruction of wetlands. For the Bicknell’s thrush, nesting in specific elevated regions of the Adirondacks or Catskills, it may be acid rain that has reduced its habitat.
A lot of what we know about the numbers of these birds comes from what the Audubon Society calls “citizen scientists” -- concerned watchers who participate in annual tallies of the sort pioneered by regretful parakeet killer Frank Chapman. Just identifying the problem, opening our eyes to the natural world, marks a beginning. There is no single, simple solution, and we are not going to suddenly choose the preservation of nature over economic growth. Bird-watchers know that balance is the key -- the watcher and the watched, the hunter and the conservationist, the talking parrot and the killer primate. All of us need to shoulder the responsibility of becoming “citizen scientists,” or at least “citizen naturalists.” We might as well begin by remembering Incas, last of his species, a wild animal with a human name who died in a zoo 90 years ago.
Jonathan Rosen, a novelist and essayist, is the editorial director of Nextbook. His book about bird-watching, “The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature,” is being published this month.