Ladies, Parakeets, and the Biogeography of an Extinct Bird

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 25 June 2018

In 1850, an anonymous author published a superb diary of natural history observations called ‘Rural Hours by a Lady’ based on two years of exploring the woods and fields near Cooperstown, New York. The book was wildly popular, and it was not long before the author was revealed to be Susan Fenimore Cooper [1]. On page 146 she says:

Parakeet2It is well known that we have in the southern parts of the country a member of the Parrot tribe, the Carolina Parakeet. It is a handsome bird, and interesting from being the only one of its family met with in a temperate climate of the Northern Hemisphere. They are found in great numbers as far north as Virginia, on the Atlantic coast; beyond the Alleghanies, they spread themselves much farther to the northward, being frequent on the banks of the Ohio, and in the neighborhood of St. Louis. They are even found along the Illinois, nearly as far north as the shores of Lake Michigan. They fly in flocks, noisy and restless, like all their brethren…In the Southern States their flesh is eaten…Birds are frequently carried about against their will by gales of wind; the Stormy Petrels, for instance, thoroughly aquatic as they are, have been found, occasionally, far inland. And in the same way we must account for the visit of the Parakeets to the worthy Knickerbockers about Albany.  [2]

Here, she correctly describes the bird as being most common in the southeastern states, though seen regularly as far north as the Great Lakes west of the Allegheny Mountains. What she did not know, of course, was that these were two subspecies, with different morphologies, ecologies and migratory strategies, as described below.

Shufeldt’s photo

The Carolina Parakeet was still abundant throughout its range in 1850 but, like the Passenger Pigeon, was soon to be extirpated. The second-last individual was a female called ‘Lady Jane’ who died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1917; the last of its kind being Lady Jane’s mate, a male named ‘Incas’ who died there in 1918, one hundred years ago. Coincidentally, Incas died in the same cage where Martha, the last passenger pigeon, had died in 1914 [3]. There were reports of sightings in the wild for another 40 years or so, in Florida and Georgia, but none of those records were authenticated. Among the North American birds that have become extinct since the arrival of Europeans, the biology of the breeding biology Carolina Parakeet may be the poorest known [4]. And there is, surprisingly, only one photo of the bird in a natural-looking setting [5], taken by the irrepressible Robert Shufeldt in about 1900.


A recent pair of papers by Kevin Burgio and colleagues uses all of the known specimens and sightings of this bird to reveal some interesting insights into its distribution, ecology, and taxonomy. There were 401 of those sightings recorded between 1564 and 1944, and nearly 800 specimens in museums and private collections worldwide [6], almost all collected in the 1800s. As shown on the graphs below, the number of records climbed exponentially from 1500 to 1900, reflecting the increases in exploring the new continent, in writing about natural history, and in preserving ornithological data and specimens. There was an uptick in collecting, or at least preserving specimens, from 1870-1900 when it became clear that the bird was disappearing [6].

Records and specimens with known dates—note the log scale on upper two graphs.

Analyzing records only from states where the parakeet was known to breed, Burgio and colleagues, georeferenced all the data and used 147 unique localities to create the species breeding distribution models shown on the map to the right below. The map on the left was produced in 1889 by Edwin Hasbrouck with the known range in his day (black shading) nicely matching the newly reconstructed ranges of the two subspecies.

Burgio and colleagues’ research also suggested (i) that the breeding range of this species was much smaller than previously thought, (ii) that the two subspecies, previously only vaguely defined by size and colour, actually had disjunct ranges and occupied somewhat different climatic niches, and (iii) that the western subspecies was almost certainly migratory where the eastern one was not.

The authors also hoped their analysis would help to inform current conservation practices in an effort to save the 8% of bird species currently threatened to disappear as a result of climate change. Parrots, in particular, are in bad shape, with 42% of species listed as threatened or endangered.

LEFT from Hasbrouck (1889) estimating the limits of the parakeet’s historical range (black line) with shading showing the range in the 1880s. RIGHT from Burgio et al. (2017) estimating the ancestral breeding ranges of the two subspecies (Hasbrouck’s range limit shown as a red line)


Clay pipe ca. 1650

As much as I like those recent papers, I think it’s unfortunate that many biogeographers draw their maps as if animals obeyed political boundaries, as on the right-hand but not the left-hand maps above. The right-hand graph implies, for example, that the bird could never have crossed the US-Canada border as there was nowhere to go. Despite that, there is some evidence that it did occasionally occur in southwestern Ontario, possibly blown off course as Susan Cooper suggested above. At an archaeological dig at Grimsby, Ontario, for example, Walter Kenyon found a clay pipe that looks distinctly like a parrot, made by native peoples in the mid-1600s. And Rosemary Prevec found 3 Carolina Parakeet bones at a native site near London, Ontario, dated at around 1100 CE. Both of these findings are no more than suggestive and could have been obtained in trade with natives living further south.

Possibly more convincing are some observations that Samuel de Champlain recorded in his notes in 1615, in the woods near where I live in Kingston. He says that he  “…penetrated so far into the woods in pursuit of a certain bird which seemed to be peculiar, with a beak almost like that of a parrot, as big as a hen, yellow all over, except for its red head and blue wings, which made successive flights like a partridge.” [8] There are definitely no other birds even remotely resembling that description in eastern Ontario today.

Catalog page, New York Millinery and Supply Company, Inc., New York

None of this nationalism is really important to our understanding of the bird’s ecology and demise, except to note that at one time the species was clearly widespread and mobile. What is important is an attempt to understand why they went extinct, as even by the middle of the 1800s it appeared to be declining in numbers [6].

Burgio and colleagues point to habitat destruction and hunting as the likely causes. Not surprisingly, the parakeet’s feathers were prized for the millinery trade, with some reports suggesting that ladies hats were sometimes adorned with skins of the whole bird. The 1901 ad to the right, for example, shows a whole parrot (skin) in the lower right corner, for the bargain price of 25¢ a bird or $2.95 a dozen (about $7.50 and $88 in today’s currency). While the documentation is sketchy, it is also likely that this species was a popular cage bird in Germany as well as in North America. The only other known photo, besides Shufeltdt’s, is also one of a pet called  ‘Doodles‘, kept by Smithsonian malacologist Paul Bartsch. In 1900, ‘doodle‘ meant ‘fool‘ and not the ‘absentminded scribble‘, Google commemorative, or online scheduler that it is today. And I wonder if Bratsch gave it that name to reminder him what fools we are when let any species go extinct.


  • Anonymous [Cooper, SF] (1850) Rural Hours by a Lady. New York: G. Putnam.
  • Burgio KR, Carlson CJ, Tingley MW (2017) Lazarus ecology: Recovering the distribution and migratory patterns of the extinct Carolina parakeet. Ecology and Evolution 7:5467–5475.
  • Burgio K, Carlson C, Bond A (2018) Georeferenced sighting and specimen occurrence data of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) from 1564-1944. Biodiversity Data Journal 6:e25280.
  • Cokinos C (2000) Hope Is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. New York: Penguin.
  • Fuller E (2013) Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record. London: Bloomsbury.

  • Greene WT, Dutton FGFG, Fawcett B, Lydon AF (1883) Parrots in Captivity, v. 2. London: George Bell and Sons.

  • Hahn P (1963) Where is that Vanished Bird? Toronto: University of Toronto Press. [see this previous post for more on this book[
  • Kennedy CC (1984) Did Champlain stalk a Carolina Parakeet in southern Ontario in 1615? Arch Notes 84:55–62.

  • McKinley, D. (1960) The Carolina parakeet in pioneer Missouri. The Wilson Bulletin 72:274–287.
  • McKinley D (1977) Climatic relations, seasonal mobility, and hibernation in the Carolina Parakeet. Jack-Pine Warbler 55:107–124.
  • Prevec R (1984) The Carolina Parakeet—its first appearance in southern Ontario. Arch Notes 84:51-54.
  • Snyder NFR (2004) The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


  1. Susan Fenimore Cooper: was a superb naturalist, author, and artist whose work was overshadowed in more ways than one by that of her father, James. She deserves recognition and a separate essay on her own work, Stay tuned.
  2. Cooper quotation: from Anonymous 1850 page 146
  3. ‘Incas’ the parakeet: Like Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Incas was frozen and sent to the Smithsonian, but he was lost in transit (Fuller 2013)
  4. breeding biology poorly known: see Snyder (2004)
  5. Shufeldt’s photo: is one of a pair of pet birds that Shufeldt borrowed from his friend Edward Schmidt, and it took him hours to get it to sit still enough on a cocklebur to make a decent photo (Cokinos 2001). Both of Schmidt’s birds later died from chewing on the bars of their cage, possibly from lead paint poisoning (Fuller 2013)
  6. declining numbers by mid 1800s: see Hasbrouck (1889)
  7. records and specimens: see Hahn (1963), McKinley (1960, 1977) and Snyder (2004) for background
  8. Champlain quotation: from Kennedy 1984 page 55

IMAGES:  first parakeet is by Robert Ridgway from Baird et al. (1905); graphs by the author based on data in Burgio et al. (2017, supplement)—parakeet is an engraving by Benjamin Fawcett in Greene et al. (1883); maps from the original papers; clay pipe from Kennedy (1984); millinery ad from the Smithsonian collection

Ornithology, March 1918

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 26 March 2018

Unpublished manuscript dated March 26th, 1918
by Lloyd Kerswill, King City, Ontario [1]

It’s nearly the end of March and I have in front of me the first issues for 1918 of the world’s major ornithological journals—The Ibis, The Auk, The Condor, The Wilson Bulletin, The Emu, and Journal für Ornithologie. Even though there are probably only a few thousand professional and amateur ornithologists worldwide, the number of scientific publications about birds has burgeoned this century. Several journals do a nice job of publishing information on some current papers, but I thought it might be useful to provide a general overview here.

Even just summarizing all of the books—let alone the scientific papers—about birds in any of the great libraries is a daunting task that may soon be impossible.  I know that Messrs. William Mullens and Kirke Swann are putting together a comprehensive bibliography of British ornithology, but even that may take years to complete [2]. The AOU has almost completed a Bibliography of Bibliographies summarizing approximately 200 bibliographies including 26,000 titles and that might see publication in the next year or two [3]. The sort of listing of all ornithological publications attempted by earlier compilers, however, is probably a thing of the past.


These are trying times for humanity. The German juggernaut has just this month crossed the Somme in this endless war, and may soon occupy all of Europe. For months, now, the front page of the New York Times has been dominated by war news. I see also that there has been an outbreak of Spanish influenza in Kansas. This deadly disease is the scourge of modern medicine as it seems to appear from nowhere then sometimes spread like wildfire [4]. The AOU is taking up a collection to support our members who have gone overseas to aid in the war effort and I encourage you all to contribute to this worthy cause. The AOU will also not require that dues be paid by members in active military service [5].

As I write, the very popular Darktown Strutters’ Ball is playing on my gramophone. This catchy song was written by fellow Canadian, Shelton Brooks, who was born down in Amherstburg near Point Pelee where we go every year to watch the spectacular spring migrations. Those new musical rhythms are uplifting in this time of world tragedy, as are the ornithological journals. There’s a lot of interesting natural history being published and we should be grateful that most scientific research transcends the boundaries of nations and politics.

Here’s a brief summary of what’s in those first issues of ornithological journals in 1918 [6], in alphabetical order:

AUKjan1918THE AUK (Jan 1918): papers and notes on species’ distributions (21), breeding biology (2), migration (1), taxonomy (2), history (1), anatomy (1), behaviour (1) plus a memorial, and notes on society business, ornithological journals, papers in other (i.e., not major ornithological) journals, publications (mainly books) received, and 18 brief notes on bird papers from the recent literature.

THE CONDOR (Jan-Feb 1918):  papers and notes on species’ distributions (12), migration (2), anatomy (1), and behaviour (1) plus 2 brief reviews of recent books, and a note from the editor (Joseph Grinnell) on some recent papers that interested him and society news including the recent deaths of members. I like the personal touch that Grinnell adds to this journal and his insights into all things avian.

EMUjan1918THE EMU (Jan 1918): papers and notes on species’ distributions (2), breeding biology (3, incl 1 on oölogy), and taxonomy (1), plus a memorial, some 3 letters from members on a variety of ornithological topics, and the annual report of the RAOU for 1917. That report includes details of the recent donation of H. L. White’s magnificent egg collection to the RAOU, as well as many other donations of egg and skin collections to the society. The RAOU will deposit all of these specimens in the National Museum in Sydney where they will be preserved for study and the education of future generations.

IBISjan1918THE IBIS (Jan 1918):  papers and notes on species’ distributions (1), breeding biology (3, and 2 of these on oölogy), taxonomy (1), history (1), anatomy (1), behaviour (1) plus a memorial, some notes on recent ornithological publications (including books and journals), and 7 letters from members on a variety of ornithological topics, as well as some ornithological news. One of those news items summarized the eggs presented at the Third Oölogical Dinner held in London last September where the main topic of discussion (and display) was erythristic eggs. The paper that I have categorized as ‘history’ lists all of the coloured plates published in The Ibis from 1859 to the present—a wonderful resource.

JOURNAL FÜR ORNITHOLOGIE (Jan 1918): papers on species’ distributions (4), and breeding biology (1), plus summaries of recent meetings of the Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft. The paper that I have categorized as ‘breeding biology’ is an interesting one on the effects of the war on birds.

THE WILSON BULLETIN (March 1918): papers and notes on species’ distributions (6), and breeding biology (1), plus a complete listing of the 54 women and 205 men who are currently members of the Wilson Ornithological Club, including my friend James H. Fleming of Toronto and 8 other Canadians.

From today’s perspective (March 2018)

parrotsI was surprised to find so little taxonomy in these journals as that was probably the main scientific pursuit of professional ornithologists in those days. Papers and notes on the birds of different places and regions dominated all of the journals. The Auk had the most papers and the widest diversity of topics but I found the papers in The Ibis and The Emu most relevant to my current interests in behavioural ecology. I was also surprised at both the number and quality of photographs in those journals.

I particularly liked a paper by Gregory M. Mathews on the plumage colours of Australian Rosellas published in The Ibis, with two beautiful plates painted by the superb Danish artist Henrik Grønvold. That paper speculated on the evolution of the different colour patterns within and between species and is full of interesting insights.

Besides the science noted above, one striking thing about The Auk in 1918 is that the editor required manuscripts to be submitted to him at least 6 weeks before the publication date. That means 6 weeks from submission to print! Presumably the editor did all of the reviewing (if any) but even that is a remarkable turnaround by today’s standards.


  • Mathews GM (1918) The Platycercine parrots of Australia: a study in colour-change. Ibis Tenth Series Vol 6: 115-127

  • Mullens WH, Swann HK (1919) A bibliography of British ornithology from the earliest times to the end of 1912, including biographical accounts of the principal writers and bibliographies of their published works. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited.


1. Article from 1918: This post intended to be my (first and rather feeble) attempt at historical fiction. My idea is to try to recreate the language and feel of something written in a century ago, based on the facts available. The fictitious writer is my real maternal grandfather, Lloyd Kerswill, who did live in on the family farm in King City in 1918 (when he was 34) but he was not particularly interested in birds. He did fuel my interest in behaviour and natural history, though, and I can remember enough about him to write in his voice and to relate to some of his lifestyle on the farm, which still exists on the outskirts of Toronto. I used to listen to his ancient one-sided, shellac-based records on his wind-up gramophone in the 1950s.

2. Mullens and Swann: This work was initially published in parts, and part 6 had just been issued by Jan 1918. That turned out to be the final part so the book was put together and published officially in 1919, and a further supplement was published as a single volume in 1923.

3. Bibliography of Bibliographies: In a brief search, I can find no further mention of this work and assume that it was never published

4. Influenza: The 1918 flu pandemic eventually killed a staggering 50–100 million people worldwide

5. No AOU dues for military: see Palmer 1981 Auk 35: 70

6. Journals from 1918: back issues of The Auk, The Condor and the Wilson Bulletin are all freely available at SORA; back issues of IbisEmu and Journal für Ornithologie are available at the BioDiversity Heritage Library

A Century Ago

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 12 March 2018

As you might suspect, I find the history of ornithology in particular—and the history of science in general—pretty interesting. But even I am not sure why.

RuseIn high school, history was my least favourite subject, taught by Dr A. S. H. Hill—our only teacher with a PhD (and in Political Science)—who insisted on having us memorize long strings of dates and events, aided by a rather pedantic textbook called The Modern Era.

Then in my final undergraduate year at the University of Guelph, the Philosophy Department hired a recent PhD graduate from the University of Bristol named Michael Ruse. Ruse’s first course was called something like Philosophical Foundations of the History of Science. I had taken a few philosophy courses so this one sounded right up my alley. In 1970, Ruse was a mild-mannered, genial new professor but lacked teaching experience. Since he had just completed his degree he decided to devote the whole course to the subject of his thesis research—Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Only 6 of us took that class, reading and discussing each chapter in Morse Peckham’s Variorum Text, following the changes that Darwin made as he revised the first 5 editions [1]. I think the other students were bored beyond belief but I was enthralled with this intimate look into the writings of the great man (Darwin), and the insights provided by Ruse.

The demands of (largely) ornithological research kept my nascent interest in history on hold for the next 30 years. Then, largely through discussions with Tim Birkhead, that interest was rekindled at the end of the the last century, and this blog and website are one result. If the proliferation of both books and publications are any indication, I am not the only person who has taken an interest in the history of ornithology of late, with a new book on the topic appearing every few months [2].

In 1984, when The Auk had just published its 100th volume, the editor—John A. Wiens—started a series that he called 100 Years Ago in The Auk because, as he said:

Reading the writings of a century ago reveals a good deal about how our current thinking was anticipated, how far we have come, how little has changed, how ornithologists approached the study of birds then, and the like. Accordingly, this and each following issue of The Auk will contain a selected excerpt from the counterpart issue of a century ago. [3]


As Wiens promised, an excerpt from a paper that had appeared in The Auk 100 years earlier was published in most issues of the journal for the next 15 years, chosen, presumably, by successive editors Alan Brush (1985-90), Gary Schnell (1991-96) and Tom Martin (1997-99). There were none published in 2000 when The Auk had an interim editor. But when Kimberly Smith took over as Editor in Chief in 2001 he saw an opportunity to start a new series that he called 100 Years Ago in the American Ornithologists’ Union. Kim has written these excellent pieces in every issue since January 2001. He did not add his byline until 2005 at the insistence of the new editor, Spencer Sealy, who wanted Kim to get full credit for his work.


Smith18While the extracts from century old papers were interesting and useful in the late 20th century, the ready availability of old issues of The Auk (and other journals) on SORA, would make the series that Wiens began less useful today. Kim Smith’s essays, on the other hand, provide unique insights into AOU conferences, initiatives and publications, often described in the context of contemporary  life and science. In his latest piece (Jan 2018), for example, Kim tells how the AOU obtained money through the Liberty Bond Program in the USA to help society members who were serving the WWI.

In his 1984 essay inaugurating the series of excerpts from a century ago, Wiens said that:

Ornithology was a different sort of discipline then, with much that we now accept as common knowledge yet to be discovered. In some respects, however, ornithologists of a century ago had as much understanding of natural phenomena as we do today, although they expressed themselves using more eloquent prose, less jargon, and far less quantitative detail. [3]

There is some truth in what he says but our ornithological predecessors were often difficult to understand, prone to using anthropomorphisms and the jargon of the day. They were also very quantitative at times but less inclined to use statistical analyses as most of the methods we use readily (and often incorrectly) today had not yet been invented, as Ted Anderson mentioned in last week’s post.


  • Peckham M, ed. (1959) The Origin of Species: a Variorum Text. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Wiens JA (1984) 100 Years Ago in The Auk. Auk 101:203


  1. Variorum Text: see Peckham (1959); for a modern online version see here
  2. New books on history of ornithology: I will be reviewing 3 of these here in the next couple of months
  3. Quotations: both from Wiens (1984)