Fall migration has begun in earnest, and by October neo-tropical migratory birds have embarked on a journey that is sometimes fraught with peril. Along the way, these birds that spend the spring and summer with us will encounter many hazards and fly nonstop across oceans to winter in the tropics in far away countries. Apprehensive birdwatchers bid them adieu and invariably succumb to empty nest syndrome.
With good fortune, these birds that are winging their way south will return in the spring. However, there are some avian species that have made their final journey and are now extinct. One such bird is the Carolina Parakeet.
At one time, flocks of Carolina Parakeets were abundant in the woodlands of Northeast Mississippi. In one of W. L. Clayton’s “Pen Pictures,” in which he described the untamed wilderness of Itawamba County in the 1840s, had this to say about this beautiful, now extinct bird: “There was then in this country a beautiful bird in large droves. They were called parakeets, and were a beautiful green, red, and yellow color, with very long crooked bills somewhat like that of a parrot.”
In 1810, Alexander Wilson, the Father of American ornithology, traveled the length of the Natchez Trace with his pet Carolina Parakeet to Natchez, Mississippi, to visit fellow Scottish immigrant and ornithologist, Sir William Dunbar. It was at Bayou Pierre that Wilson recorded seeing flocks of Carolina Parakeets. Wilson, an accomplished artist, included a painting of this colorful bird in his book, “American Ornithology.”
Ah, but it is John James Audubon’s painting of Carolina Parakeets that is so very mesmerizing and that was the inspiration for this column. Full of movement and vibrancy, Audubon captured the beauty and uniqueness of this bird that we will never have the opportunity to see.
Here is what Audubon had to say about the Carolina Parakeet: “The woods are the habitations best fitted for them, and there the richness of their plumage, their beautiful mode of flight, and even their screams afford welcome imitation that our darkest forests and most sequestered swamps are not destitute of charm.”
The Carolina Parakeet, the only parrot native to the United States, was last seen in the wild in 1920. As the big woods were cleared, these birds fed voraciously on crops, and thus were annihilated.
As we read W. L. Clayton’s words, it is fascinating and somewhat bittersweet to ponder on this now-extinct bird that was once so very proliferate in North Mississippi. Alexander Wilson actually walked through the land we now call home, bird watching and sketching along the way. John James Audubon found the bird life of our woods and swamps to be enchanting, and many of his paintings were created in Mississippi.
Thanks to the journals of long-ago naturalists and the paintings of Wilson and Audubon, we can appreciate the beauty of an avian wonder that once graced the old growth forests of our area. And their words and works of art help us to treasure the birds that now frequent our land and fill our gardens with song.