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Carolina Parakeet Article Menu 

A FEW More Wild Bird Stories

The Best Mimic?

Built in Shock Absorber

The Owl Who Sat Down Beside Me

Mesmerizing a Goldfinch

The Mob Mentality

My Birdwatching Adventure in Costa Rica

Why Birds Become Extinct


By Sally Blanchard


Extinction is Forever

     I remember many years ago I was talking to a man named Bill; an Air Force officer who worked with my then husband. I had become very involved with learning about birds. For some reason I was discussing my views on the environment and extinction and I brought up the Passenger Pigeon. I explained that I read that at one time there were so many that their flocks could darken the sky and then there were none — they were extinct. Bill looked at me incredulously and explained that was impossible; they had all just migrated to South America or something. I could not believe that as a college educated man, Bill knew nothing about the natural world he lived in. Extinct means there are no more; they no longer exist in a living state and as the famous quote says, “Extinction is Forever.” I had been giving programs about my Rare Hardwood Inlay Bird Sculpture for years and began to give programs about extinct and endangered birds with an emphasis on parrots. I found it hard to believe that there was a parrot that lived in the United States and it was gone forever. I would never see a living passenger pigeon or a Carolina paroquet and I felt a loss because of this. I actually find it amazing that since that time, the only bird that has disappeared from our skies in the continental United States is the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. There a some hanging on the edge and populations of several species are rapidly declining.  

Why Do Birds Become Extinct?

    Over the last several hundred years that man has been exploring his world, his presence in new lands have been disastrous for nature and the environment. Humans brought their their domesticated animals and stowaway vermin. The intentional and unintentional introduction of non-native species such as hogs, cattle, sheep, rats, and non-native birds created havoc with the balance of nature in the new lands. Native peoples have always hunted the food sources in their environment but with explorers came new people, more sophisticated weapons, and most often a disregard for the indigenous traditions that had often allowed animals and humans to survive together.

    From the beginning of time explorers to new lands always brought their own animals and plants and took some of the animals and plants from new worlds for their way home. Some were used for food for the long voyage and others were samples of their new scientific discoveries. Many of these discoveries went into botanical and zoological collections, but this was also was most likely the beginning of the pet trade. Early explorers and conquerors brought Amazons and Macaws back from South and Central America. Long before that travelers to Africa and the Orient brought back African Grey Parrots and Ring-neck parakeets as pets for the nobility. 

When mankind went from nomadic hunter gatherers to living in settlements, agriculture was born. Increasing population means increased agriculture. Wild lands taken for grazing animals and raising crops equals loss of habitat for native animals and plants. 
     In the islands of the Caribbean, hurricanes have played a significant role in the decrease in bird populations. As we know from this past Hurricane season, these islands have been in the path of many devastating hurricanes over the years.
      Looking at any list of extinct birds, there are two aspects that probably come to mind. The first is that a large percentage of extinct birds come from islands. Islands are most often their own microcosms. When islands are geographically close to each other, some bird species have evolved into several subspecies. If islands are far from other land masses, the parrots can be quite unique. Island ecosystems can be very fragile and the habitat for many indigenous species of plants and animals can be destroyed by human settlements.
   The other curious aspect is that many of the island species are listed as hypothetical. Perhaps early ornithologists saw a parrot and eager to gain fame for their new discovery, they marked it as a new species. With no other records, it has to be presumed that the bird was either not a true endemic species or it is now extinct. In most cases, we will never really know.

There are several parrots teetering on the brink — the Spix and Lears Macaws, the Echo Parakeet, the Puerto Rican Amazon and others whose populations are in serious decline. There are some bird collections that have Spix macaws and only cooperation of these aviculturists will make a difference for this macaw that is, for all practical considerations, extinct in the wild. There is hope with some species because of the dedicated ornithologists and conservationists working throughout the world to help the threatened and endangered birds of the parrot family.

Reasons Parrot Species Become Extinct

    There is rarely one reason a bird becomes extinct. When a parrot species becomes endangered and then extinct, it is usually a combination of many factors. However, most of the contributing factors are related to the profound changes that man makes to the environment.

1. Introduced animals creating habitat competition for food and nest sites. The introduction of predators (with or without intention) creates serious pressure on native species that have little or no defenses against them.

2. Increased human populations creating a need for more land to support those people resulting in habitat destruction including the loss of appropriate nest sites.

3. Over hunting and/or a disregard for the balance of nature in an environment.

4. Capture for the pet trade.

5. Inability to adapt to new food sources and/or nesting areas if the natural foods and nest sites are decreasing in availability.

6. Large-scale natural disasters such as hurricanes.

5. Toxicity of some sort in the habitat that prevents the laying of healthy eggs and the hatching of healthy chicks. DDT was banned in the United States but it, and other potentially toxic pesticides and herbicides, are still commonly used throughout the world.

6. The loss of species or flock traditions that are needed for the perpetuation of the species. This can be because of an environmental change and/or a decline in population.

7. An increase in avian diseases or parasites. Climate and habitat changes can account for some of these problems.                                  

    When I started doing research on parrots, it was presumed that dozens of them would become extinct by the year 2000. While it is true that many have become more endangered due to habitat destruction, over hunting and the international pet trade, many have held their own with a few increasing in population. Most species of the endangered Caribbean Amazons have been brought back from the edge of extinction because of the tireless work of conservation groups and native populations. Other parrot species have suffered severe setbacks and their populations continue to dwindle. Even the Double yellow-headed Amazon that is so common in aviculture is suffering a serious decline in the wild. The Spix macaw could be added to the list of extinct parrots but they still exist in captivity with little, if any, hope for reintroduction. The Lears and Blue-throat populations have also declined to dangerous lows.

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