Remembering the birds we'll never get back
Every so often, on one of these fall days when it’s perfect to sit outside, I look to the sky and think about the Carolina parakeet.
They used to be all around here, in flocks of two and three hundred, bright green birds with yellow necks and red faces. They were called Carolina parakeets but they lived as far north as Wisconsin and as far west as Colorado. It’s amazing to think about now – a parakeet, one of those birds you find in the pet store, living wild and free in the trees.
Their populations started to thin out as far back as the 19th century. People did hunt them, mainly for their feathers, but there may have been other causes, too. By the turn of the 20th century, they were pretty much gone. The last known bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.
I thought of the Carolina parakeet again the other day when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a list of 22 animals and one plant they have declared to be extinct. Scientists say plant and animal species are endangered worldwide, at a faster rate than normal, at least partly because of climate change and the destruction of wild places.
Many of the creatures on the new extinction list haven’t been seen in decades. Half the animals on the list are birds, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, the amazing creature that got the nickname of the Lord God Bird, because that was what people said when they saw it.
It nested in the swamps and hardwood forests of the Southeast, and as loggers cleared that land, the Lord God Bird’s habitat disappeared. Every so often someone swears to have seen one, like a ghost from the American past. But the last official sighting was in 1944.
You probably wouldn’t recognize some of the newly extinct if you ran across them in a museum. A lot of them are shells — the yellow-blossom pearly mussel, the Southern acornshell. They’re not the kind of creatures kids dream about. But each one played a small role in a production stretching over millions of years, a show that even now, with all our powers, we barely understand.
Often, when we talk about extinction, we frame it in practical terms — maybe some long-gone insect held the key to curing cancer, if only we had saved it. That’s a powerful argument for treating nature far better than we do.
But I don’t think much about what lifesaving enzyme might be inside a bird. I just wish I saw the thing in flight. I wish that just once, I’d seen a woodpecker so spectacular that it made me say, “Lord God!”
And just once, I wish, I could have gone outside one morning to see parakeets in the trees.
Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at firstname.lastname@example.org.